Published August 1st, 2020 - written by: Simone Schlindwein

Small but strategically important

This country, in the Horn of Africa, has traditionally been a corridor between Africa and Asia. Today it is the most important military base on the continent of Africa, and is important for Europe also.

Djibouti is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Its strategic importance is in part due to its location -located at the far tip of the Horn of Africa. With its huge harbor located on the Gulf of Aden, it is considered a transit country par excellence. For thousands of years, people have been migrating here from the African continent across the sea gate to the Arabian Peninsula and on to Asia.

According to the local police, around 300 African migrants reach the Djibouti border every day, most of whom are Ethiopians. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the number at around 20,000 a month, and at the beginning of 2019 counted around 17,000 migrants in Djibouti  ̶  but for the migrants themselves the tip of the Horn is usually a transit corridor.

It is safe to assume that this migration flow ceased during the civil war in Yemen, which broke out in 2015. However, according to the regional think tank Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), which specifically collects migration data and analyzes sources for the Horn of Africa, 2016 was a record year for migration across the Gulf of Aden: more than 120,000 people reached the Yemeni coast. According to RMMS migration specialist Bram Frouws, 85 percent of those arriving are Ethiopian, 98 percent of them belong to the Oromo ethnic group, and the rest are Eritreans and Somali. In 2018, a total of 99,000 Africans embarked for Yemen. In 2019 there was a total of around 75,000 in May. The numbers increase annually  despite the turmoil of war. For comparison: in 2013 there were only 65,000 in the entire year.

Recent estimates show that around 3,000 migrants drowned on the crossing to Yemen in 2018. The war in Yemen made landing on the coast there even more risky; in January 2019, militiamen fired from the Land at a boat with migrants and killed 30 people,in 2017, a boat was shot from a helicopter and 130 people died.

Yemen is also just a transit country for migrants, they are mostly looking for work in the rich oil countries of Arabia. It is estimated that a significant proportion of migrant workers are victims of human traffickers who specifically hire cheap labor for the Gulf States. Reports of brutal abuse of African migrant workers on construction sites in Saudi Arabia or of African nannies have been widely published by international human rights organizations.

One reason for the uncontrolled migration movement is, according to Frouws, the near-total insecurity of  the coast during the war. “It is not easy to explain why the numbers are increasing. We have definitely not seen a decline over the course of the war so far,” said Frouws. Only in November 2016, as part of a voluntary return initiative, did the International Organization for Migration (IOM) save over 600 migrants from the chaos of war and bring them back to Djibouti. IOM has set up a transit center in Obock for those migrants who opt to return to their home country instead of risking the crossing to Yemen. UNHCR and IOM facilitate the return trip, but the transit center only has capacity for 250 people.

Migration movements from and to Djibouti

Since Yemen has been undergoing  civil war, people from Yemen have themselves fled across the sea to Djibouti. According to the UNHCR, more than 40,000 Yemenis have fled to Djibouti since 2015, and they now represent the largest group arriving. According to the UNHCR, 15,000 have been resettled in the United States in recent years, and160 Somali have returned to their homes voluntarily

In comparison, the population of Djibouti is just 900,000, according to 2013 World Bank data;  only around 15,000 people from Djibouti live outside their country, most of them in France  (the former colonial power) others in Ethiopia, and a small percentage in Algeria and Canada. Migrants from Djibouti have hardly appeared in the relatively comprehensive migration statistics on theMediterranean-Europe crossing in recent years. In 2015, just 305 asylum seekers from Djibouti were registered across the EU. Half were rejected and deported.

According to UNHCR and ONARS data, in 2018 the microstate offered official protection to around 29,000 refugees. Around 10,000 of these have applied for asylum, 21,000 live in refugee camps, the two largest of which ̶  Ali-Adeh and Holl Holl  ̶  are close to the Somali border in the south of the country. Somalis and Yemenis are currently automatically granted asylum in Djibouti. Applications from Ethiopians, Eritreans and others are examined individually. Most migrant workers who are in transit live in the metropolitan areas along the coast, in the port cities of Obok or Djibouti. Many Yemenis also live there. They typically don’t want to register as refugees in the camps, instead opting to settle in the cities at their own expense

In Djibouti, a new refugee law came into force in 2017, which is based on the refugee framework agreements developed by the United Nations and provides for the integration of refugees in health and education systems.

Djibouti's coast guard is saving more people than ever before. In January 2019, however, two boats full of migrants sank at the coast. According to IOM, who are heavily involved in coast guard training in Djibouti, over 50 people died in the two incidents.  In October 2016, the first train connection for passenger and freight traffic between Ethiopia and Djibouti was inaugurated, connecting the interior of Ethiopia with the coastal port in Djibouti where all imports and exports are handled. This 12-hour train connection will inevitably have implications for migration in the future.

Military and trade

As small as Djibouti is, it is an important military base for armed forces from all over the world on the African continent: The US Command for Africa (AFRICOM) operates the only military base on the continent there. France is on site with 1,500 soldiers, as are Japan, China, Italy and Germany. Take-off and landing processes are strictly scheduled at the busy military airport on the Horn. The United States fly most of their drone missions from there and maintain interrogation centers for their “fight against terror”.

The main trading route between Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia runs through the Gulf of Aden  ̶  at the same time it is one of the world's most vulnerable to piracy. More than 20,000 cargo tankers pass the Gulf every year. They carry around 95 percent of the trade volume between Africa, Asia and Europe. After pirates from Somalia discovered these ships as capital gains, there were repeated kidnappings and extortions of ransom.

In contrast, the EU Operation Atalanta mission was launched in 2008 as the first maritime task force in the European Union (EU). Since then, European ships and planes have been protecting the World Food Program (WFP) transports that deliver food to refugees and displaced people in Somalia. The arms transports of the African Union Peacekeeping Mission (AU) in Somalia (AMISOM) also had to be secured against piracy. There has been no pirate attack in the Gulf since 2015.

“In 2015, the EU member states also underwent a comprehensive strategic review of the EU missions at the suggestion of the German government,” the Bundeswehr explained in 2016, when asked how things would go with Atalanta in the future. The European External Action Service presented its report to the member states. In the subsequent deliberations, it was agreed to “adapt” the forces in the Horn of Africa to the seasonal weather-related fluctuations (summer and winter monsoons) of the piracy threat. For the German Navy, this means that after the frigate “Bavaria” and the fuel transporter “Spessart”, no other ship would be used in the Horn of Africa. “In this way, we also take into account the increased need for maritime capabilities for other missions (EUNAVFOR MED) or commitments with the same mission (NATO support in the Aegean),” explains the Bundeswehr. The Bundestag last decided on May 9th2019 to continue German participation in Atalanta until May 31st 2020 with an upper limit of 400 soldiers.

Coordination of migration policies

Due to the international military presence, Djibouti is considered an important meeting point for intelligence officers in Africa. In 2015, an institution was established: the annual conference of the heads of all secret services in Africa, HISS. In the course of the partnership between the EU agency Frontex and African secret services, there is talk of establishing an African headquarters, and Djibouti is being discussed as its potential location.

Djibouti already holds importance as the headquarters of African organizations: it is the headquarters of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in which the countries in the Horn of Africa such as Somalia and Ethiopia, but also Kenya and Uganda, are represented. The association was founded in the 1980s to counter the conflicts and migration movements resulting from the drought in the Horn of Africa. Currently, IGAD is involved in peace negotiations in South Sudan and Somalia.

The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) was also established in Djibouti in 2011. It was established as a research and coordination center for the strong regional migration movements and is still funded by German and European donors to this day. In November 2016, IGAD held a “Dialogue for Migration Policy” in Uganda's capital Kampala, in which the member states had agreed to implement the so-called “Migration Action Plan” with greater haste. The “Regional Committee for Mixed Migration” also meets regularly in Djibouti to coordinate the cooperation between the state governments on migration: the 2015 annual meeting focused on combating human trafficking and the internment of migrants. The states are endeavoring to take cross-border measures to combat smugglers. The summits are funded by the EU.

Cooperation with NGOs and international organizations

For the EU, IGAD is the crucial partner organization in the Horn of Africa, especially with its projects in the field of water and food security financed by the EU-Africa Emergency Aid Trust Fund. From the EU development fund EDF, the EU is investing 105 million euros in the country for the period of 2014 to 2020 in order to support the government in pushing ahead with its national “Vision 2035” plan, which is to promote Djibouti to a medium-sized country.

The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) has trained over 40 civil society NGOs in Djibouti as part of the EU's Better Migration Management Project (BMM). It is coordinated in close collaboration with the AU and IGAD commission. The central aspects are the protection and support of migrants, especially women and minors, who are often the victims of violent attacks and rape along migration routes. The development of migration policy, legal and police know-how within the framework of the BMM is intended to curb human trafficking and smuggling in the region. With BMM funds, an electronic visa system was introduced and the corresponding software was installed at the Djibouti International Airport. An online platform was launched in April 2019, through which foreigners and tourists can apply for e-visas. With the support of BMM, the first postgraduate “Migration” diploma course in the region started in May 2019. The course aims to turn key players in IGAD member countries into experts in migration and border management.

With the help of international donors, including the federal government, in 2019 the second largest refugee camp in Holl Holl was fully equipped with renewable energy. Free electricity from solar energy is supposed to help refugees start small businesses, charge phones and cook. Until this change the camp was powered by diesel generators.

Djibouti is one of 26 project countries of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, through which voluntary returnees have been supported with funds from the EU Trust Fund for Africa since 2016.

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