Wednesday, January 19

On the “other migratory route”, the shattered dreams of Africans who left for Saudi Arabia

The smugglers had promised Fentahun Derebe that they would take him to Saudi Arabia, where he could earn more money than he had ever dreamed of, and then return home to Ethiopia to set up his business.

Arrived on the Somali coast, the smugglers asked him for more money. Fentahun couldn’t pay. So they abandoned him.

Without money, alone, the 19-year-old had no choice but to turn back, several hundred kilometers across the desert.

“I was told that I would have a good job and that I would change my life. I was told that it would be easy. But it did not turn out like that at all,” said in his soft voice the young man, met in Hargeisa, in northern Somalia.

Many African migrants, mainly Ethiopians, end up in this city, the crossroads of one of the most frequented migratory routes in the world: the “eastern route”, towards the Arabian Peninsula.

Far from the cameras focused on Europe, the crossings of the Mediterranean and the thousands of refugees currently massed at the Polish borders, this other route is experiencing a resurgence of frequentation.

The journey is perilous, sometimes fatal, through the deserts and chaotic regions of the Horn of Africa, the tumultuous waters of the Gulf of Aden, to warring Yemen.

From there, migrants have to cross new hostile areas in the hope of reaching Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states to find work.

– “I was scared” –

Most never get there.

Tens of thousands of them find themselves trapped in Yemen, unable to pay for a return trip, held hostage by smugglers or detained by local authorities.

In March, a fire in an overcrowded detention center in the Yemeni capital killed dozens of migrants.

In the same month, 20 people drowned when smugglers threw dozens of migrants overboard from their overloaded boat en route to Yemen.

Many never leave Africa, swindled like Fentahun even before setting sail.

“They told me it would cost 500 dollars (440 euros) to get on the boat. I didn’t even have 100. I was shocked,” said the young man, who left his town of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia,having barely finished high school.

Migrants have two options to reach Yemen from the African continent.

One via Obock, in Djibouti, but the coasts are monitored and migrants tracked down.

The other from Bosaso, in northern Somalia, where control is weaker. The latter is more popular but also longer and more dangerous.

Fentahun says that during his month-long march between Bosaso and Hargeisa (600 kilometers as the crow flies), he encountered many migrants in desperate circumstances. Some had been stolen or physically abused. All were in desperate need of food and water.

“I was afraid”, he confides: “The road was not sure”.

Many of the migrants on this route are single adolescents, “some of whom do not have shoes,” said Farhan Omer, an employee of a center of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Hargeisa.

– “No choice” –

Hundreds of migrants are stuck in Hargeisa, idle, with no money to reach Bosaso or to turn around and return home.

Woynshat Esheto, 35, dreamed of going to Saudi Arabia and becoming a cleaning lady. But she ran out of money.

“I left for my children,” said the single mother of four: “I had no way to feed them or send them to school. I had no choice.”

Movements have resumed on the “eastern route”, after a slowdown in 2020 due to border closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2018 and 2019, it was the busiest maritime migration route in the world. More than 138,000 migrants boarded boats bound for Yemen in 2019, compared to 110,000 crossing the Mediterranean in the same year.

But these population shifts, which do not affect Europe or North America, are often ignored.

“What is frustrating here is that there is so little attention (…) Nobody really cares about the people who have problems in the countries of the Horn of Africa”, laments Richard Danziger, IOM Head of Mission for Somalia.

Clinging to his dreams of a better life, Mengistu Amare isn’t deterred by the perils ahead, though he doesn’t know much about where he is going or what to expect along the way.

“I know that you have to cross the sea to reach Saudi Arabia. I have never been on a boat and I cannot swim”, explains the 21-year-old Ethiopian. But he will try his luck: “I would go anywhere, as long as there is work”.

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