As the child protection focal point, Kadija is almost always surrounded by children, at the IOM-run Migration Response Centre (MRC) in Obock, Djibouti.
The centre usually hosts around 200 migrants per month. The numbers are often higher in the summer months (June to August) when the debilitating heat and choppy seas in Djibouti are most likely to prompt migrants to seek assistance.
At the centre, migrants are supported with food, shelter and hygiene items, along with medical and psycho-social assistance, referrals and information.
So far in 2021, the largest numbers of migrant children at MRC Obock were in January when 99 were registered, followed by 82 in June and 64 in March. Around 87 per cent of all children registered in Obock this year were unaccompanied minors and most were 15 to 17 years old (72% of all children). The majority (86%) of registered children were boys.
Kadija is responsible for ensuring that all migrants’ immediate needs and protection concerns are addressed including facilitating their return and reunification with their parents and guardians through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return programme.
MRC Obock is positioned to assist migrants stranded on the Eastern Migratory route which runs from the Horn of Africa to the Arab Peninsula and encompasses one of the busiest maritime crossings in the world. The route is used overwhelmingly by migrants from landlocked Ethiopia.
To get to Djibouti, migrants use whatever means they can – including buses, trains, hitch-hiking and walking long distances through the Djiboutian desert. Once they reach Obock, migrants use boats to transport migrants across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and onward to the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia. Their aim is to look for jobs as house maids and construction workers, among others.
The journey is filled with challenges, and the risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. Death from dehydration can also occur as a result of the hot and humid climate.
About one in 10 of those using this route is a child. Some are as young as 12 and often move without their parents’ knowledge or consent. They are often unaware of the challenges they may face, particularly being exploited, abused and neglected. There is also the risk of being separated from family members during the journey.
It takes an average of 12 days to get from Ethiopia to Obock, where migrants may wait for days until smugglers have arranged for their boat transfer. COVID-19 has resulted in movement restrictions in Yemen.
Little prepared, exhausted and traumatized by the hardships of the journey and the conflict in Yemen, migrants may return by boat to Djibouti where they usually seek assistance at the Obock MRC – one of eight MRCs in the East and Horn of Africa.
Migrants go to the MRC voluntarily. Many of them will have been rescued by IOM’s mobile patrol unit that searches the desert in the Obock region, looking to assist migrants in difficulties.
In 2020 alone, 3,302 migrants were assisted at MRC Obock. The centre was commissioned in 2011. It is so busy that only the most vulnerable can be received – largely due to the need to maintain social distance protocols in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure that all migrants requesting MRC services are provided with much-needed and - very often - life-saving assistance, migrants are allowed to freely occupy a section outside the MRC perimeter from where they are still provided with shelter, food, water and other support.
A planned expansion of the MRC will cover various areas and is meant to improve the migrants experience.
Kadija is taking her work in stride. Among her responsibilities is collecting information on each child, including its parents and guardian’s address and other contact details, paving the way for family tracing and reunification for vulnerable cases.
This is a process in which the Ethiopian embassy in Djibouti is involved, along with colleagues at IOM Ethiopia. In the first six months of 2021, nearly 3,000 children voluntarily returned to Ethiopia where they re-united their families and were assisted by IOM to re-enroll back in school.
Funding for IOM’s work in Obock is provided by the European Union through three projects: ‘Durable Solutions for Host Populations, Refugees and Migrants in Djibouti’, the ‘EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa’ and ‘Direct Assistance to Vulnerable Migrants Transiting Through the Northern Parts of the Migration Corridor in Djibouti’, funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).
Story by Wilson Johwa