An IOM staff member shares important and relevant information for migrants at a transit site in Bangui, Central African Republic. What lies at the crux of humankind’s current migration “crisis”? Photo by: Sandra Black / IOM / CC BY-NC-ND

Human migration is as old as human history. In fact, in some places on our planet there are migrant routes that have been in continuous use for over 4,000 years.

A research team of ours, from the International Organization for Migration, last month had the chance to meet some present-day migrants on one such pathway in Djibouti, a small nation dangling from the Horn of Africa. Through its mountain passes and deserts, pass even poorer people — Ethiopians, mainly, but also Somalis, Kenyans and Sudanese — trekking towards what one might envision as a kind of jobs oasis: the shimmering, booming petroleum exporting countries of the Persian Gulf.

As in ancient times, humankind literally walks out of Africa, undertaking journeys that can take weeks or even months towards places where a family can earn enough from menial work to feed itself and plot a path to a better future.

Imagine ancient tribes fleeing famine and finding sustenance building the great cities of Babylon or Egypt’s pyramids. Imagine that, and imagine that today’s wanderers are no different from what all of our common ancestors were, and forever will be.

Except today we live, at least compared with ancient times, in a highly regulated society with rules and laws that sort today’s migrants into categories like “documented” or “undocumented,” “with permits” and without, or “irregular,” as opposed to “legal.”

As all the world’s migrants know — these labels obscure a simple truth. That is: people from rich countries — the European Union member states, say, or Japan, or most of North America — are able to travel legally almost everywhere. Those from the rest of the world are able to go, legally, almost nowhere.

And therein lies the crux of humankind’s current migration “crisis.” A process that is as old, and as inevitable, as a person’s choice to dream of a better future, is contradicted by a patchwork of rules and regulations designed to reverse such a process, which is impossible.

This might be merely ironic if it weren’t also so tragic.

Consider Dawit Deresseh, an Ethiopian migrant our team encountered at a crossroads called Lac Assal in northern Djibouti. Deresseh, 30 and landless, had already crossed Djibouti twice in the last 12 months. He made one trip last year, seeking a boat that could take him to Yemen and then to a construction job in Saudi Arabia; this year he tried again, after he had spent nine months in a hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen, after losing half his left arm in an accident. He said he was riding in a smuggler’s vehicle, carrying 27 pilgrims, which struck a landmine near the Saudi border.

“All 27 came from Ethiopia,” he told our IOM team. All the others were killed, he said.

Incredibly, he was on his way back to Yemen for the third time when our team found him, and eventually persuaded him to return to Ethiopia, under IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Repatriation and Reintegration program. That often includes a modest grant to help the returnee launch a small business.

“A process that is as old, and as inevitable, as a person’s choice to dream of a better future, is contradicted by a patchwork of rules and regulations designed to reverse such a process, which is impossible.”

— William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration

Compared to 90,000 Ethiopians believed to have made this same journey in the past 12 months, this is a tiny success. But it speaks to two truths: one, that the lure of a reliable job, however menial, is enough to draw thousands of migrants like Deresseh to risk life and limb (literally, in this case) for a chance to succeed.

The other: the cost of diverting migrants like this away from such dangers is as small as funding a vendor’s stall in a market, or the purchase of a three-wheeled “bagga” — basically a motorcycle with a small flatbed for cargo attached — that can deployed to make small deliveries around town and can be a boon to small businesses looking to shuttle products to buyers, as well as feed an extended family of perhaps a dozen members.

IOM does several things: advising migrants of their difficult journeys, encouraging them to seek legal pathways and advocating for means to enable them to make an income close to home. Their choice, their journey if you will, is also ours: We must all choose which journey humankind will take together — a safe one, where we create work with dignity close to a family’s home, or the dangerous one, where migrants shoulder almost all the risk, and often lose all.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

  • William lacy swing

    William Lacy Swing

    William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration, an organization that has been assisting migrants worldwide for the past 65 years.

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