Returning Home to Safety:Surviving Seven Days in the Hands of Smugglers 

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Halima* survived a deadly ordeal after crossing from Ethiopia to Somalia, trying to reach the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in search of work. Photo: IOM 2023/Kaye Viray

Tog-wachale, 21 August 2023 – “The promise sounded too good to be true, travelling from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia for work, but I just went with it. They said it will only be for seven days. Now, seven days later, I have three bullet wounds in my body and am nowhere near where I intended,” narrates Halima*, a student from Arsi, Oromia Region of Ethiopia.  

Like many Ethiopians searching for better work opportunities, Halima was lured to embark on a deadly journey from Ethiopia to the Gulf countries through Somalia, across Yemen, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries through what is often referred to as the Eastern Migration Route. She had no idea about the insecurity and the conflict situations in the neighbouring countries making up this route.

Halima’s week-long ordeal began after she left her hometown and travelled to Harar, some 660 kilometres away. She knew it was too late to turn back when the smuggler that her friend had recommended crammed over 150 people into a truck. With a mix of hope and fear, she hopped on the vehicle and crossed the Ethiopia-Somalia border through the town of Tog-wachale.  

“Days of driving felt like weeks. We had nothing to eat and very little to drink. Things worsened when a gunfight began between the smugglers and unknown armed men. This caused our vehicle to lose control and roll over,” says Halima.

“It all happened so fast. The next thing I knew, I was bleeding from my hand, my hips and the sides of my breast.”

Knowing that payments won’t be made if the migrants on the truck do not make it to the next drop-off point in Somalia, the smuggler tried to convince them to return to the truck. Halima, who had been shot multiple times, escaped together with other migrants after the accident. 

Wounded, hungry and exhausted, Halima and the other migrants had escaped and continued to walk in search of help. Luckily, after hours of walking, they encountered a vehicle, and the driver agreed to take them back to the Ethiopian border. She was eventually brought to the IOM Migration Response Centre (MRC) back in Tog-wachale, at the Ethiopia-Somalia border, where she was immediately provided with medical assistance.

Migrants as young as 15 years old find themselves seeking support at IOM’s Migration Response Centre in Tog-wachale. Photo: IOM 2023/Kaye Viray

The MRC in Tog-wachale, a key transit town situated 17 kilometres from Ethiopia’s border with Somalia, plays a vital role for thousands of migrants from Ethiopia trying to reach the Gulf countries through Somalia. The centre complements the efforts of the Government of Ethiopia by responding to the lifesaving needs of migrants in vulnerable situations either at the MRC or through referral to partners. The migrants also receive longer-term assistance in their communities of origin.

Since 2019, the MRC in Tog-wachale has supported over 3,700 migrants, most of whom are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. IOM runs a total of five MRCs in Ethiopia situated along key migration routes, where they fill critical gaps by facilitating the identification of migrants in vulnerable situations and ensuring that they receive much-needed humanitarian assistance.

IOM’s Migration Response Centre in Tog-wachale is moving to bigger premises to meet the growing needs of migrants seeking support in the area. Photo: IOM 2023/Kaye Viray

“An estimated 148,000 Ethiopians migrated, mostly irregularly, using the Eastern Route, in search of better employment opportunities, in 2022 alone. Many of them are exposed to violence, exploitation, and abuse at various stages of their journey and require urgent response and longer-term support,” says Bawele Tchalim, Programme Manager on Migration Protection, IOM Ethiopia.

For now, Halima is focused on getting better. She considers herself lucky for having survived the ordeal.

“My priority now is to heal. I will not advise any of my peers to do what I did. When I’m better, I will go home, try to go back to school and look for safer opportunities,” she says. 

IOM’s humanitarian assistance and protection services in response to the needs of the returnees are aligned with the Regional Migrant Response Plan (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, 2022. The MRP aims to address the needs of migrants in vulnerable situations and host communities in countries situated along the Eastern Migration Route, located between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. 

IOM’s response to the Eastern Migration Corridor falls under the umbrella of the Regional Migrant Response Plan (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen. This is a response mechanism that brings together humanitarian partners to respond and address the needs of migrants in the region. The Migrant Response Centres (MRCs) are one of the services provided for migrants under the MRP. Without urgent funding towards IOM’s central role in the MRP, which is further elaborated in the Migrant Response Plan for the Horn of Africa and Yemen 2023, these services face imminent closure. The appeal is for USD 84 million to respond to these needs.

*Halima’s name was changed in this story due to sensitivities.

This story is written by Kaye Viray, Media and Communications Officer, IOM Ethiopia

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