By Nicolas Niarchos , JULY 20, 2016
The other day, on the outskirts of Fantahero, a small village in the desert of northern Djibouti, Sebhatou Mellis was sheltering from a-hundred-and-four-degree heat in the shade of an acacia tree. Mellis, who is twenty-six and has the rangy build of a runner, was about a thousand miles away from his home, in the impoverished Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. There, he and his family had taken a government loan to help improve his farm, tried to invest it, and failed, he told me. “At the end, the money was finished, and all the people began to insult us and say that we took the money from the government and used it badly,” he said.
Mellis had come to Fantahero four days earlier, walking and hitching rides through the Danakil Desert with about a dozen other Tigrayans, a journey that took them about three weeks. Mellis’s ultimate destination, he hopes, will be Saudi Arabia, where, if he’s lucky, he’ll be able to work illegally. To get there, he will have to cross the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Middle East from the Horn of Africa, and navigate his way through war-torn Yemen. “I left to repay my debts, not to die,” he said. “But if I die, at least I will liberate myself from poverty.”
The route through Djibouti and Yemen to Saudi Arabia is an ancient one. Some seventy thousand years ago, early man left Africa across the Bab el-Mandeb. The migration began the process by which modern humans settled the Eurasian continent. The historical connection between this part of Africa and the Middle East stretches through history. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Ethiopian Aksumite Empire extended into the modern Middle East and controlled parts of Yemen.
The modern flow of people to the Middle East waxes and wanes as wars and crises afflict the countries surrounding Djibouti. Over the past decade, though, the number of migrant arrivals in Yemen from the Horn of Africa has increased more than threefold, to about ninety-two thousand last year. That figure is small compared with the million or so irregular entries into Europe last year, but the journey is made more difficult by the harsh conditions crossing the desert. Most of the migrants crossing from Djibouti are Ethiopian, from the Oromia and Tigray regions, though some are from Somalia, which has been locked in civil war since 1991.
In Ethiopia, global warming and the El Niño heating effect in the Pacific have contributed to the worst drought in decades. Livestock is rapidly dying, and more than ten million people are now in need of food assistance. Mellis says that poverty and the lack of agricultural equipment contribute to the problem. “We have the farms, but we don’t have suitable equipment to develop them and stay there and eat from our own farms,” he said. “In our place, there’s no irrigation for the farms and there are no water holes. If we had water, I would have planted many things, like tomatoes and vegetables, and I would be able to live in my own land.” There are occasional bursts of ethnic violence and reprisals by state security officers. Since the end of last year, government forces in Oromia have killed around two hundred people who were protesting a development plan that they believed would cut them out.
Once the Ethiopian migrants leave home, they risk being arrested by their own government. About a hundred and seventy thousand Ethiopians were deported by Saudi Arabia between 2013 and 2014, and Ethiopia responded with a ban on labor movement. (Negotiations have stalled because Ethiopia has asked for a minimum wage for its laborers of about twelve hundred riyals, a little more than three hundred dollars a month. The Saudi government will only agree to pay seven hundred riyals.) The migrants often have to endure days or even weeks of trekking through the desert. Even at the most blistering hours of the day, people with little more than flip-flops on their feet and empty plastic bottles in their hands, which they hope friendly passersby will refill, make the walk between Lake Assal, in Djibouti’s west, to Fantahero, in the east. “It’s something that you cannot imagine,” Mellis said, of the walk through the desert. “But you think about the reasons why you are making the journey.”
In Fantahero, a village of traditional aris, huts made from fabric and palm mats by the local Afar people, the migrants wait beneath the acacia trees for smugglers who will take them across the sea. Sometimes they live like this for weeks, taking water from points set up by the International Organization for Migration, which also houses some people coming through. The I.O.M. has twelve full-time staff members in the town of Obock, near Fantahero, who describe the dangers of continuing on to the Gulf and ask migrants to consider turning back. The organization also helps them return home if they have a change of heart.
Ali al-Jefri, the manager of the I.O.M.’s center in the town of Obock, said that few of the migrants—no more than a fifth of them—decide to turn back once they have reached Djibouti. I asked Mellis whether he was scared to cross Yemen, and whether he thought of returning to Ethiopia. “Of course I’m afraid, but if I arrive I will have the opportunity to have a better life,” Mellis told me, almost angrily. “Why should I go back? How will I pay my debts and my travel bills?”
The journey across the sea to Yemen, which costs migrants about a hundred and forty dollars, is one of the safer parts of their trip, if they manage to find an adequate boat. Unfortunately, many of the ships are small, old, and do not have adequate equipment to make the crossing. Groups of migrants can find themselves stranded at sea until they are picked up by the Djiboutian Coast Guard. Many of the migrants cannot swim, and the Bab el-Mandeb is known for rough seas; almost three and a half thousand have died making the crossing in the past ten years. The dangers at sea, however, hardly compare to what they will face when they get to Yemen.
Since March of last year, Yemen has been in a grinding civil war, between Houthi rebels and the government of Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia. The fighting has been brutal in many parts of the country: almost seven thousand people have lost their lives in the fighting, and large parts of cities have been flattened by bombing and rocket attacks. The conflict, however, has not deterred the migrants. “Some of them, especially the women, don’t have any awareness that there’s a conflict in Yemen,” Fatouma Ali, a nurse who works with the I.O.M. in Fantahero, told me. Petra Neumann, the temporary head of the I.O.M. in Djibouti, said that the number of migrants was going up despite the civil war in Yemen, and perhaps even because of it. “We also see, actually, an increasing number of people who are still going from Ethiopia through Djibouti, through Yemen, trying to reach the Gulf States,” she said. “What we can tell is that either they’re not even aware that there is a conflict in Yemen, or that they actually—and maybe this is something the traffickers tell them—think that they can use the conflict in their favor.”
Many Ethiopian migrants have been shot and wounded by groups in Yemen, or kidnapped and detained when they arrived in the country because they couldn’t afford to pay smugglers. Mellis said that he had not brought money to cross Yemen, though he estimated that the trip would cost him around five hundred and thirty dollars; he would ask his family to send him the money as the need arises, he told me. Situations like these are particularly dangerous. “In Yemen, if you don’t have the money, you’ll be detained, you’ll be beaten, your family will be made to send you money,” Jefri said. In the previous month, the I.O.M. had helped negotiate the release of twelve hundred and fifty migrants who had been imprisoned by Houthi rebels, he told me. Many of them were in bad shape. “So many of them whom we have evacuated had broken limbs, broken legs, broken hands,” he said.
Neumann and Jefri both told me that some of the rescued women reported that they had been sold into sexual slavery in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia. Neumann added that she suspected that human-trafficking rings could be moving women through Djibouti. “When you go to Obock, you see men walking, but you wouldn’t see women walking. Women are usually on trucks. For me, that looks quite organized,” she said. Those Ethiopians who do arrive and find work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries often have their passports taken away by their employers, which is a violation of international labor conventions, and are subjected to debt slavery, beatings, and other forms of abuse. Some are forced to work extremely long shifts and are not given days off. Still, “there are opportunities,” Mellis told me. “They’re not satisfying, but we can take it in turns—someone could work today and someone else could take his place tomorrow. It’s better than nothing, I will be waiting for that.” He was going to Saudi Arabia, he said, “to change my life.” Once he earns enough money there, he plans to return to Ethiopia.
The Ethiopians I met in Fantahero are planning to immigrate to Saudi Arabia illegally. There are periodic mass expulsions from the country, which, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, are often violent. Recently, Ethiopians have been deported from the Kingdom back to Yemen instead of being deported home, according to the I.O.M. There, they once again face the dangers of the war and detention by rival militias. All of this, of course, depends on whether they can even make it to Saudi Arabia. In a Trumpian gesture, the Saudis are building a thousand-mile-long wall along their southern border with Yemen. Jefri told me that he thought the construction project would have little effect. “It’s not going to stop people migrating,” he said. “They’ll always find a way to get to Saudi Arabia.”
Nicolas Niarchos is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.