Bosaso, Somalia – With fear in his eyes, Yusuf recounts the day he grabbed a stone from the road and flung it at three armed men as he was approaching Las Anod, in northern Somalia. Minutes before, they had taken away the six women he had been travelling with for a month.
“The man with the gun was yelling to his friend ‘take these ladies to a place where you can use them to your pleasure’,” says Yusuf.
When Yusuf tried to protect his female companions, the attackers beat him mercilessly, dragging the women into the vast Somali desert. A few hours later, they returned with tears in their eyes.
“They told me they were raped and harassed.”
Yusuf had left Ethiopia one month before the incident. Within the first few days of his journey to Somalia, he met the women on the road. They walked for days, then weeks, until their sandals were worn through and their stomachs empty. Like many others before them, they thought leaving the African continent would be their chance to leave poverty behind.
“There are no jobs in Ethiopia,” says Yusuf about the reasons that influenced his departure. “Most people are going to Saudi Arabia. I crossed the sea myself three times.”
But this time, Yusuf had to change his plans. So did the women.
"After what happened, I decided to stay in Somalia and work in the farms,” he explains under the hot sun as he finishes his day of work on a farm in Carmo, 100 kilometers south from the port city of Bosaso. “The women found jobs in another town, and they also decided to stay.”
Yusuf’s journey in search of a better life had taken him along parts of the Eastern Route – a migratory passage from Somalia, along the Horn of Africa through Yemen to the Gulf States.
Travelers and merchants have followed this route for decades, but the proliferation of traffickers and smugglers in the past fifteen years has transformed it into one of the most dangerous irregular migratory corridors in the world.
Taken by thousands of African migrants each year – nearly 280,000 since 2019 according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), migrants brave deserts, the sea and conflict-torn territories in their pursuit for a better future.
“Migrants pass through hostile regions faced with security challenges, where access is quite difficult for both local and international aid actors,” says Celestin.
Crowded with migrants, hundreds of precarious boats depart Bosaso’s shores each month, making their way across the Gulf of Aden.
“It is better to die on the sea than staying in Ethiopia,” says Yusuf.
The boat fee charged by smugglers to traverse the Gulf of Aden via Somalia is lower than the one charged in neighbouring Djibouti – USD 60 and between USD 400 and USD 500 respectively – but the price of crossing is significantly higher. Migrants face high risk of drowning during the 36 hours it can take them to reach Yemen.
“The boat is risky, there is nothing to eat, and you are between life and death. The slightest increase in weight can make it capsize, so people can’t move. We splash water onto each other to keep ourselves awake and avoid unnecessary movement. When you board the boat, you give up on your life” adds Yusuf.
Halfway through 2023, at least 77,000 migrants have reached the shores of Yemen from Somalia and Djibouti, fast approaching pre-pandemic levels. In comparison, 75,000 migrants have arrived so this year in Italy on the Central Mediterranean Route this year.
“I was a mechanical engineer before I left Tigray. I wish I could go back home if there was peace, but it is too dangerous,” explains Robel, 29, another Ethiopian migrant who ended up stranded in Bosaso after running for his life.
Still, Bosaso has become the preferred port of departure for those with more limited financial means, who often make it to the city in poor physical and mental condition, having encountered various forms of abuse along the way.
This year, migrants en route to Bosaso have confronted yet a new challenge due to active hostilities and fighting in the city of Las Anod, in northern Somalia.
“They (members of armed groups) told us they would give us 300 dollars to participate in the conflict. We managed to escape from them”, said Sufyan, who also left Ethiopia to secure a better future.
Despite increasing needs driven by climate shocks, conflicts, and economic downturns in the Horn of Africa, there has been a significant reduction in funding to support transiting and stranded migrants. Humanitarian organizations like IOM struggle to sustain their life-saving assistance, leading to a rising number of migrants reportedly stranded across the region without access to help.
Since early 2022, IOM has supported 5,754 stranded migrants and victims of trafficking to safely return from Yemen to their countries of origin. Approximately 300,000 vulnerable migrants have also benefited from humanitarian assistance in Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti. So far in 2023, IOM has assisted 5,631 migrants, including 5,572 Ethiopians, to return home on Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) flights.
IOM is one of the only international agencies coordinating the provision of aid for migrants transiting Somalia through migrant response centres (MRC) and safe houses, where people can access cirtical services such as free medical care, psychosocial support, water, and food.
IOM is now appealing for USD 58.5 million in funding through the Migrant Response Plan (MRP) to continue this vital support in the region.
Text by Claudia Rosel. Photographs by Said Fadhaye, Yonas Tadesse, and Claudia Rosel.