Migrants’ dreams shattered on trip to Saudi Arabia from Africa

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Rarely highlighted in the headlines, Saudi Arabia is also a destination that many migrants are desperate to reach.

The smugglers promised Fentahun Derebe passage to Saudi Arabia, where the young Ethiopian could earn more money than he ever dreamed of, then return home to start a business.

Instead, after he reached the Somali coast, the smugglers demanded more money and dumped the 19-year-old when he couldn’t pay. Broken and alone, Fentahun had no choice but to return the path he had taken – a journey of several hundred miles through the desert.

“People told me I would have a good job and change my life. They told me it would be easy. But it didn’t turn out like that at all,” the teenager said. in a soft voice to Agence France-Presse (AFP). in Hargeisa, a transit hub along the smugglers route where many migrants find themselves stranded.

As attempts to cross the Mediterranean have intensified and a migrant crisis has erupted at the EU border, another of the world’s busiest smuggling routes is slowly coming back out of the limelight.

Fentahun is one of the thousands of migrants trying to leave Africa, but his destination is not Europe, but the Arabian Peninsula.

This so-called “Eastern Route” is perilous and sometimes fatal, with migrants crossing a scorching desert, rough seas and active war zones in search of economic opportunities.

The journey takes migrants – mostly Ethiopians, but also Somalis – from the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden to war-torn Yemen.

From there, they cross vast swathes of hostile territory in the hope of reaching Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and finding work.

Eastern promise

Most do not.

Tens of thousands of migrants are stranded in Yemen, unable to pay for a return trip, held hostage by smugglers or detained by local authorities.

Some meet tragic and macabre endings along the way.

In March, a fire at an overcrowded detention center in Yemen’s capital killed dozens of migrants. In the same month, 20 people drowned when smugglers threw people overboard on their way to Yemen, fearing their vessel could be overloaded.

But many never leave Africa, cheated long before they even set sail.

“They told me it would cost $ 500 to get on the boat. I didn’t even have $ 100. I was shocked,” said Fentahun, who left Gondar in northern Ethiopia. when he had just finished high school.

The route offers two gateways to Yemen: one via Obock in Djibouti, but more often from Bosaso in northern Somalia.

Djibouti patrols its coastline and stalks migrants, but governance is weaker in Somalia, which in part makes the Bosaso option more popular.

But it’s the longer and more dangerous of the two, traversing remote, lawless and arid regions of Somalia, and daytime temperatures reach excruciating highs.

During the month-long march from Bosaso to Hargeisa, Fentahun said he passed many migrants in desperate circumstances. Some had been robbed or physically abused, and all were in desperate need of food and water.

“I was scared… It wasn’t safe along the way,” he said.

Farhan Omer, a staff member at an International Organization for Migration (IOM) support center in Hargeisa, said many on the road were unaccompanied adolescents: “Some do not have shoes”, did he declare.

Under the radar

Hundreds of exploited migrants are stuck in limbo in Hargeisa, with no cash to return home to Ethiopia or continue to Bosaso.

“I left for my children,” said Woynshat Esheto, a 35-year-old single mother of four who wanted to go to Saudi Arabia and become a cleaner, but ran out of money in Hargeisa.

“I had no way to feed them or send them to school. I had no choice.”

Travel along the road is resuming after slowing down in 2020, when borders were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2018 and 2019, it was the busiest maritime migration route in the world. More than 138,000 migrants boarded ships bound for Yemen in 2019, compared to 110,000 crossing the Mediterranean during the same period.

Yet it receives little funding or attention devoted to high-level migration crises affecting Europe and North America, said Richard Danziger, IOM’s chief of mission for Somalia.

“What is frustrating here is that there is so little attention … Nobody is really interested in these people who have problems in the countries of the Horn of Africa”, a- he told AFP.

Driven by poverty and dreams of a better life, Mengistu Amare isn’t deterred by the perils ahead – though he clings to little more than a clue of where he’s going, or what he engages in.

“I know you have to cross the water to reach Saudi Arabia. I’ve never been on a boat, and I can’t swim,” said the 21-year-old migrant from Ethiopia, who left his village. after hearing enviable stories about life in the Gulf.

“I would go wherever there is work.”

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