If France has somehow neglected Djibouti for a decade, in the last few years the European Union as a whole has been interested in the Horn of Africa Republic at least from a strategic point of view.
The vessels taking part in the EU first joint naval mission, the anti-piracy operation EUNAVFOR Atalanta, are in fact using French and US facilities in the country, while two other international operations (NATO’s Ocean Shield and the Combined Task Force 151) and several ‘independent’ navies (including China’s) are engaged in the same task. The impact of the anti-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean cannot be underestimated from multiple points of view: first of all they were undeniably instrumental in bringing the phenomenon to an end, with the number of seized vessels declining from 47 (with more than 200 attempts) in 2010 to zero (with just 23 attempts) three years later. In another plan the simultaneous presence of different missions in the same area has led to various effects that a 2013 Chatam House report already registered.
‘In a largely unplanned, incremental manner, Djibouti has become a laboratory for new forms of military and naval cooperation among and beyond NATO and EU forces’, the document read. ‘Anti-piracy missions – it also specified – have acted as a catalyst for a deepening array of cooperation initiatives, in turn enhancing the strategic importance of Djibouti at the intersection of the Bab al-Mandab, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean routes’. From the increased Chinese presence, to the expansion of Japanese civil aid and international cooperation programmes, the unintended consequences of Djibouti’s indirect role in piracy contrast have been quite beneficial to the country and in some way even to the international relations between some of the world’s most powerful political actors. However, military and commercial vessels are not the only ships sailing in Djibouti territorial waters: the migrants’ makeshift boats, even if less impressive in size, are also present in large numbers.
The Horn of Africa country has been for many years a key junction in one of the migratory routes used by Ethiopian and Somali nationals to leave their countries in search of a better life. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures, in 2012, three in four of the 107,500 migrants and refugees registered by the United Nations in Yemen had used Djibouti as a transit point, and their number remained between 80,000 and 100,000 until the Yemen war broke out. Some of them were undeterred by the conflict and in 2015 an average 150 people per day managed to take to the sea, aiming for the Arabian peninsula. Nevertheless, they represented only 38% of the total influx into the Horn of Africa country. About one in two migrants (which means approximately 73,000), on the other hand, were returned to the border by national authorities.
Not everyone entering the country leaves it in a short time, however: that’s why, in addition to Obock (the region in which they regroup in order to cross the Gulf of Aden), Tadjourah is one of the areas where the presence of migrants is higher. Here, many of them work as housekeepers, guards, gardeners or transporters, in order to collect the money they need to continue their journey. As in many other cases in the world, human traffickers and smugglers profited from migration and Djibouti also became a hub for this illicit activity, which is an important concern to the international community. This is mainly due to local laws, first enacted in 2007 and amended in 2011, widely regarded as inadequate in their application. In 2014, for instance, the government reported the conviction of just one trafficker, a woman who forced three foreign women migrants to work for her after she smuggled them into the country: despite receiving a 24-month sentence, she never served it, because it was suspended.
In the last few months Djibouti has also been confronted with another issue, involving migrants, because the war in Yemen hasn’t only changed things for those leaving Djibouti: the whole country has been actually affected by the conflict, although in an indirect way. As fighting between the rival factions intensified with the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in support of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, many Djiboutians fled the war-torn country, returning to their homeland, and Yemenis soon followed. According to the latest figures, more than 31,000 people in total arrived in Djibouti since the end of March 2015, and only 6% of them were classified as returnees, while another 38% are transiting migrants. So, the small republic still has to cope with more than half the migrants, Yemeni nationals, for whom this is the closest place to their home country. At the end of January, just a little more than 3,100 of them were living in the Markazi camp, which was already considered almost full in November, when it hosted 2,600 people. The remainder are in Obock and Djibouti city, where their scarce resources are dwindling: so, the priority for both categories becomes receiving quick and adequate assistance. (Y.L.)