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Perilous journey to "land of milk and honey" ends in deportations

US Navy personnel tow a disabled skiff carrying 52 Somali migrants. Gulf of Aden
Selon le Haut commissariat des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés, le HCR, sur les 78 487 Ethiopiens et Somaliens qui ont fait la traversée vers le Yémen en partant de la Somalie et de Djibouti en 2009, 685 sont décédés en mer (Wikimedia Commons)

Hawa Aden left Bosasso, a Somali port city in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, in 2009 on a dangerous boat journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, and then trekked 20 days to reach Saudi Arabia.

"I was exhausted and terrified when we got there [Yemen] but I was happy at the same time," Aden told IRIN. "I thought I had arrived in the land of milk and honey [Saudi Arabia]."

Hundreds of Somalis undertake the perilous journey to Saudi Arabia via Yemen. However, many end up being deported.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, of the 78,487 Ethiopians and Somalis who crossed into Yemen from Somalia and Djibouti in 2009, 685 died at sea.

Accompanying Aden on her journey were eight Somali women and seven men. They all made it to Saudi Arabia where Aden found employment as a domestic worker in a small town.

"I worked there for one-and-a-half years; it was not perfect but at least I could send money to my family back home, who were all in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps," she said.

One day, she decided to make a trip to Jeddah and was promptly arrested by Saudi police.

"I was taken to jail with many other Somalis and later deported to Mogadishu,” Aden said. “I left with the clothes on my back. They would not even allow me to get my last month's salary."

Aden was lucky she at least had worked for more than a year, unlike Ayan Abukar, 18, who went to Saudi Arabia via Bosasso, the Red Sea and Yemen, and was arrested three months after her arrival.

"I was on my way to work when they arrested me," Abukar said. "I worked for only three months and managed to send money for only one month to my family."

She said it broke her parents' hearts when she arrived unannounced in Mogadishu. "They were thinking I was in Saudi, working - only for me to show up on their doorstep. My family is very poor. I was their only source of income."

Abukar is determined to try again. "I know the journey is dangerous and I risk being deported again but I have no other option. There is only death here."

Mohamed Abdirahman Ilmi, 19, has a similar story. He left Bosasso in January 2009. "It took us only 12 days to reach Saudi Arabia; we travelled at night and crossed into Saudi when the guards were asleep," he said.

Ilmi said he worked for almost two years and sent money to his family in Mogadishu. "I wanted to save enough to go to a place where I could go to university."

Ilmi said he left Somalia because Mogadishu was too dangerous, "especially if you are a young man. Everyone wants to recruit you into an army [militia]."

He said he was arrested in Saudi Arabia with other young Somalis as they tried to buy food. "In jail, the guards were incredibly cruel; if you asked or questioned anything they would deny you food and water," he said.

He said there were beatings and other abuses. "Pray you never end up in a Saudi jail," he said.

Ilmi said he would not attempt the journey from Bosasso again. "We barely survived the last trip; I will take my chances here and enrol in one of the universities here. Maybe there is a reason God sent me back here."

Deportations criticized

UNHCR said roughly 10,000 Somalis had been deported from Saudi Arabia in 2010.

Roberta Russo, UNHCR spokeswoman, told IRIN: "The large majority of the deportees are not known to UNHCR, as they did not register with our office in [Saudi Arabia]. We have very little information about them in [Saudi] and also once they are deported back to Mogadishu."

Russo said UNHCR "strongly condemns deportations to Mogadishu, which in this moment is a death sentence. We appeal to all governments not to return Somalis to Mogadishu, where everyday human rights are violated, and civilians are injured and killed by the fighting."

Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued on 22 December 2010, called on the Saudi government to stop deporting Somalis to Mogadishu.

"Deporting anyone to a war zone like Mogadishu is inhumane, but returning children is beyond comprehension," Rona Peligal, Africa director at HRW, is quoted as saying. 

When contacted by IRIN, Saudi officials declined to comment on the issue.


Sheikh Ali Raage, a Muslim scholar, told IRIN the deportations were not compatible with Islam. "Islam calls for the protection of those fleeing conflict, hunger and any other troubles, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims."

He said they [refugees] should be provided with basic needs, such as food shelter and safety and security.

The deportations come as fighting escalates between government forces, backed by African Union peacekeepers, and Islamic Al-Shabab insurgents who control much of southern and central Somalia, including most of Mogadishu.

Since 1990, more than 1.4 million Somalis have been displaced internally, and at least 600,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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