A young Somali's long journey to safety in South Africa

Telling the Human Story, 2 September 2010

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
A young Somali man welcomes newly arrived asylum-seeker, Adam Osman Abdile (left), to the Mayfair neighbourhood of Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, September 2 (UNHCR) Earlier this year, 25-year-old Adam Osman Abdile received an ultimatum from Somalia's Al Shabaab: join the militia or die. He decided to flee to Kenya.

The journey nearly killed him, but it is one that many young men are willing to risk in Somalia and other countries in eastern Africa to escape persecution or violence. Their predicament, and that of other civilians on the move southwards from East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, will be the focus of a regional gathering in Dar Es Salaam on Monday and Tuesday.

Organized by the government of Tanzania, with support from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the conference aims at reaching a fuller understanding of the nature, scale and reasons for south-bound mixed migration and to devise strategies on how to respond. Delegates from 12 countries will take part, including government officials and civil society workers.

Abdile's odyssey began in June, when he left his village in southern Somalia's Gedo region and headed towards the border with Kenya. His only luggage was a wad of cash in his pocket. He sneaked across near the Kenyan town of Mandera. That was the easy part.

During the arduous two-month journey, he spent time in prison, nearly suffocated hiding in the back of container trucks, suffered extreme hunger and thirst in the African bush and slipped past police checkpoints in his quest to find a safe haven where he could move around freely and work South Africa.

He often needed help en route, and that's where the bundle of money proved crucial. He handed over US$500 in total to various smugglers, or "guides," as Abdile described them.

He had a narrow escape in Zambia when police stopped the lorry that he and seven other people were hiding in. Abdile and two others dashed for the trees, but the others were arrested. Abdile and his companions spent four days walking through the bush before contacting a smuggler on a borrowed cell phone.

They crossed into Zimbabwe in the back of a truck carrying construction material. The smugglers left them at a river, which they crossed by boat before being taken into South Africa near the Beitbridge customs and immigration post.

"After I crossed into South Africa, I went to immigration and was given documentation allowing me to enter the country for 14 days. I felt enormous relief," Abdile told UNHCR, adding that he planned to apply for refugee status. "Throughout my journey, people were hostile, hostile, hostile and then when I got to South Africa, they were cooperative. They treated me like a person."

A few days ago, he took a minibus from the border town of Musina to Johannesburg and soon made contact with the vibrant Somali community in the suburb of Mayfair. Some of the residents have lived there for years and have permanent residence status or South African citizenship.

When new migrants arrive by minibus from the border, local Somali businessmen pay the fare as a welcoming gesture. "We have to, they are our brothers. They have suffered a lot," one Somali said, after Abdile's fare was paid.

Growing numbers of people, like Abdile, are travelling from their home countries to southern Africa, seeking to escape violence, persecution, drought or poverty, or, a combination of them all. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people this year, accounts for much of the movement in the region.

Meanwhile, refugees and migrants increasingly travel together, using the same routes and employing the same smugglers, making it difficult for governments to identify those who are in need of international protection. Increased security concerns also make the control of borders an urgent priority for most countries. Ensuring that these individuals receive the assistance that they need remains a significant challenge.

Abdile, who often thinks of his family back home, said his journey to safety had been emotional and scary. "We are not fleeing because of choice, but because of persecution. We are afraid in Somalia. Some of the people I was travelling with did not make it. They were imprisoned or died from hunger, or suffocation."

He also had a message for those taking part in next week's meeting in Dar Es Salaam. "All I am asking is please don't treat us so harshly. If a country cannot help us, then at least let us have safe passage through their territory."

By Tina Ghelli in Johannesburg, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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