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

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African migrants are gathered on the roof of a police bus before being transferred to a center in the capital Riyadh for deportation in November 2013.

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 start 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.

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“I was told that I would have a good job and that I would change my life. I was told it would be easy. But it didn’t happen like that at all ”, tells in his soft voice the young man, met in Hargeisa, in the north of Somalia.

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

The journey is perilous, sometimes fatal

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. Most never get there.

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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.

“The road was not safe”

“They told me it would cost 500 dollars [quelque 440 euros] to get on the boat. I didn’t even have 100. I was shocked ”, says 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.

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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 scared, he confides. The road was not safe. “

Many of the migrants on this route are lonely adolescents, including “Some do not have shoes”, underlines Farhan Omer, employee in a center of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Hargeisa.

“I left for my children”

Hundreds of migrants are stranded 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”, explains this single mother of four children: “I had no way to feed them or send them to school. I had no choice. “

Movements 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.

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But these population shifts, which do not affect Europe or North America, are often ignored. “What’s 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 ”, deplores 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 you have to cross the sea to reach Saudi Arabia. I have never been on a boat and I do not know how to swim ”, explains this 21-year-old Ethiopian. But he will try his luck: “I would go anywhere, as long as there is work. “

The World with AFP

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