20 AUG 2015 (Mail & Guardian)
As Somalis – and Yemenis – flee back to Somalia to escape war in Yemen, other Somalis and Ethiopians head in the opposite direction into the conflict.
ETHIOPIA’S recent story has been one of robust economic growth, but for some of its citizens, the hoped-for benefits are taking too long to trickle down, so they are heading out for where they feel they can make a more immediate impact on their circumstances and those of their families.
Qader and Abdi, two such Ethiopians, are two weeks into their journey.
Carrying only one empty plastic water bottle each, flattened, with no liquid to return it to its cylindrical shape, the two men figure they will be walking for another month-and-a-half before they reach the sea. From there, they will take a smuggler boat for the short distance to Yemen, where another 600-kilometre walk lies ahead before they may reach their final destination, Saudi Arabia.
It is a sign of their determination that despite the flow of refugees fleeing in the opposite direction, they are focused on making it through their perilous journey.
The pair – members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, which activists charge is systematically disenfranchised by the government – are walking along an uncrowded road connecting the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, to a northern port city.
They walk because they cannot afford the roughly $150-200 that some smugglers would charge to take them from the Ethiopian border east through Somaliland to the port of Bosaso in the neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
”..until we become weak”
“We will walk until we become weak,” said 30-year-old Qader, who withheld his last name to protect his identity. He and his 19-year-old companion are dressed in dirtied long-sleeve shirts to shield them from the early morning sun, which will become unbearable by midday. They have made it this far off the good will of Somalilanders who offer them small change or meals as they pass.
There is a small risk they could be arrested so they veer off the paved road near checkpoints but quickly return so as not to lose their way. Although walking along roads in Somaliland – a self-declared nation that the international community still classifies as a region of Somalia – puts migrants like them at increased risk of robbery or assault, Somalilanders generally do not wish the duo ill will.
Government officials have even been known to stop and provide food and drink to migrants despite their illegal status in the country.
When they reach Bosaso the help will likely come to an end and Qader and Abdi will have to pay. Unlike on land, which the penniless can traverse without charge as long as they can avoid arrest, the sea is only passable by ships operated by smugglers, who are more than happy to continue transporting people to war-torn Yemen for a fee.
Migration to and through Yemen – historically the backdoor for migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa trying to reach Saudi Arabia – has always put people at risk of death and inhumane treatment.
Last year, there were numerous drownings in the Gulf of Aden and Human Rights Watch released a report in 2014 documenting “torture camps” where smugglers held newcomers for ransom.
The attraction for Saudi Arabia remains strong. (Google Maps)
A shipwreck in December killed 70 Ethiopian migrants, while an earlier one had in May killed 60 Ethiopian and other migrants—just some of the few reported deaths at sea. In December, the UN reported that over the past five years, more than 500,000 people—mostly Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis—had reached Yemen via the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea following treacherous journeys on vessels that are often overloaded.
Two million immigrants
The country was also home to up to two million migrants, mostly illegals who entered from other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, according to unofficial estimates commonly cited by experts and humanitarian organisations.
That was before the civil war, precipitated by the departure of Yemen’s internationally-recognised government. A Saudi Arabian-led bombing campaign to restore its legitimacy, has made an already perilous journey for migrants all the more death-defying.
“It’s very dangerous, and I cannot stress that enough,” said Teddy Leposky, an external relations officer for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Yemen.
Not only has the war given smugglers license to act more ruthlessly than before, but also the ability of aid agencies to provide services to migrants and refugees has been severely compromised and the conflict’s violence has been indiscriminate. Five migrants were caught in shelling near the Saudi border in May and, at the end of March, a camp for displaced people camp was bombed, killing at least 45.