Human Trafficking From The Horn Of Africa Into The Arab Peninsula


When discussing African immigrants seeking greener pastures, most media sources discuss the migrant routes into Europe. Many of these stories focus on trafficking and smuggling routes in the most used route in Libya by gangs and militias who have chosen to exploit vulnerable persons. The recent stories of the slave trade in this North African country have renewed attention to the need for world leaders to come together to solve domestic problems that have caused thousands to risk their lives to reach Europe for a better life.

Although it is important that the media sheds light on the difficult journey that these migrants make to reach Europe, they need to equally make an effort to discuss the less-known migrant crisis to the Arab Peninsula through Yemen from the Horn of Africa.

The migrant crisis in the Horn of Africa to the Arab Peninsula

The full extent of the migrant crisis in the Horn of Africa into the Arab Peninsula needs further research and data. The most frequented migrant route is known as the Ethiopia-Djibouti-Yemen corridor. This preferred route is not as heavily monitored by media, governments and international organizations as the routes in North Africa. This is mostly because both Somalia and Yemen are facing internal armed conflicts that take away resources that would generally be used to monitor the migrant crisis.

According to an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report, in 2016, over 100 thousand immigrants crossed the Red Sea into Yemen. Eighty-three percent of them came from Ethiopia while another 17 percent came from Somalia. It should not come as a surprise that individuals from these two countries make up all the migrants going into the Arab Peninsula with the hope to reach to the Gulf States. Ethiopia, although not a country at war, has dictatorship well known for oppressing opposition parties. The most notable example came at the end of 2015 when the government conducted a brutal campaign against the Oromo people, who have demanded equal representation in the political process and the economic development in their region. The protests have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Oromo people, who make up approximately a third of the country’s population, and their allies. In fact, most of the Ethiopian migrants passing through the Ethiopia-Djibouti-Yemen corridor are ethnically Oromo. In addition, Ethiopia is frequently affected by the drought that kills thousands and has led to a humanitarian crisis. According to Oxfam, more than 8 million Ethiopians are currently facing severe hunger as a result of the drought. Somalia has survived the last quarter of a century without a strong central government that is frequently challenged by non-state actors such as al-Shabaab. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has, despite their ten-year mission, had limited success in containing or expelling the extremist forces in the country. Like Ethiopia, Somalia faces drought which is made worse due to the instability.

To make the journey to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the migrants need to have a substantial amount of money. Reports by the Global Initiative against the Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) discovered that the migrants paid between $200 and $500 per person from Ethiopia to Yemen. If the figures provided by ISS are true, and over 83 000 Ethiopians travelled through Yemen to reach the Gulf States, the operation should generate between 16 and 40 million dollars in 2016 alone.

As you would expect, the migrant journey comes with a heap of challenges, especially the Ethiopian migrants. First of all, if the migrant cannot pay for the entire journey, they are “held for ransom, with physical abuse often used to extract payments from families or friends … or they may be forced to work until they have paid off their debts.”  If the migrants are unaware of the prices, they might be charged double or triple the expected price, according to smugglers in Djibouti. Many of Ethiopian migrants are well aware of the danger of being caught by law enforcement, especially in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, where the smugglers have an agreement with government officials to hand over any Ethiopian migrants. Due to corruption, in some cases, the smugglers can bribe the police officers for safe passageways. In Djibouti, the smugglers must pay between $15 and 30 at each of the four checkpoints to reach the coast. Somalis do not face nearly the same difficult challenges as Ethiopians do in this journey since it’s easier for them to travel within their own territory. Once they have crossed the Red Sea into Yemen, the migrants must once again fear detection from Yemeni officials. In extreme cases, the smuggling boat will dock of shore and force the migrants to swim for 45 minutes to reach the Bir Ali coastline. In one instance that should have gathered international attention, smugglers forced 280 migrants to swim to the shores of Yemen, which led to the death of 70 people.

Human trafficking in the Arab Peninsula 

There is an alarming rise of human trafficking in the Horn of Africa because of smugglers exploiting the lack of government and NGO oversight on the migrant crisis. While some of the immigrants have successfully reached their destinations, some have been subjected to different circumstances. Some have been incised or recruited by armed groups to be mercenaries. This claim has been proven by Somaliland intelligence officers who say that there is a rising trend in which Ethiopians are recruited to fight in the War in Yemen for both pro and anti-government forces. According to Yemen officials, the rebel groups want Oromo recruits because of the perception that “they are tough fighters and [are] willing to work for wages ‘half that of a Yemeni.’” Additionally, a GITOC report claims that it is easier to recruit the Ethiopians into rebel groups since they are fearful of deportation as they are rarely given refugee status in Yemen and are willing to do anything not to return home.

In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, Yemeni traffickers have been accused of “taking migrants captive and transport[ing]” them into so-called “torture camps” where they “inflict severe pain and suffering to extort money from the migrants’ relatives and friends in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.”  According to one migrant’s account, he witnessed another man’s eyes being gouged out with a water bottle while others have witnessed or heard the traffickers raping women. A doctor at Haradh hospital in Yemen states that he receives at least two dead migrants per week. Some of the African migrants have been sold from one gang or smuggling group to another.  According to HRW, Yemeni officials of various ranks are directly benefiting from these operations by taking bribes to turn a blind eye to what is happening. Additionally, the government, before the civil war ensued, has done very little to stop the human trafficking rings. In fact, a judge in Haradh states that he has only seen a single case related to the abuse of migrants which the prosecution botched the case.

What can we do?

There is a dire need for coherent policies that target migrant smuggling networks. The policies must encompass all the stakeholders that are part of the problem or complicit in the migrant crisis. Understandably, Somalia and Yemen, the two main countries involved in the smuggling rings, cannot fully dedicate resources to stop the smugglers since they are engaged in the armed struggle within their borders. Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States must do significantly more as complicit stakeholders in the migrant crisis.

At the end of the day, the policies must be easily implemented at the lowest level. Incentives must be placed to encourage smugglers and traffickers to not engage in this trade. The smugglers themselves are involved in this trade because of the lack of opportunities in their respective countries and have seen the profitability of the migrant crisis.

The media must also bring as much attention to the Horn of Africa migrant crisis as they bring to the migrant crisis in North Africa.

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