As Djibouti’s role as a source and transit point for migrants and asylum seekers attempting to travel to the Arabian Peninsula increases, so do the perils facing migrants both in Djibouti–where they face arrest and detention–and after their departure from the country, during dangerous journeys across the Gulf of Aden.
The “Eastern Route”
According to the IOM, every year more than 200,000 people seek “to make the perilous journey from Djibouti’s coast across the Gulf of Aden” even as the route has become increasingly dangerous. In late August 2023, the IOM reported that a shipwreck off the coast on 17 August had resulted in the deaths of more than 24 people. In a press release, the IOM stated that “Despite the dangers, the number of Ethiopian migrants arriving in Djibouti from the Arabian peninsula and from Ethiopia continues to grow.”
For many years, Djibouti has served as a major transit country for Horn of Africa migrants and asylum seekers attempting to irregularly reach the Arabian Peninsula. Recently, the country has seen increasing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Somalia. Some also come from Yemen and Eritrea.
The IOM reported that in July 2023 alone, 21,573 “migratory movements” were recorded in the country, with a daily average of 719 movements. 21 percent of these were in the Obock region, where migrants depart for the Arabian Peninsula. This was a 10 percent drop compared to May, and the IOM notes that: “This drop can be attributed to the amplification of surveillance operations by the Djiboutian coast guards in Obock and due to difficult weather conditions during this period of high winds and rough seas.”
Many migrants attempt the journey from Djibouti to the Arabian Peninsula in the hope of finding work in the Gulf. But rough waters, unseaworthy and overcrowded boats, and unscrupulous smugglers create a route which is fraught with danger. Reports have highlighted incidents in which smugglers have thrown migrants overboard to decrease overcrowding, as well as numerous capsizings.
Djibouti has stepped up efforts to prevent transmigration, leading to sharp increases in detentions. In April 2023, the country’s Interior Minister stated that the country had become “saturated” by an influx of migrants from neighbouring countries, claiming that 220,000 people had arrived “illegally” in 2022. In a televised address, the official announced that authorities would commence a crackdown against migrants who enter the country irregularly, claiming that they were taking action for the “well-being and safety of its population.”
According to media reports, some 3,000 migrants in Djibouti City were immediately arrested after the announcement and subsequently detained in unnamed deportation centres. From here, they were to be transported by trucks back to their countries of origin. The Interior Ministry claimed that similar operations would shortly be conducted across the rest of the country. The GDP has been unable to confirm details about these operations or where people are being detained.
Irregular migrants employed in the informal sector within the country have been told that they will be immune to such raids if they register with authorities and receive “circulation documents” within 30 days.
In August 2023, the US announced USD 5 million in assistance to the country to “help address the urgent challenges faced by refugees and vulnerable migrants.”