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Djibouti’s Child Migrants: Destitution, deportation and exploitation

Lying at the confluence of Africa and the Arabic Peninsula, Djibouti represents the main transit point for mixed migratory movements towards Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Reports suggest that no less than 200 persons may be crossing the country on a daily basis,[1]  with statistics counting between 80,000 and 100,000 migrants a year.[2] The flux involves thousands of people from Ethiopia, Somalia and to a lesser extent Eritrea, who reach the embarking point of Obock, in the north of Djibouti, and undertake a hazardous boat tourney across the Gulf of Aden.

The movement across Djibouti is essentially mixed and includes: irregular migrants moving to look for economic or education opportunities or a desire to reunite with family members; refugees and asylum seekers; victims of trafficking; and stateless persons living in Horn of Africa countries without recognised citizenship. As the causes behind migration are often multiple and interconnected, a clear distinction among different categories of migrants do not truly represent the variety of push and pull factors impacting the individual decision to move, which can include a mix of persecution, political instability, poverty, resource scarcity, natural disasters, and social expectations.

Djibouti’s hidden migrants

In addition to the high numbers of migrants crossing Djibouti on a daily basis, a much more hidden migration takes place among the country’s desert landscapes. Each year an undetermined number of foreign children arrive by foot, bus or train, pursuing their own migration plans. While some of them follow the main migration route towards the Arabian Peninsula, trying to embark from Obock to cross the Gulf of Aden, the majority cannot afford such trip and remain stranded in the urban and peri-urban areas of the capital city. This heterogeneous group of children, some as young as seven years old, consist mainly of Ethiopian nationals (from the Oromo and Somali region) and in a minor part Somalilanders.

In line with the overall mixed migration context characterising the country, the causes behind child migration in Djibouti are multiple and not mutually exclusive. They include children fleeing from humanitarian crises, droughts or economic difficulties as well as children seeking adventure or responding to pressure from families to seek income. Interviews conducted by the field correspondent on the ground show that they originate from small villages, where they lack education as well as employment opportunities. For many, mobility represents a natural feature of childhood, and duties towards the family can push them to look for income opportunities, particularly in families facing hardships caused by HIV/AIDS, displacement, economic destitution, or loss of a family member. Familial conflict or abuse can also contribute to the decision to leave the household.

The majority of Ethiopian migrant children gather in the city of Dire Dawa and use the train connecting Dire Dawa to Djibouti twice a week, on which they can jump and hide to avoid paying the ticket’s fare. Interestingly, this method is not exclusively used by children with long term plans of migration, but also by others looking for adventure with peers who reach Djibouti and return to Ethiopia after a few days with the following train. During 2014, the rail connection to Ethiopia was interrupted for the construction of a new line and many among this latter group found themselves stuck in Djibouti-ville, with no previous intention of staying there. Eventually, they integrated with other children migrants and started living and looking for income in the streets. Some other children from Somaliland and Ethiopia arrive in Djibouti by bus, paying the regular fare. The latter usually have more structured migration plans, which their families know of and help to sustain.

The many hardships faced by migrant children

Despite their routes and initial means, the majority of children migrants who manage to reach Djibouti face hard times. Being a small country with an unemployment rate of more than 60%,[3]  finding work, even an irregular on informal one, is a challenge for both foreigners and nationals. Additionally, migrant children often lack connections and expertise that favour their hiring. Forced to be self-reliant, they earn erratic incomes from begging, peddling goods, washing cars or shoes and from petty crimes. The street becomes their habitual residence and source of livelihoods so that they are known as “enfants de la rue” (street children) by the local population.

Having left behind key societal institutions such as family, school, village or town communities, children migrants themselves are deprived of any formal source of support and protection. Their life in the street eventually exposes them to violence, abuses and exploitation in brothels or by informal employers. Additionally, substance abuse is widespread among both genders, particularly inhalants (glue, acetone, gasoline), which are cheap and easy to get and help them cope with hunger and lack of sleep.

The pool of street children in Djibouti is not limited to unaccompanied child migrants, but also includes a minority of children living with destitute migrant families or with poor Djiboutian nationals. Despite having different features, all these categories of children live on or off the street, lack birth certificates or identity documents and are considered as “irregular migrants” by the national authorities.

Due to strict immigration policies, children falling in this category are constantly rounded up and imprisoned by the law enforcement officials who patrol the centre-ville areas. When in prison, migrant street children face the same conditions of other detainees, with whom they have to share overcrowded cells, irregular and meagre meals and the absence of sanitary services. Both children and the staff of the main organisation involved in their protection, CARITAS, report abusive behaviour by the law enforcement officials during detention spells, including sexual abuse by the guards. Children are also used to clean the officers’ offices, cars and clothes, and to sell contraband goods among detainees. Like other irregular migrants detained, child migrants face deportation back to Ethiopia across the border just three hours away from Djibouti-ville, where they are left without prior evaluation (or status determination) of their needs. Despite the lack of resources and harsh climatic conditions, it is common for deportees to return by foot or hiding in trucks travelling back to the city.

Apart from new arrivals, cases have been reported of children born and raised in Djibouti forcibly deported at the border because they lack birth certificates. The Djiboutian birth certificate represents the first and fundamental identity document in Djibouti, but is granted through the payment of a sum which is unaffordable for many families of migrants as well as Djiboutian nationals. Without it children are prevented from accessing health services, vaccinations, schools and generally do not have any legal status before the law because they are assumed to be irregular and undocumented foreigners.

Heightened vulnerabilities for female child migrants

Although all migrant street children share these common experiences of lack of protection and general hostility, further information collected in Djibouti suggests additional risks for migrant girls. Being alone in the streets of a Muslim country, they are more likely to be stigmatised as immoral and therefore excluded or worse still exposed to sexual violence. Documented cases among poor migrant families show that while boys are encouraged to go to the street and earn a living, girls are expected to stay inside to help with the housework, take care of siblings or other family members. When they start developing friendships with other street girls or spending time in the street, they face accusation of being prostitutes and are rejected from the household. As a consequence, migrant girls in the street are particularly stigmatised and violence towards them by other migrants, nationals or law enforcement officials is more easily justified.

Gaps in national mechanisms protecting child migrants

Djibouti is a signatory of many international instruments designed to protect children. It has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been part of Djiboutian law since its domestication in 1990. While active efforts are being made by the Government to improve the education of children as well as rescue and support orphans, migrant street children are largely excluded from these interventions and so remain extremely vulnerable. This is exacerbated by the absence of national frameworks and procedures devoted to their protection which further erodes their basic rights as children and migrants. Finally, the punitive practices of law enforcement officials add to a climate of violence and hostility, impeding the protection assessments by aid organisations.


[1] UNHCR Global Trend Report, 2012.www.unhcr.org/globaltrendsjune2013/UNHCR%20GLOBAL%20TREND%202012_V08_web.pdf

[2] See for example: IOM News (5 February 2014) “Djibouti Government receives equipment to boost rescue at sea capacity” http://www.iom.int/cms/en/sites/iom/home/news-and-views/press-briefing-notes/pbn-2013/pbn-listing/djibouti-government-receives-equ.html

[3] CIA World Factbook, Djibouti, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/dj.html

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.