Assistance for Stranded Migrants in the Horn of Africa

Migrants walking through Djibouti. Many of them are hoping to cross the Gulf of Aden for Yemen and eventually the Arabian Peninsula.

Mohamed, newly-arrived from Libya, recalls how he ended up stuck in a detention centre not long after leaving home.

“I felt there were no job opportunities and I expected to get a job once I was abroad,” he says, speaking during a panel discussion for returnees in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Amran, an earnest 23-year-old present at the same event, had suffered a fate similar to Mohamed’s. She opens up about the violence she lived through, also in a Libyan detention centre, after leaving home with the help of smugglers.

“In prison, we were beaten and held for ransom. We had to call our families and ask them for money to be released,” Amran explains.

Like young people in many other African countries, young Somalis keen on the prospect of a better life in neighbouring countries and abroad often fall for the promises of a better future and wind up in difficult situations. However, as the spotlight falls on those emigrating, there is less focus on those left behind or those who get stranded in transit or destination countries.

During the panel discussion one community member stresses: “These young men and women not only leave empty spaces in the local economy, but also often require parents — as well as family and community members — to contribute towards the ransom payments required to free them from detention.”

Khadra experienced this first hand when, on the last day of school before the holidays, her son Hamad did not come back home. She had given him money in the morning to buy new clothes but by evening he had not returned.

At first, she thought Hamad might have been involved in an accident, but three days later Hamad’s friends finally broke the silence and told her that he had gone to Libya on tahriib — as irregular migration is called in Somaliland.

“I was shocked and cried for days after I heard he left for Libya,” Khadra recalls.

Hamad eventually got in touch with his mother after being forced to call for ransom payments. Worried about his well-being, Khadra was able to pay, thanks to the generosity of family and friends.

“I was so happy to see him back and cried again, this time for joy,” says Khadra, referring to the moment she got her son back.

Mohamed, Amran and Khadra’s journeys home were supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), under the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration (the Joint Initiative. Launched in December 2016 with funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), the EU-IOM Joint Initiative is the first comprehensive programme to save lives, protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. The Joint Initiative covers and closely cooperates with 26 African countries in the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa. The programme was introduced in the Horn of Africa (HoA) in March 2017.

Hamad and his mother, Khadra

Priority countries under the Joint Initiative in the HoA are Djibouti, Sudan, Somali, and Ethiopia — most nationals on the move in the region come from these four countries. The African Union estimates that only 20 percent of migrants actually leave the African continent, although the numbers of those going abroad or headed to southern Africa are significant.

IOM Ethiopia Chief of Mission Maureen Achieng says building state capacity remains a core element of the Joint Initiative, adding: “Given the progress on implementation thus far, I am confident that the capacity enhancement needs of the government of Ethiopia on matters of return and sustainable reintegration continue to be greatly improved.”

Achieng, who is also IOM’s representative to the AU, IGAD, and UNECA, further states: “It is also important to note that the Joint Initiative reinforces ongoing initiatives of the African Union to build the capacities of its member states in this and other broader areas of migration governance.”

Under the Joint Initiative programme, assistance is tailor-made for returning migrants seeking to restart their lives in their countries of origin. This is done through an integrated approach that supports both migrants and their communities have the potential to complement local development and mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration.

A returnee who was assisted by the Joint Initiative to set up a small business

Typically, the Joint Initiative assists those that are stranded as they travel to or find a hostile reception in the transit and intended destination countries. Those that approach IOM for help can be also offered psychosocial support to overcome any sense of shame associated with their return and to re-establish themselves in their communities.

Assistance by the Joint Initiative is purely voluntary and without obligations. “The programme does not seek to influence migrants on whether to emigrate or not to emigrate, but advocates for safe migration while offering return assistance to those who might need it,” says IOM’s Senior Regional Programme Coordinator Julia Hartlieb.

The Joint Initiative also works through migration response centres (MRCs) — open facilities operated by IOM to assist migrants in difficulty. There are several such centres, the latest one was opened at Gadaref, Sudan, in March 2019.

At these centres migrants receive primary health care, psychosocial counseling, and support to obtain travel documents, along with information on return and reintegration assistance.

In January 2019, a shipwreck off the Djibouti coast resulted in the death of 52 migrants, mainly from Ethiopia, with 16 surviving. The MRC in Obock that handled much of the assistance to them and to others. In the aftermath of the tragedy, many more migrants approached IOM seeking assistance to return home, according to IOM Djibouti Chief of Mission Lalini Veerassamy.

The Joint Initiative in the HoA is looking to set up hotlines to boost the chances of reaching migrants in distress. The programme is also working through partnerships with governments, civil society organizations, and UN partners alike. For example, in Ethiopia, the government has developed and adopted a Reintegration Directive for the smooth and coordinated reintegration of returnees in the country. The Joint Initiative is collaborating with the government to develop a Standard Operating Procedure to bring the directive to life.

In Djibouti, IOM worked with the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs on a study of migrant street children and has sought to encourage the government to take action to address their particular needs. The Joint Initiative also works with Caritas Internationalis and SOS Children’s Village in Djibouti. Other partnerships in the region including with the National Commission for Refugees and IDPs, UNDP and UNHCR in Somalia; the Secretariat for Sudanese Working Abroad; Save the Children and several local in Ethiopia.

Among those who are back home and not looking back is Fatuma, a young Ethiopian, who is now running a retail shop, set up with the assistance of the Joint Initiative.

“I faced hardships and hostilities while I was in Libya. I witnessed people being killed in front of me,” she says. “The person I was working for refused to pay me, instead he kept on beating me, beating me hard, not even donkeys are beaten this hard in my home town.”

For a long time, Fatuma had wanted to return home but did not know how. She then heard from other migrants about the IOM office. She says she was lucky to have written down her passport number before it was taken away by the broker that helped her get to Libya.

Like Fatuma, most migrants seeking IOM support to return from transit and destination countries in Africa do not have valid travel documents; facilitating access to consular services for stranded and vulnerable migrants is an essential step in protecting migrants in vulnerable situations. For migrants in difficulties, the programme can offer a rare chance to survive, return home, recuperate and start again.


The story was written by Wilson Johwa, Communications Officer at IOM’s Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa in Nairobi. Felix Volkmar contributed to this story.