Djibouti is a very small nation, with Somalia to the south, Eritrea and Sudan to the north and Ethiopia to the west. In this small space, there are three distinct refugee camps, named Ali Addeh, Holl Holl, and Obock. In the past, the camps have traditionally housed primarily Somali and Eritrean refugees, however recently a new camp has opened to accommodate the thousands of Yemeni people fleeing violence just across the tragically named straight, the Bab el Mandeb, which means “Gateway of Tears.”
Recently, I had the privilege to spend nine weeks in Djibouti as a Resettlement Consultant. I was deployed to work with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, through RSC Africa’s Regional Deployment Unit.
In 2012, UNHCR resettlement work was placed on hold in Djibouti. Through my deployment, I now had the privilege to re-start the program for refugees who had been waiting nearly two and half years in limbo. As I was the only person in UNHCR assigned to work directly with resettlement, I was able to create a strategy and general plan from the ground up.
The main focus of my mission was to interview the Eritrean soldiers who had left their posts in 2011, fleeing unending military service to arrive in Djibouti. As they entered Djibouti they were detained and labeled Prisoners of War by the Djiboutian authorities. My task was to finish interviewing and submitting applications for resettlement for individuals who had been released from detention in 2012 and waiting in the camp during the two and half years that the program was on hold. I was fortunate to be able to work on 53 resettlement cases, the majority of which were former soldiers who feared to return to Eritrea as they would be immediately imprisoned or killed for treason.
Camp life in Djibouti is very difficult. Temperatures in June-October are well over forty degrees Celsius, or 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Resources near the camps, including firewood, rations, and other necessities are also limited. The UNHCR office based in the regional town of Ali Sabieh is approximately a one hour drive through very rugged desert to the Ali Addeh and Holl Holl refugee camps, permitting me only a few days in the camps each week. Moreover, electricity is almost always unavailable in the camps and water is tightly rationed. When life in the camps is such a daily struggle, the resettlement program beginning again was a welcomed relief, providing hope to many families.
I worked in the camp usually three days per week and would be greeted by 300 to 500 refugees with questions each day. They were hoping to glean as much as they could about what their own future looked like in the camp, or as many hoped, in the United States. In order to continue my work however, I had to hire two Djiboutian soldiers to escort me everywhere in the camps, helping me to manage the sometimes-large groups of individuals that would be looking for answers, and through no fault of their own preventing me from interviewing other refugees in need.
In my time in Djibouti I held numerous meetings with camp leaders to address their general questions and concerns. As the resettlement program was closed for so long, the refugees began to lose hope that there would be any options aside from remaining in the camps indefinitely. These meetings renewed a sense of hope in the community, and the camp population was very grateful for the time I was able to spend with them.
For me, the meetings with the camp leaders were definitely the highlight to this relatively difficult trip. The communities were very stressed and scared about their future, and giving them a few hours to ask questions helped brighten the spirits of many. Often, in this line of work, refugee operations are spread very thin and general inquiries and concerns can be overlooked. To be isolated in the middle of the desert in a camp that has very few resources is difficult enough; living in this situation without knowledge of the future is both disempowering and unfair to anyone.
After nine weeks of long hours and many interviews, the resettlement program is now up and running again, and the first group of cases have been submitted to the U.S. for continued application processing. While the future is always uncertain, I only hope that the program continues with the momentum I left it with, and that a new hope will be on the horizon for many of these wonderful people.