Ali Sabieh, Djibouti – Halima, well into her sixties, was forced to leave her village in Jigjija in Ethiopia’s Somali region, because of the exceptionally severe drought currently ravaging parts of the Horn of Africa. At her age, she said, she had to leave her lifelong home for the first time.
Crossing an international border, arriving in neighbouring Ali Sabieh in Djibouti, after walking many kilometres through dense mountains, was an experience she had never imagined she would go through.
She was accompanied by family members and neighbours of a similar age, with one fellow woman in the group well into her seventies.
“Ten years ago, when the big drought hit, we [elder women] stayed home. But the current drought in Jigjiga, which began two years ago, has gotten worse this year. So, this time, for the first time in our lives, we had no choice but to move, while our husbands stayed behind to look after our land.”
Halima and her group explained that it is uncommon for older women to migrate because most come from and live in rural villages, and have no knowledge of big cities, how to move and where to go.
Many have never left the villages they were born in, let alone Ethiopia. Traditionally, older women stay home during times of crisis, while migration is left to men and the young. But this time, even the elderly have been forced to be brave and move. “This is the first time that we are migrating. We are the first in our village to come to Djibouti,” Halima said.
“From Jigjiga, we travelled to Dire Dawa by car, then we walked through the mountains from Dire Dawa to Guelileh. It was a difficult journey – we had broken shoes, no food, no water and no money.”
Lately, local authorities have reported the increasing presence of women and girls arriving in the south of Djibouti from Ethiopia.
Localities in these areas, among which Ali Sabieh, usually serve as a transit stop along the Eastern Route (mainly for Ethiopian migrants of Oromo and Amhara ethnicity) but are now also becoming a place where many migrants are stranded and decide to settle and look for economic opportunities.
Without the language barrier, it becomes much easier for Ethiopian migrants from the Somali region to receive support from the Djiboutian host population. They also strongly rely on the established networks of Ethiopian-Somali migrants who have integrated into the community thanks to a shared culture and religion.
“We are not really looking for jobs here. We are planning to seek the help of the local community until we can return to Ethiopia.”
In a town like Ali Sabieh, younger migrant women are more likely to be employed as domestic workers. Older migrant women, like Halima, struggle to find work, which explains why they may resort to begging to get by.
“The community lets us sleep under their porch, but we sleep on the floor and in the cold. We were only given small mats for the babies,” she described.
Little official data are available on the experiences and challenges faced by older persons on the move, not only in the East and Horn of Africa region but globally as well. In 2020, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated the presence of 325,000 international migrants older than 60 years in the region, representing 5 per cent of the regional immigrant population (6.2 million).
Older women, like Halima, are considered vulnerable for many reasons. Economic and health factors, as well as the presence of children and grandchildren, often limit their ability to move.
However, Halima and her group are living examples of “active ageing,” demonstrating that older persons are not necessarily passive agents of change or burdens to society. These women are harnessing the power of old age to combat drought and make the right decisions in order to survive.
Ethiopia is in the grip of its worst drought in four decades and the Somali region is one of the most drought-prone areas in the country. High levels of displacements and livestock losses have been recorded over the past two years.
Affected communities have thus been left to take desperate measures to survive in the face of drought. Halima prays the drought will be over soon.
IOM, with the support of the Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission (ECHO), is monitoring cross-border migratory dynamics and assessing the humanitarian needs of displaced populations in Djibouti, including in drought-affected areas. IOM and ECHO are looking at expanding life-saving and protection activities in the southern regions of the country.