(Corrects to add dropped reference to food in sixth paragraph
and clarify distance of trek in tenth paragraph)
By Tom Miles
GENEVA Oct 14 Thousands of Ethiopians trekking
through desert heat and war in Yemen for the sake of a low-paid
job in Saudi Arabia risk getting stuck in an overcrowded migrant
camp in Djibouti, the International Organization for Migration
(IOM) said on Friday.
Three boatloads have recently been returned from the Yemeni
port of Aden, potentially closing a route used by 10,000
migrants per month, mainly Ethiopians from the Oromia and Tigray
regions and Somalis.
"If they increase deportations we are going to get people
stuck here," IOM's regional director Jeffrey Labovitz told
reporters in Geneva by phone from Djibouti.
The transit camp at Obock, comprising some tents and
corrugated metal sheets and concrete blocks, has swollen from a
few hundred people to 600 or 700, and IOM fears another 3,000
deportees could arrive within days.
"If you look at our numbers right now, 600-700 is not huge,
but with 10,000 plus per month, if returns start happening, it
could very soon get huge," Labovitz said.
Both sides in a civil war afflicting Yemen have detained
thousands of migrants. IOM has been asked to provide food for
4,000 held by Iran-aligned Houthi fighters and estimates several
thousand more are held by Yemenii government forces which are
backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.
"What's happening now is a confluence of a whole bunch of
political events where suddenly we have a surge in numbers,"
The situation has been exacerbated by Ethiopia declaring a
state of emergency, which temporarily prevented IOM helping
Ethiopians willing to return. The situation is further
complicated because many of the migrants have no documents and
about one in five is a child.
There are almost no women in the camp, and the speculation
is that the people smugglers who organise the journey send
women, who are in higher demand from Saudi employers, directly
The men and boys - many as young as 11 and travelling
unaccompanied - trek 50 km (30 miles) from the Ethiopian border,
and as much as 300 km in all, through searing heat and a
"It's certainly hundreds who are lost in the desert (each
year) and found later by local communities and buried under
these omnipresent rocks," said Labovitz. "It's not pretty. They
dry up and become petrified and are found later by local
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates another 70-75 die in
the sea crossing to Yemen, but that is likely an underestimate.
"This route doesn't get the attention it deserves because
they are going to Saudi and not going to the shores of the
Mediterranean," Labovitz said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Ralph Boulton)