In the Horn of Africa, where drought and political violence have already cost thousands of lives this year, desperate people are turning to the sea to escape intolerable conditions all around them. They are landing by the thousands in the dangerous chaos of Yemen.
In October alone, more than 12,000 people, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia, have crossed the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to the Yemeni coast, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This year, the total number of these African refugees reaching Yemen has climbed to almost 85,000.
The Somalis who flee to Yemen are automatically given refugee status by the UN refugee agency, which has reception centers to help them. They are escaping recognized conflict and often starvation conditions caused by both violence and drought. More than 200,000 Somalis are refugees in Yemen, according to the UN, which finds that many of the people are unaware of the deteriorating security situation there until they arrive. The country appears to be sliding into a civil war.
For poor Ethiopians, who form the large majority of the migrants now fleeing the Horn of Africa, Yemen has become an imagined gateway to a better life in neighboring Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf states beyond. They are not strictly refugees, but economic migrants, so they mostly have to fend for themselves in dealing with traffickers whose boats take them to the Yemeni coast, where, the UN says, they may become the victims of kidnapping, robbery and extortion as they strike out overland toward the Saudi border.
Many Ethiopians, who have squandered what little money they or their families can raise for the perilous journey, find that their dreams of jobs in Saudi Arabia are only fantasies; numerous young men, illegal immigrants, are caught by the Saudi police and returned to Yemen, where they are aided by humanitarian organizations and the International Organization for Migration to return to Ethiopia – by then penniless and too ashamed to go home.
Early this year, in a reception center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, some of these young men told me despairing stories of attempts to escape poverty, a repressive government or general hopelessness by gambling on the crossing to Yemen, and how their plans went badly wrong. Yet some of them planned to try again, living on sorghum mash and water as they walk overland to neighboring Djibouti, where boats are always found. The men knew the risks, they said, but could see no other way to improve their lives.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.