Thousands of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are continuing to undertake the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to reach Yemen, despite the dangerous conditions that have emerged there since the beginning of the civil conflict in 2015. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 700,000 refugees and migrants originating from the Horn of Africa have landed in Yemen between January 2006 and April 2016. Most Ethiopian refugees make the journey in hopes of using Yemen as a transit point in their journey to Gulf countries, while most Somalis look to permanently remain there as refugees. What is most alarming about the situation is that these people are fleeing from their homes without having a conclusive understanding of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen. Even if these dangers somehow became common knowledge, the tragic reality is that people will not be discouraged from attempting to improve the quality of life for their families and themselves.
At present, the most common reason for the migration of Ethiopian asylum seekers is civil unrest, which has heightened as a consequence of the Ethiopian state of emergency that was declared in October 2016. Somalis are migrating in the hopes of escaping tribal conflict, poverty and hardship that has eventuated as a result of the ongoing conflict between the government and al-Shabab. External conditions, coupled with a deep sense of responsibility to their families, prompts asylum seekers to attempt such treacherous journeys. Ultimately, most people from the Horn region hold migration in high esteem due to a lack of education. Many arriving in Yemen are aware of the ongoing conflict, yet maintain that it will not affect them and hinder their efforts. There is an underlying presumption that, due to this conflict and the lack of order and enforcement of rule of law, asylum seekers will be allowed to easily disembark and use Yemen as a transit spot without having to face the authorities. Currently, the culmination of misinformation from smugglers, intensifying political climates, and migration success stories passed on through the community grapevine have continued to fuel the migration movement. As such, it has become apparent that migrants are either misinformed or not informed entirely about the magnitude of the conflict in Yemen and the severity of the difficult conditions that lie ahead.
Once arriving in Djibouti, asylum seekers are subject to food and water shortages and are left resorting to begging to be able to afford the remainder of their journey to Yemen. These journeys are organised by well-established networks of smugglers. Upon landing in Yemen, these people are often abducted and held in smuggling dens until they are able to pay extortion fees for their release. The UNHCR spokesman William Spindler has confirmed reports of “physical and sexual abuse, deprivation of food and water, abduction, extortion, torture and forced labor by smugglers, as well as arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation.” Similarly, it is not uncommon for smugglers to recapture asylum seekers travelling further north after their initial release and holding them for ransom. Given that conflict and economic instability is continuing in the host countries, Spindler recognises that several complex trafficking and extortion networks have emerged to target new arrivals.
In the midst of this situation, the IOM is attempting to run health clinics and mobile health services to deliver primary health care to people entering the country. Given the lack of sufficient funding and the absence of other funded programs that provide similar assistance, their impact is somewhat limited. In terms of education, there is evidence of progress. In light of these emerging dangers, various agencies have initiated campaigns in the hopes of raising awareness. The UNHCR have launched their “Dangerous Crossings” campaign early in 2017, featuring a song that highlights the importance of “thinking carefully before deciding to cross to Yemen” in the various languages spoken in the region. While this modern form of education may appear powerful, its outreach to the populations is restricted given the limited access to the television or internet. The cultural nuance that isn’t recognised in this process is that most information is transferred within communities through friends, families, churches and mosques, radio stations and cultural gatherings. On a similar note, asylum seekers are less likely to value the opinions of the celebrities participating in the song than people they know. Moreover, the most notable flaw in these educational campaigns is the absence of details regarding what their migration journeys entail. These are often void of the practical, real-life situations that they would expect. As such, the overall likelihood of the campaign’s key messages being passed on is slim.
At present, it seems highly unlikely that these efforts from international organisations can do much to curb migration. As long as political conflicts, economic, environmental and social problems and security issues continue in these regions, people will attempt to migrate and better their lives. Nonetheless, educating the population is important to enable them to make informed decisions about their future and equip them with a thorough understanding of what lies beyond.
As such, the process of raising awareness that is currently being undertaken needs to change: the methods of doing so should be informal, using localised communication mediums that people are familiar with and are readily available. Given the significance of word-of-mouth, awareness-raising methods should involve families and relatives, people who have undertaken these journeys themselves, local radio jockeys and editors of community publications.
Ultimately, an improvement in ways in which information is shared cannot be expected to discourage people who are fleeing very difficult conditions at home. This strategic focus on education, however, will not be fruitless. What awareness-raising campaigns can and should reiterate is the need for migrants to consider their long-term strategies and devise realistic alternatives in their journey to attaining a better quality of life.
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