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Migration Refugee Crisis Unfolding in Yemen, Djibouti

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - An illegal immigrant from Ethiopia covers his face as he waits with others for a boat to cross into Yemen outside the town of Obock, north Djibouti.

FILE - An illegal immigrant from Ethiopia covers his face as he waits with others for a boat to cross into Yemen outside the town of Obock, north Djibouti.

The International Organization for Migration warns a migration refugee crisis unfolding in Yemen and Djibouti is having a serious impact across the Horn of Africa.

The International Organization for Migration said about 10,000 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, make the long, dangerous trek across the blistering hot desert to Djibouti every month. From there they transit through war-torn Yemen to Saudi Arabia in search of work.

The IOM said most of the migrants are young men. About 30 percent are unaccompanied minors, some as young as 11. It said very few women are to be seen.

Speaking by telephone from Obock, Djibouti, IOM Director for East and Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Labovitz, said the women are largely invisible because smugglers take them to Saudi Arabia by car to work as domestic servants.

“It is much more clandestine and organized," he said. "And so we are not seeing them. But, it also means in terms of protection, we do not know what is going on at all.”

Labovitz said Yemen recently began deporting Ethiopian migrants to Djibouti. He said it appears thousands are likely to be deported in the near future and called such a prospect "very worrying" for a "small country like Djibouti."

“What we are seeing right now, too, in Yemen is that in the government areas, they are asking us urgently to provide food and services to over 4,000 individuals in detention," he said. "And we also hear in the coalition areas that there are several thousand who may be deported soon. We do not know.”

Labovitz said the IOM will not be able to handle such a huge surge of migrants. He said the Migration Response Center, the transit center run by the IOM and the Ministry of the Interior in Obock can take care of about 100 migrants at one time. Currently, the center is hosting between 600 and 700 stranded Ethiopian migrants, he said.

Djibouti could soon be facing a massive surge of migrants, creating a humanitarian crisis, added Labovitz. To make matters worse, he said the IOM’s voluntary return program is largely on hold because most of the Ethiopian migrants have no documents and the IOM is strapped for cash.

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