Bosaso, 21 November 2022 – “Knowing that my father and siblings could die of hunger is far worse than the fear in my heart,” says Musab, sitting in a dark, secluded cave around Mareero, a coastal area some 20 kilometers from the port-city of Bosaso in northern Somalia.
The 19-year-old is waiting for his new friend Ahmed, another young Ethiopian man. Together with others, they are about to attempt the dangerous voyage across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, and then further on to Saudi Arabia.
Both Musab and Ahmed are from Ethiopia and have been staying in the city for two months, saving up to pay smugglers for their onward journey to Yemen.
Once the sun goes down, they will board the Rajo, a small wooden boat used by smugglers, named after the Somali word for “hope”. For Musab and Ahmed, this will be their first journey at sea.
Despite their fears, their hope for a better life in the Gulf drives them to push on.
“I hope that we will not face any problems and reach Saudi Arabia safely, InshAllah,” says Ahmed.
The boat usually departs on Sunday and Thursday evenings and arrives on the shores of Yemen’s Shabwah or Hadramaut Governorates by dawn.
Before allowing them to board, the smugglers count the migrants – a standard practice to ensure that only those who have paid for the journey get onboard. To be able to squeeze everyone in, passengers are forced to leave their belongings on the beach. Some even throw away their identity documents, convinced that anonymity will dissuade the authorities from sending them back should they get intercepted.
The country’s instability, coupled with a historically brutal drought and other effects of climate change, is deepening the drivers of irregular migration through and from the Horn of Africa, forcing thousands of vulnerable people to attempt risky journeys.
Youth like Musab and Ahmed are often lured by smugglers and traffickers to make irregular and dangerous journeys in the hopes of getting better job opportunities in the Gulf.
This September alone, roughly 4,000 Ethiopians arrived in Puntland with the intention of crossing into Yemen. So far, in 2022, more than 50,000 migrants have arrived in Yemen through the Eastern Route – arguably the world’s busiest migration corridor taken by those leaving the Horn of Africa for the Gulf States. An estimated 60 per cent of them are travelling through or from Somalia.
After the death of his mother, Musab dropped out of school to care for his three younger siblings and help his father run the family farm.
“Our life was fully dependent on that farm but sadly, it did not rain for three seasons in a row. We lost two cows, so my father decided to sell the third before it also died,” he says, explaining his reason to leave home and embark on a journey he knew little about.
“Many people from my city have left for Saudi Arabia and they send a lot of money back home each month. I thought I could be one of them.”
His perilous journey later found him detained in Las Anod, a city in northern Somalia where hundreds of migrants are believed to currently be held hostage. Smugglers forced Musab to call his father and demand USD 340 for his freedom.
“After a week, they put us in a car and dropped us off in the middle of the desert. We walked for days on end until we reached Bosaso,” says Musab, who finally made it to the city after more than 400 kilometres on foot.
“Migrants taking the Eastern Route are not always aware of the true total cost and impact the journey can have on their lives – financially, physically, and mentally,” explains Memory Mwale, Coordinator for the Regional Migrant Response Plan with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Some migrants spend months in Bosaso, doing menial jobs to make enough money to pay the smugglers for the onward trip. Others get stranded and hope to either return home or continue the journey but have no means to do so.
“There is an urgent need to raise awareness among youth to help them make informed decisions and prevent them from being exposed to abuse, detention and extortion,” Mwale says.
Under the project, IOM works with partners and governments to assist and protect vulnerable migrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti moving to and from Yemen. Through the plan, IOM supports migration response centres at strategic locations on the route. At the centres, migrants can access medical care, water, food, and information. They can also register for assisted voluntary return to their communities of origin.
With nowhere to sleep or rest, Musab spent his first days in the streets of Bossaso, where he eventually met Ahmed, who directed him to a cramped shelter where other migrants were staying.
“The shack was made of plastic, torn clothes and wood, and it was very crowded. About 37 Ethiopians were staying in that small place,” recounts Musab.
The accommodation is owned by smugglers who expect the migrants to pay before they can embark on the journey to Yemen.
“I didn't have any skills, but I was not ready to give up. I worked as a dishwasher for two and a half months and made enough money to continue the journey.”
Staff from IOM’s centre in Bosaso regularly visit migrant houses in the city to conduct awareness-raising activities and to identify people in vulnerable situations who might need life-saving assistance. They also refer migrants to safehouses managed by local organizations or to government hospitals for treatment.
As many efforts as IOM and its partners are making, the needs are mounting and migrants continue to face grueling challenges along the route. Advocating for more regular migration pathways in the region remains critical.
* IOM’s assistance for migrants along the Eastern Route is possible thanks to the Regional Migrant Response Plan for the Horn of Africa and Yemen: 2021–2024 framework, currently funded by several donors, including the US Government, European Union, French Government and Norway.