On the road from Djibouti City to the port town of Tadjoura there are two small islands rising from the water, like half-sunken moons.
“The big one is the Devil and the small one is his wife,” says Ali Daoud, a local fixer, tour guide and entrepreneur, as we speed in our jeep past a group of three thin, bedraggled men, each carrying nothing much beyond a plastic water bottle and a hope.
One waves exhaustedly in our direction, but Ali is adamant: “We cannot stop. The government has said that anyone picking up these guys will be arrested for human trafficking.”
And so we go on – the three spectral walkers quickly disappearing behind us into the dust.
Every few kilometers along this road march thin men just like those. They are part of an annual army of about 160,000 people – almost all Ethiopians – who travel the perilous, 1200-kilometer route from destitute provinces in their home country to the Republic of Djibouti.
From there, if they can find the money to pay smugglers, they are taken across the narrow Bab Al Mandeb Strait, or through the Gulf of Aden, into war-torn Yemen.
There, at the mercy of human traffickers who may kidnap, rape and extort more money – from them and from their relatives back home – they head north to the Saudi Arabian border.
After crossing minefields and deadly killing grounds, they may make it into the kingdom, where traffickers may also continue to exploit them – and where the Saudi police try to hunt them down for forcible deportation.
Yet they may also, if they are very lucky, find their goal: a low paid job in the unregistered economy.
“About 10,000 people move through Djibouti this way every month heading for Arabia, and the figures are continuing to climb,” says Olivia Akumu, Regional Coordinator for East Africa with the Mixed Migration Center in Nairobi.
“We always hear about migrants in the Mediterranean but the truth is, the biggest numbers of migrants we have are these people, trying to get into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.”
It is an odyssey through the circles of hell, though – with the big and small devils of Djibouti’s coast just some of the first disturbing signposts of what is to come.
Most of the migrants making this perilous journey are from Ethiopia, a country that, although it’s recently seen the end of protracted conflict, is still one of the world’s poorest.
According to the World Bank, per capita annual income in 2018 was only US$772.31, or about $2 a day.
“Almost all of the migrants recently have been moving for economic reasons,” says Yvonne Ndege, spokesperson for the International Organization of Migration.
This is certainly true of “Amir,” who would not give his real name in view of his undocumented status but who had walked to Djibouti City from a village 100km south of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. According to the IOM, about 76% of all those heading to Djibouti travel this way.
“There are no jobs back home, or if you find one, it isn’t enough money to pay for your food and housing,” he told Asia Times in Djibouti.
Amir joined others heading for the small Horn of Africa state, which sits strategically at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Possessing a variety of ports, it is also a relatively short distance from the coast of Arabia.
Living in an isolated rural community, though,Amir had no idea of the perils ahead as he waited in Djibouti, looking for work to finance his next move. That journey would be on a leaky smuggler’s boat across to Yemen – a country that, although he didn’t know it, was in the middle of a civil war.
“All I know is that you can make good money in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I can send that home and maybe save some, too.”
Just crossing the sea to Yemen can be dire enough, though. Human Rights Watch has recorded cases of migrants being thrown overboard by smugglers when their overcrowded boats get into difficulty.
Even worse sometimes awaits when they land.
“Criminal gangs operate there who kidnap the migrants and hold them for ransom,” says Akumu.
Ransoming involves the new arrivals being forced to phone relatives back home and get them to deposit money in the local, Ethiopian bank accounts of the human traffickers, whose networks go all around the Horn of Africa.
“While they are waiting for relatives back home to come up with the money to set them free, they often undergo horrific experiences,” adds Akumu.
Sexual abuse is one of those – and is widespread.
“All the female migrants we have worked with reported this,” says Akumu. “In fact, it is so common and expected, new migrants take contraceptives before arriving if they can, in the expectation they will be raped.”
Adding an extra layer of horror: “The torture and mistreatment they face is largely done by other Ethiopians, who work for the trafficking networks in Yemen,” says Adam Coogle, a Middle East Researcher for HRW who has interviewed many Ethiopian migrants.
If they manage to get released, the migrants then have to travel many kilometers north through an active war zone to the Saudi border.
“We have met people who report crossing live battlefields to then be shot at by Saudi border guards as they try to cross the frontier – people who describe the border as a killing field,” adds Coogle. “The trafficking and smuggling networks extend into Saudi Arabia too, so they may also get shaken down for more money after they make it to Riyadh or Jeddah.”
Saudi Arabia has also been running a policy of forced repatriation of undocumented immigrants in recent times, with the IOM reporting about 340,000 Ethiopians deported this way since 2017.
“Some never go back to their homes after being deported to Addis Ababa,” says Coogle. “They may have had relatives sell their homes and possessions as ransom for the traffickers, so they face a terrible shame, as they have failed to help their families and, instead, made their situation worse.”
Failure not an option
In Djibouti, while Ethiopian migrants can be seen by the side of the road every day, little is done to interfere with the flow – or with the work of the smugglers and traffickers.
This is despite the fact that the country is a signatory to many international refugee and anti-human trafficking agreements.
“Regarding investigations and prosecutions, many cases have been processed, but with no charges laid,” says Ndege.
Authorities have scarce resources. “What incentive is there to crack down when you are a transit country only?” asks Akumu. Few migrants stay in Djibouti, with Saudi and the Gulf their target destinations. “They don’t harm people or cause disruption, and they help the economy, paying locals.”
Despite the horror stories, too, many who are deported back to Ethiopia subsequently try again. “They become fixated on getting there,” says Akumu.
For Amir, failure is not an option.
“I will try and if I am unlucky I will go on trying,” he says. “Why not? I want to work, I want to feed my family. Why wouldn’t I try again?”