Financial problems in the teenager’s hometown convinced him that reaching Saudi Arabia would be his best bet at making it in life. Some of his neighbours had done it, in turn enabling family members to refurbish their houses and open new businesses.
Jafar’s second wish: to find a stable job, one that would allow him to finish his studies and support those dearest to him.
Jafar had been stranded in Bosaso, a northern coastal city in Somalia and a key transit point for migrants heading to the Gulf states. “I completed grade 8. I was a labourer and relied on myself for my education,” he says, remembering life back in Ethiopia.
Like thousands of other migrants before him, the 17-year-old left all he knew behind to pursue the dream of a better life. What he didn’t know was that the road ahead would be treacherous.
He travelled over rough terrain through Ethiopia and Somalia, covering more than 1,000 kilometres in temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius.
“One smuggler took me from where I lived in Arsi to Adama, then to Chiro and to Jijiga. After Jijiga, we went to a forest and travelled for two hours on foot,” he says. “Later, the smuggler hired a car for us, and we were supposed to pay money at some checkpoints.”
Jafar’s tired eyes and his tone suggest not everything was easy. For weeks he barely had any water or food and was forced to sleep in the open. Luckily, the smugglers he travelled with were not as bad as others.
“I did not encounter any problem with the smuggler who brought me here. But others are very difficult. They hit the youth they are smuggling. Someone died in Laas Anood after he was hit,” he says.
Shortly after reaching Bosaso, Jafar’s health deteriorated. Following a medical check-up, the bad news came. “I was suffering from TB (tuberculosis). They took me to the hospital where I received treatment.”
After six months of medical care and under strong medication, he recovered.
Jafar’s odyssey illustrates the story of tens of thousands of migrants traveling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen each year in search of work opportunities in the Gulf states. The migration corridor is known as the Eastern Route, which is used more than the Mediterranean route to Europe for people leaving the Horn of Africa.
“A lack of regular migration pathways and the complex realities in a region where many suffer from the worst effects of conflict and climate change continue to force people to embark on this perilous journey that cuts through deserts, the sea and war-torn Yemen,” says Richard Danziger, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Somalia Chief of Mission.
IOM’sDisplacement Tracking Matrix this year has recorded that about 14,611 migrants arrived on the shores of Yemen from Somalia and Djibouti between January and October. According to IOM’s mid-year A Region on the Move Report 2021, 76 per cent of the migrants were Ethiopian men while 14 per cent were women.
Safia, 27, also left Ethiopia intending to travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for a better job. That was seven years ago but she never made it. “I arrived in Bosaso with a group of women and tried to travel to Yemen. Part of my group were taken to the mountainous area at night where the boats depart from,” she says.
“Two women were raped that night. I was supposed to go there in the morning and when I heard about the incident, I cancelled my plans.” Her friends eventually reached Yemen, but she lost all contact with them.
This is not an isolated incident. Migrants often leave their homes without being aware of the risks ahead. Thousands of migrant testimonies collected over the years have shown that the Eastern Route is one of the hardest — and most overlooked — migration routes on earth.
Women and girls are at high risk of gender-based violence, while children travelling alone are exposed to serious risks — being held by criminals against their will, forced labour, detention, or living on the streets under abysmal conditions.
“I have seen and witnessed many women who have been raped and were in critical condition,” Safia says.
Hundreds of lives are believed to have been lost along the route and particularly at sea in the Gulf of Aden. Between January and October 2021 IOM’s Missing Migrants Project recorded 64 migrant deaths in the Gulf of Aden. The numbers are believed to be much higher, but a lack of funding for more research and difficulties accessing some of the migration routes — which are controlled by smuggler networks and armed groups — make it difficult to collect data.
Unlike Jafar and Safia, some migrants do arrive in KSA, but thousands of others are stranded along the route, especially in Yemen. After losing their money to smugglers, they usually cannot continue or make the journey back safely. Even those who finally reach their destination are frequently detained and forcibly returned to their countries of origin.
Despite the best efforts by IOM and others, there is not enough funding to support all those taking the journey, including the hundreds of Somalis who have been forcibly returned from the Gulf states in the past few years.
“Additional funding is urgently needed to end the suffering of these people and make their migration journey safer,” Danziger says. “We should prioritize programmes that provide long-term solutions to strengthen their resilience, so they won’t be forced to leave their communities in the first place.”
IOM assists women, men and children through a network of Migration Response Centres (MRCs) located along the main migration pathways on the Eastern Route and elsewhere. Safia now works as a translator in Bosaso’s MRC. Since 2019, nearly 4,000 migrants have received assistance at the centre.
In Bosaso, IOM also supports other centres and safe houses that care for migrants in distress. One of them is the Ethiopian Community Centre where Jafar stayed before returning to Ethiopia through IOM’s voluntary return and reintegration support. His return was possible thanks to funding from the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Nearly 1,430 migrants have been assisted to return home from Somalia, mainly to Ethiopia, since the programme started in the country in 2017.
The assistance provided to Jafar and other migrants in need is also part of the Regional Migrant Response Plan for the Horn of Africa and Yemen: 2021–2024 which provides a coordinated response for 39 partners to address humanitarian and protection needs of migrants.