Migration policy in Djibouti: Small but strategically key

For centuries, this country in the Horn of Africa has served as a corridor between Africa and Asia. Today it is the continent’s – and Europe's – most important military base.

German soldiers stationed in Djibouti are to fight piracy Foto: dpa

Djibouti is one of Africa’s smallest countries. Located on the outermost tip of the Horn of Africa, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in strategic importance. The country presides over a major harbour situated on the Gulf of Aden, making it ideal for migrants in transit. For millennia, this area has served as a stop-off point for people travelling from the African continent and across the Mandeb Strait to the Arabian Peninsula before moving on towards Asia.

Since 2008 more than 360,000 Africans have set sail from here for Yemen. Around 80 percent of them are Ethiopians, the rest Eritreans and Somalis. Most go in search of work in Arabia’s wealthy oil states. It is estimated that a majority of these migrant workers have fallen victim to people traffickers in search of cheap labour for the Gulf States. International human rights organisations often publish reports detailing the brutal mistreatment of African nannies or of African migrant workers on building sites in Saudi Arabia.

Many suspect that this migration channel became impassable in 2015 when civil war broke out in Yemen. However, according to RMMS, a regional think tank that collects data on migration and analyses sources specifically for the Horn of Africa region, migration across the Gulf of Aden hit record highs in 2016 with more than 120,000 people reaching the Yemeni coast. 85 percent of those arriving came from Ethiopia and 98 percent of Ethiopian arrivals were from the Oromo community, explains RMMS migration specialist Bram Frouws in an interview with taz.

According to Frouws, one reason for the continued movement of people is the lack of security along the coastline due to the war. “There is no simple explanation as to why the numbers are rising. We certainly haven’t seen any decrease during this period of conflict,“ says Frouws. One of the few examples of intervention took place in November 2016 when the International Organization for Migration (IOM) rescued over 600 migrants stranded in the war-torn land as part of a voluntary repatriation mission, returning them to Djibouti.

Secure country of origin

Yemen’s descent into civil war has triggered another migration issue: Yemenis fleeing the turmoil at home and crossing the sea to Djibouti. There are now more than 35,000 Yemenis in Djibouti, who make up the highest percentage of new arrivals. To compare, the population of Djibouti currently only stands at 900,000. According to data from the World Bank from 2013, just 15,000 people from Djibouti live abroad, most of them in France, the country’s former colonial ruler. Others live in Ethiopia and a small number are in Algeria and Canada. If you examine statistics from the past few years concerning migration to Europe via the Mediterranean, you will be hard pushed to find any migrants from Djibouti. In 2015 a mere 305 asylum seekers from Djibouti were registered across the whole of the EU. Half of them had their applications rejected and were deported as Djibouti is listed as a safe country of origin.

According to the national body responsible for refugees (the ONARS), at present, this diminutive state is officially sheltering around 23,000 refugees, most of them Somali. There are around 11,000 living in a camp near Ali-Adeh close to the Somali border in the south of the country. Another camp, Holl Holl, is home to roughly 2,000 people. Somalis and Yemenis are automatically granted asylum in Djibouti. Applications from Ethiopians, Eritreans and other nationalities are judged on a case-by-case basis. The majority of migrant workers passing through the country are housed in the densely populated areas along the coast, such as in the port town of Obok or in the capital Djibouti. Many Yemenis also reside here. Instead of registering as refugees in the camps, they prefer to pay for their own accommodation in the cities.

In previous years, Djibouti’s coast guard had reported an increased number of sea rescues. It was only in June that they were able to secure a boat carrying over 140 Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans, handing it over to the IOM, an organisation with a strong presence in Djibouti and which has trained the country’s coast guard, particularly in procedures for dealing with migrants. In October 2016 a ceremony was held to mark the opening of the first train line for passenger and freight transport between Ethiopia and Djibouti. It connects landlocked Ethiopia with Djibouti’s ports where all of the country’s imports and exports are processed. In future this train line is set to also play a key role for migration in the region.

Military and trade

Despite being small in size, Djibouti is an important military base for international armed forces stationed on the African continent. The only African military base of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is located here. The French have a 1,500-strong presence. Japanese, Chinese, Italian and German personnel are also stationed here: take-offs and landings are strictly timed at this busy military airport in the Horn of Africa. Most US drone missions set off from here and the US also uses Djibouti as a base for some of its interrogation activities as part of the War on Terror.

The Gulf of Aden represents one of the main trade routes between Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. It is also one of the world’s most dangerous maritime routes in terms of the risk of piracy. Over 20,000 cargo ships cross the Gulf every year carrying roughly 95 percent of the volume of goods traded between Africa, Asia and Europe. After Somali pirates realised the potential financial gains, hijackings became commonplace followed by subsequent ransom demands.

In 2008 the EU launched Operation Atlanta to combat such crimes. It was the EU’s first maritime military operation. European ships and aircraft have been in action ever since offering protection to vessels of the World Food Programme (WFP) that are transporting food to refugees and displaced people in Somalia. Vessels transporting military equipment for the African Union (AU) [peacekeeping] Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) also needed protection against piracy. Consequently, there have been no reported pirate attacks in the Gulf since 2015.

When taz enquired about future plans for Atlanta, the German armed forces responded that, “in 2015 EU member states began a major strategic review of all EU missions, which was undertaken following a suggestion made, in part, by the German government“. They added that the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) had since submitted its report to member states. In subsequent consultations, members agreed to “adjust“ forces operating around the Horn of Africa to better handle the threat of piracy which fluctuates depending on local weather conditions (varying during the summer and winter monsoon periods). The army stated that for the German Navy this meant no additional ships would be deployed in the Horn of Africa besides the ‚Bayern’ frigate and the ‘Spessart’ fuel transporter. “This allows us to respond appropriately to the increased demand for maritime support as part of other missions (EUNAVFOR MED) or to meet similar obligations (NATO support in the Aegean),“ the German Armed forces explained.

Coordinating migration policy

Due to the high international military presence in the region, Djibouti has become an important hub for intelligence officials in Africa. It was here that in 2015 a new institution was launched: HISS, the annual meeting of the Heads of Intelligence and Security Services of the countries of the Sahelo-Saharan region. There are currently discussions concerning the creation of an African headquarters as part of the partnership between the EU’s Frontex and Africa’s secret service organisations. Djibouti has been suggested as a possible location.

Djibouti is also key as it serves as headquarters for several African organisations: it is home to the head office of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which represents numerous countries in the Horn of Africa, e.g. Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as Kenya and Uganda. The body was created in the 1980s to reduce conflict and migration caused by drought in the Horn of Africa. To this day, IGAD remains a key partner in peace negotiations in South Sudan and Somalia.

The regional secretariat for ‚Mixed Migration’ (Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat or RMMS) was also founded in Djibouti in 2011. It operates as a research and coordination centre for major regional migration flows and still receives financial support from German and European aid donors. In November 2016 IGAD held a ‘Migration Policy Dialogue’ in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during which member states agreed to the accelerated implementation of the so-called ‚Migration Action Plan’. The ‘Regional Committee for Mixed Migration’ also regularly meets in Djibouti to coordinate the joint action of national governments to deal with the issue of migration. At the meeting held in 2015, the fight against people trafficking and the detention of migrants were the main points on the agenda. The states involved are trying to implement cross-border measures to tackle people smuggling. The summits are funded by the EU.

IGAD is the EU’s main partner in the Horn of Africa, particularly in terms of managing water and food security projects financed through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The EU has earmarked €105 million from the European Development Fund for investment in the country to assist the government in the pursuit of its 'Vision 2035’ national plan, which aims to help grow Djibouti’s middle class.

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