For years, the Eastern Route that cuts through Djibouti’s arid northern regions has been one of the world’s busiest migration corridors.
In 2022 alone, over 150,000 people – mostly Ethiopians – attempted the crossing on foot, trudging across inhospitable landscapes at the mercy of human traffickers and smugglers.
Primarily motivated by economic hardship fueled by climate change and global inequality, they dream of a better life abroad and leave their homes with the help of criminal networks who prey on their vulnerability. The illusive prospect of finding employment beyond Africa is enough to brave the desert and place their lives in the hands of these transnational organized crime networks.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has long worked alongside governments to address this issue by building the investigative, legislative and evidence-sharing skill sets of judicial and law enforcement bodies.
In June 2023, UNODC and the Government of Djibouti brought Ethiopian and Djiboutian criminal justice professionals to Djibouti to see the realities faced by those seeking a better life, as well as the threats posed by organized criminals. Departing from the Port of Djibouti on a Coast Guard ship, the delegation set off across the Gulf of Tadjoura under the scorching summer sun and in the company of a crew of sailors.
Roughly an hour into the journey, the glistening shoreline of Obock, Djibouti appeared in the distance. The Obock region is a crossroads where people converge after the gruelling desert crossing. There, they wait for days at a time while smugglers organize passage onto rickety fishing boats headed to the shores of Yemen, a country in conflict.
Donning polished uniforms in varying shades of blue, the chiefs of both the Obock Gendarmerie and Police were present at the port to welcome their visitors. Stretched thin by the sheer number of people that stream in and out of the region, there is a keen desire from local authorities for increased cooperation.
Seeking to gain an insight into how Djiboutian authorities work alongside aid agencies, the delegation set off to the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Migrant Response Centre (MRC). Here, migrants who can no longer bear the hardship of their journey are assisted by IOM to voluntarily return home.
The MRC provides food, water, medical and psychosocial support to the migrants. It was an opportunity for the Ethiopian delegation to speak with the migrants in the Centre and learn from their experience. The delegation was also able to engage with the Prefect of Obock, who recognized the importance of the visit in his remarks and reiterated the call for Djiboutian and Ethiopian authorities to work more closely together.
The convoy then headed in the direction of Fantaherou, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Obock whose impoverished residents host the transiting migrants in exchange for small sums of money. Sheltering from the midday sun, people were scattered among the arid landscape, finding respite in the shade while they waited for smugglers to give them further instructions.
Strewn across the sand and dust were clothes, plastic bottles and personal belongings that tell a story of extreme adversity, risk and need.
Under the cool shade of an acacia tree, known to locals as "The Migrant Tree", a group of migrants sat with the delegation. They were curious about the visitors and happy to speak in Amharic with their fellow countrymen and women.
Some within the group explained that they had already attempted the crossing several times, but quickly added that they would keep trying until they reached their intended destinations, despite the risk. Many were women and children.
"Two days ago, we recovered five lifeless bodies," one gendarme noted. "There are more every other day."
Despite the acknowledged danger to their lives, for as long as inequality and criminal networks exist, huge numbers of people will attempt the journey in search of a better life.
Stricken by the conversations but emboldened by the clear needs, the Ethiopian and Djiboutian delegations returned to Djibouti City determined to increase avenues for collaboration. At the end of the four-day mission, it was agreed that both parties would set up a joint investigation team comprising police and prosecutors who will act in unison to detect, disrupt and target transnational criminal organizations and, ultimately, keep people safer.