• Laëtitia Romain | Media and Communications Officer, IOM Djibouti

Mahmoud was 18 when he saw the sea for the first time. He recalls how fear overwhelmed him. When he embarked on his journey from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, this young Ethiopian shepherd had no idea he would have to cross a sea. After long days walking from his parents' village along the so-called Eastern Route, Mahmoud arrived in Obock, a coastal town in the north of Djibouti, separated from Yemen by a few kilometres of sea. There he found himself facing the blue waters of the Gulf of Aden.

"Fear gripped me, but I had to overcome that fear and cross that sea to realize my dream: reaching Saudi Arabia and the good life that awaited me there".

His dream had been nurtured by the success stories of compatriots who had worked in Saudi Arabia. "In Ethiopia, no one talks about the difficulties or dangers that might lie ahead on this road. Instead, they focus solely on the achievements of those fortunate enough to secure employment there.” Mahmoud had had been assured of a journey lasting less than ten days, free of obstacles, with job prospects available upon arrival. In April 2024, 90% of migrants interviewed on the Djibouti section of the Eastern route cited economic reasons as their motivation for migration, according to IOM Djibouti Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). 

On the opposite shore of the sea, Mahmoud endured over two and a half years in extremely precarious conditions. He managed to find occasional work in the fields, just enough to afford food. Additionally, he spent substantial amounts of money sent by his family in an attempt to cross the border into Saudi Arabia. After eleven failed attempts, Mahmoud decided to return home. His family supported him in organizing and financing the journey back. Although he felt a sense of shame for not having achieved his goal, the anticipation of reuniting with his closed ones filled him with enthusiasm as the scheduled crossing in April drew near. The first quarter of 2024 saw a significant increase in the numbers of returns from Yemen, with 3 682 migrants incoming from Yemen to Djibouti. This is more than twice the figure over the same period in 2023, according to the DTM.

Mahmoud, a young Ethiopian man who survived the shipwreck of April 24th, off the coast of Djibouti, while he was on his way home from Yemen. Photo: IOM Djibouti 2024/Laëtitia Romain

On the evening of the departure, nearly 80 people were preparing to board a rudimentary boat. Mahmoud says that everyone was scared, having had a bad premonition when they saw the state of the boat and its engine, which had been cobbled together on the spot before their very eyes. "Right from the start, we were very scared", he repeats. "After crossing for a while, the boat hit a rock and stopped. The pilots then declared that we had almost reached Obock, pointing to the lights twinkling in the distance, and told everyone to swim to the shore. Those who tried drowned, as the sea was very deep and Obock was not as close as announced". The shipwreck took place on 22 April 2024 at around two or three in the morning. For more than 8 hours, Mahmoud was one of those who clung on to the boat. He describes with great emotion how, next to him, the most exhausted let go and drowned.

On the same boat was Mohamed, aged 19, who had also decided to return to Ethiopia, after seven months in Yemen. He lost a friend and broke his leg in a car accident while trying to cross the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Mohamed shares, "I spent two days on my own without any help, I couldn't walk, I was in pain, I was thirsty, I was hungry. On the third day, a group of Ethiopians helped me and took me to hospital where I spent a few days. I came out with my leg in plaster and three days later I was on the boat".

Mohamed and Mahmoud, the day before their departure to Ethiopia, as part of an Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration programme. Photo: IOM Djibouti 2024/Laëtitia Romain

The ship and its occupants were adrift near the mangroves of Goddoria. The Djiboutian Coast Guard unit stationed in Khor Anghar swiftly alerted the Search and Rescue department based in Djibouti and started a rescue operation to save as many individuals as possible. Such alerts are typically issued in this manner, or by witnesses of an incident, often fishermen, who call the emergency hotline 1500 - a number accessible to everyone. Lieutenant Youssef Issa Iyeh, head of the Search and Rescue department of the Djiboutian Coast Guard, explains that since its inception in December 2010: "The service has been very active, carrying out a number of rescue operations at sea, particularly for foreign tourists aboard sailboats in distress and migrants who have been victims of shipwrecks." He also stresses the role of the Commander of the Coast Guard, Colonel Wais Omar Bogoreh: "The Commander's constant commitment and efforts to develop this service have enabled us to save thousands of lives and provide assistance to many people in distress at sea." The Search and Rescue department comprises a diverse group of professionals, including women, with expertise in areas such as emergency nursing, lifeguarding and rescue diving.

First-line responders from the Ministry of Health and the IOM Djibouti team promptly joined the operation, providing immediate medical and psychological assistance to the survivors and assisting with the burial of those who did not survive.

Mahmoud and Mohamed were among the thirty-three survivors of the shipwreck that happened on this day, just two weeks after a similar tragedy. The total of dead and missing migrants following those two events amounts to 86 people, including women and children.

The IOM team of the Migration Response Center in Obock, offered Mahmoud, Mohamed and the other survivors protection and psychosocial assistance, as well as medical care, water, meals, and accommodation. Six of them choose to stay for a few days until they could take part to an assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme to Ethiopia. The others wished to continue their journey home right away. Mahmoud explains how he feels guilty for abandoning the life he once led in Ethiopia in pursuit of a hypothetical better future and that he senses he wasted his time living in extreme vulnerability in Yemen. The young man says that when he returns home, he will tell his story and share his experience with those around him, so that the trauma he has experienced can be turned to some useful purpose.

"It's my responsibility to inform others of the reality, the true reality. I will do so not just in my region but wherever I go." 

With the aim of saving lives and protecting people on the move, as per the objective 1 of IOM Strategic Plan, IOM Djibouti currently contributes to support the Djiboutian Coast Guard through a project funded by the Government of Japan and operates the Migration Response Center in Obock thanks to funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the government of France and the government of Norway. This support is aligned to the Regional Migrant Response Plan (MRP) for the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Southern Africa.

SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities