Almost every day, the mobile unit operated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) traverses the Obock region in Djibouti, scouting for migrants facing exhaustion and dehydration.

Temperatures here can easily reach 50 degrees and take their toll on migrants on foot. They are mainly Ethiopian and would be coming from Yemen, unable to proceed to Saudi Arabia, their intended destination, due to border closures and movement restrictions imposed as part of efforts to contain COVID-19. Most are young and are motivated by the desire to secure employment.

In the wake of COVID-19, some migrants were held in Yemen – a key transit location on the other side of the Gulf of Aden - while others were under the sway of smugglers or were sleeping rough in cities without the most basic means of survival. Without the possibility of making it to Saudi Arabia, stranded migrants who travelled through Djibouti to reach Yemen started making the reverse dangerous journey.

The boat passage from Aden to the Djibouti’s coastal region in Obock usually takes place in the middle of the night and costs 5,000-7,000 Birr (135-189 USD). As the migrants reach their destination, they are dropped off - not on the coast - but away from it. This is the smugglers’ way of managing the risk of detention and capture by the authorities.

The luckiest migrants will be brought close enough to waddle through the shallows. The others will have to swim to the coast, sometimes for several hours.

On the coast, an off-road vehicle waits for those who can pay to be transported to the city. The others will have to walk the 50km that separates them from Obock city.

In this unforgiving desert the high temperatures often cause fatalities. Dr. Moussa Youssouf, who leads the mobile unit, explains that a few minutes can make the difference between whether a migrant lives or dies, hence being able to locate them quickly is critical to their rescue.

Because the desert is vast, migrants can easily walk in the opposite direction and get lost. From reading footprints on the ground, to questioning local residents or members of the military  stationed at the Obock lighthouse, IOM staff mobilise all possible means to locate migrants who are likely to need assistance.

Migrants are usually spotted by being part of small groups – their main defensive mechanism as they venture into the unknown. The journey to and from Yemen is perilous and everyone recognises the danger they face. The slowest will be left behind while the fastest will hang pieces of clothing on the sparse bushes available to assist in locating them when they return with help.

The situation becomes even more complicated during the rainy season when the desert turns into lakes, making accessibility impossible for several days.

A pregnant woman carrying an eight-month-old baby was trapped for seven days on the Gaherre beach, unable to get help. She survived by drinking from the puddles of rainwater but her baby was not so lucky.

Until mid-October, migrants who made it through were housed at the government-run Masagara centre. But this has been closed and migrants are now housed in the IOM-run Migration Response Centre (MRC). IOM teams have been on hand throughout, distributing food as well as personal hygiene items, shoes and clothing.

The migrants at Masagara were mobilized to bury bodies found in the desert or washed up on the beach during the night of 3 October, 2020, when eight fellow Ethiopians out of the 34 who were dropped off the coast of Obock drowned. Barely 10 days later, another 12 migrants drowned in similar circumstances.

In the face of tragedy, migrants in the Masagara site volunteered to participate in the burial and worked until late at night.

From July to September, 2,319 migrants (1,937 men and 382 women) including 162 children were assisted through the mobile unit in the Obock region.

The unit is supported by the European Union through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa. The programme also funds the MRC, an open centre where migrants in distress are accommodated and assisted.

 About the EU-IOM Joint Initiative

Launched in December 2016 and funded by the European Union (EU) Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the programme brings together 26 African countries of the Sahel and Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa, the EU and IOM around the goal of ensuring that migration is safer, more informed and better governed for both migrants and their communities.

For more information please contact: Stephanie Daviot at IOM Djibouti, Tel: +25321352459, email:; or the IOM Regional Office in Nairobi: Julia Hartlieb, Tel: +254734988846, email: and Wilson Johwa, Tel:  +254204221112, email: