The boats can be stopped, if war and hunger are too
Tony Abbott wants to stop the boats. Can we do this?
I was recently in Djibouti, a small country that is very important in the world of people smuggling because of its location. Djibouti is wedged between Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world. In contrast, Djibouti is relatively stable. Importantly it has a long coastline in the Gulf of Aden. A fishing boat can reach Yemen in under two hours.
Despite its peace, Djibouti is a very poor country. Women still cart water on their backs. The CIA Fact-book describes the country as “mostly wasteland”.
Prior to 2007, most people wanting to escape the horrors of Somalia (and lesser known continuing civil conflicts in parts of Ethiopians) used to take the boats from Bossaso, Somalia’s major port.
However, the port was attacked by grenades in 2007 and 25 migrants were killed. Did this stop the boats? No. This event gave birth to a thriving people smuggling trade in neighbouring Djibouti.
In Djibouti, I visited one of the small towns on the coast that is heavily used by people smugglers.
I spoke to the equivalent of the local Mayor. He was overwhelmed by the people smuggling problem and frankly tired of people like me coming to visit him with lots of questions but no answers or assistance to provide.
He said that in any one day, there might be 500 people (mostly Somalis and Ethiopians) waiting to meet up with smugglers, in his dusty, barren town of 10,000 residents.
He said he has tried everything to deter the migrants leaving on the smugglers boats. He has even gone so far as to make prospective migrants bury the corpses of other migrants that have washed up on the beaches.
He said the corpses shock him. However, even this brutal action does not deter migrants from wanting to leave. The factors that are pushing them out are stronger than the mere fear of drowning.
Djibouti has a refugee system. This tiny country of 700,000 people provides protection to some 12,000 registered refugees. However, the refugee system is failing.
I spoke to young men who have escaped the horrors of Mogadishu, only to find they are not allowed to register as refugees. The Djiboutian Government has made an unwritten decision that all young men from Somalia are a security risk.
These young men are now living on the fringes of society, trying to simultaneously pick up work while also avoiding arrest. They are saving for a trip to Yemen.
Can we stop the boats? I think we probably can - but there are few important steps along the way. We will have to bring about world peace, ensure everyone has enough to eat, fix the desperately failing refugee system and end endemic corruption in the law enforcement and migration systems of many countries that are supposed to protect people.
I hope Tony Abbott is up for that challenge.
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