Africans brave dangerous water crossing to Yemen, in hopes of a better life

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 4:28 PM

OBOCK, DJIBOUTI - They had walked for 10 days, across mountains and barren plains. In their hands, some carried small backpacks and yellow cans filled with water. In their minds, they carried the hopes of their relatives back in Ethiopia.

"We are running away from poverty," said Mohammed Said, 17. "We want to go to Yemen to send money back to our families. They are counting on us."

Said and 30 other young Ethiopians, including six women, crouched on the hard soil. Djiboutian border authorities had stopped them on a recent day in order to speak with a visiting U.N. delegation. Djiboutians consider such people illegal migrants, but they only occasionally enforce the law, especially if the migrants are passing through to another country.

Less than a mile away, the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Aden shimmered in the sun. Two boatloads of Somali refugees had left the day before, the latest exodus of large numbers of African migrants - mostly Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans - who leave from Djibouti's coast to Yemen virtually every week.

Each Ethiopian had scraped together $100 for the boat ride; many had taken collections from their relatives. Thieves had robbed some of them. None of them carried passports or any other travel documents.

Now, they were waiting for dusk. That's when they hoped the smugglers would arrive with their boats along the beach and take them on the two-day journey to Yemen, the Middle East's poorest country, wracked by multiple crises.

"Are you fully aware of the dangers?" asked Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, looking at the group, who were all Muslim.

"We know the risks," replied Abdullahi Ibrahim, 28. "But we are escaping hunger. If we had enough to eat, do you think we would leave our mothers, brothers and sisters?"

"Do you have food?" Guterres asked.

"We have no water or food," Ibrahim said.

"Do you know when the people will come to take you to Yemen?" Guterres asked.

"We paid the money, but we don't know when they are coming to take us," replied Idriss Mohammed Adam, 20.

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