Freelance journalist Glen Johnson recently traveled on a human smuggling boat from Djibouti to Yemen, where he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. The following is an excerpt from his report on the voyage for Al Jazeera:
I waited for an hour while people filed onto the boats, departures of each boat were staggered by around 15 minutes. Gradually the Affar left and one of the smugglers approached and signalled to me. While dozens of crabs scuttled across the sand, I waded out waist deep and clambered into the boat’s bow. Nearly 50 people were crammed into the boat, which was essentially a fishing dhow. The passengers were squeezed one next to the other as the boat set-off.
A young man from Ethiopia – his forehead covered in a line of 10 faded, blue tattoos depicting the cross – said there was no work in Ethiopia; in Saudi Arabia he would have everything, like his friend in Riyadh, the capital.
“Ethiopia is a very big country. I have no job and no monies. I calling to my friend and he says about his big house and big car. I say I must go, go, go.”
He had little money, but was carrying a block of hasheesh, to sell in Saudi Arabia. Other passengers carried bottles of vodka, to sell to Yemeni bootleggers in order to fund the rest of their trip to Saudi. Those who could not afford to pay for a vehicle would attempt the journey on foot.
The spray from the boat’s bow breaking the water drifted into the boat. People wrapped scarves around their heads as protection from the sun and spray. One man bailed-out water as a distant boat approached at speed.
Three men were aboard, two of them with AK-47s raised. The boat’s captain pulled back on the throttle before slamming the vessel into the dhow. The captain began screaming. Then he got down to business, announcing they were the Djiboutian police. It was time to pay up – 100 Djiboutian francs (60 cents) each.
They circled the boat six times, guns levelled, while people rummaged through their belongings to get money. One of the men, dressed in a white singlet and cargo shorts with sunglasses resting atop his head, said he was a police officer.
“You think we are pirates? Do you want to go back to Djibouti?”
They collected money from the boat’s navigator, then left – one man blowing a kiss to a petrified Ethiopian woman. There should be no doubt that the trafficking trade is conducted with the knowledge, if not complicity, of the region’s governments and authorities: corruption is endemic and the human trafficking trade lucrative.”
Click here to read the piece in its entirety, complete with descriptions of severe beatings of migrants by Yemeni traffickers.