Sex trafficking in Djibouti: the blind spot of human rights organizations


No human rights organization has reported on the human trafficking situation in Djibouti in relation to the American military presence there, since 2010. This is evident from a OneWorld investigation into the publications of five human rights organizations which regularly report on the issue.dijbouti_kaart

“Djibouti is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” This is how the U.S. State Department begins its yearly Trafficking in Persons Report on Djibouti. Last July, the U.S. placed Djibouti for the first time in five years in Tier 3, the lowest category.

“Over 90,000 men, women, and children from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea transit Djibouti as voluntary and often undocumented economic migrants en route to Yemen and other locations in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia.”

Djibouti isn’t just a high risk country for human trafficking, the efforts of the Djiboutian government to prevent trafficking, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators are inadequate, as is concluded in the report.

Powder keg for sexual violence

While Djibouti is about the size of New Hampshire, its global importance should not be underestimated. Since 9/11 thousands of Western soldiers have flocked to this small country in the Horn of Africa.

“Think of the brothels and nightclubs which sprouted in Rest and Recreation locations like in the Philippines and Thailand”

Djibouti is the American front in the War on Terror, a hub for drone attacks on Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. It is registered in the books as the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Also the French, Spanish, Italians, Germans and Japanese have troops stationed in Djibouti. A 2013 Chatham House Report describes the country as an ‘international maritime and military laboratory’. A trend that has deepened since the beginning of this year when China and Saudi-Arabia were also granted permission to build military bases in Djibouti.

The combination of great numbers of (primarily male) foreign militaries, migration flows, refugees, poverty and unemployment, make Djibouti a powder keg for sexual violence and exploitation. Moreover, experts have often pointed to the relation between military bases and the development of large-scale sex industries. Think of the brothels and nightclubs which sprouted in Rest and Recreation locations like in the Philippines and Thailand. Think of all the aid organizations which have settled there now to help (under-aged) girls escape from the sex industry.

Fear and loathing in Djibouti

For over a year OneWorld has been researching human trafficking in Djibouti in relation to the presence of USAFRICOM (the name of the American troops stationed in Africa to fight in the War on Terror).

“The significant contribution of American military to the development of a sex industry in Djibouti is in no way reflected in the TIP report”

In December 2015, we presented our findings in the longread Fear and Loathing in Djibouti: daughters of Somalian refugees and undocumented Ethiopian migrants end up en masse in the illegal Djiboutian sex industry. Their primary customers: American contractors and other foreign soldiers.

The significant contribution of American soldiers to the development of a sex industry in Djibouti is in no way reflected in the TIP report. Moreover: the U.S. State Department reprimands the Djiboutian governments for failing to reduce the demand for commercial sex.

Also the international media fails to take notice of the human trafficking situation and accompanying sexual exploitation in Djibouti, or the strategical position the country holds in the War on Terror.

Data investigation: Chain of profit through five countries

Do refugee and human rights organizations have a blind spot when it comes to (human trafficking in) Djibouti?

To answer this question, we have conducted a data investigation into the research reports which have been published since 2010 by five human rights and refugee organizations which regularly report on sexual violence and the rights of vulnerable groups, such as girls and women, (undocumented) migrants and refugees.

Methodology Data Investigation

For this data investigation we analyzed research reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) & the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS). In the period from January 2010 until December 2015 these five organizations published 103 reports on the five countries which belong to the chain of profit for human traffickers – Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi-Arabia.
We have selected the reports by way of scraping and manually. We have assessed a publication as a report when it included new research and when it counted several pages (varying from ten to one hundred). Then we have categorized the reports, on the basis of their contents, per country. Some reports have been categorized with more than one country: a report on Ethiopian migrants in Yemen has been added to the results of both Ethiopia and Yemen. Two reports by RMMS have even been categorized with all five countries.

Because we did not want to assess all reports on all the countries in the world (just Amnesty International published more than a thousand reports in said time frame), we have chosen to focus on reports concerning five countries which belong to a Chain of Profit of internationally operating human trafficking networks. According to the British research institute Chatham House this Chain of Profit runs through Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi-Arabia.

The first two countries are countries of origin, where the victims of trafficking depart from. The last two form (temporary) destinations. Djibouti is a so-called transit country, where most refugees and migrants travel through on their way to their destination, hoping to find a better life.

“Looking at it this way, Djibouti would seem the country in the human trafficking chain where organizations would be able to work most easily”

This migration flow makes up for a lucrative business for human smugglers. It is estimated that the people smuggling business is worth around 20 million per year.
Besides this the criminal networks enrich themselves through weapons trade, fuel smuggling and human trafficking, according to reports.

Yemen and Somalia have been caught up in war for years now. The security situation in both countries is very poor and there is a high risk for terrorist attacks and kidnappings. Understandably, travel warnings are issued for both countries. When we look further in the chain through which the migration flow moves, there are Ethiopia and Saudi-Arabia, which belong to the top five of countries in the worlds with the highest level of government censorship.

Looking at it this way. Djibouti would seem the country in the human trafficking chain where organizations would be able to work most easily.

Yemen: 38 reports

More than a third of all analyzed reports address the human rights situation in Yemen. This country is the first point of arrival in the Middle East for migrants and refugees fleeing from Ethiopia and Somalia. About three quarters make the crossing to Yemen per boat, departing from Djibouti.

The crossing is well-organized and coordinated by networks of criminal gangs which operate between Djibouti and Yemen, as is stated by RMMS in the reportBlinded by Hope. The criminal gangs exchange information about the arrival of boats bearing smuggled Ethiopian migrants. As soon as they arrive to the Yemeni shores the passengers are abducted. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat writes extensively on human trafficking on the route from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East. This is not surprising as the RMMS has especially been established in 2011 to investigate and write on mixed migration patterns in this region.

Human Rights Watch has fourteen reports on Yemen, one of which reports on the so-called torture camps, where migrants are locked up until their families pay ransom money. The men that hold them are part of a syndicate of gangs which sell African migrants to each other in order to extort them.

“When reporting on US drone attacks on Yemen it isn’t mentioned that the majority of these unmanned planes depart from Djibouti”

What is the network in Djibouti like? Who are the human traffickers that put the migrants on the boats and inform their abductors on the other shore? Nothing is said about this. Also in other reports by Human Rights Watch the role of Djibouti in this process is left out. In publications on civilian casualties caused by drone attacks it is mentioned that the United States uses these drones in the fight against Al Qaeda, but it is not mentioned that the majority of these unmanned planes depart from Djibouti.

Amnesty International (16 reports on Yemen) does not address human trafficking or drone attacks in the name of the War on Terror in any of its reports. However, the airstrikes on Yemen that are carried out by Saudi-Arabia are frequently covered.

The International Rescue Committee and the affiliated Women’s Refugee Commission have not conducted any research in Yemen in the past six years. Though IRC has been active in the country since 2012. The organization delivers medicine to the hospitals in the port city of Aden, and provides food and water to 250.000 internally displaced persons.

Ethiopia: 35 reports

Ethiopians want to leave their country for a variety of reasons. The majority of the analyzed reports examines the dire living conditions in Ethiopia: hunger, drought, surveillance and repression of minority groups by the government. Amnesty reports that between 2011 and 2014 more than 5000 Oromo’s (an ethnic minority group) have been arrested, because they are seen as opponents of the Ethiopian government.

“It is casually mentioned how these girls might end up in the sex industry in Djibouti and Saudi Arabia”

Of all organizations the Women’s Refugee Committee conducted the most research in Ethiopia. In one of these reports, on the living conditions of Somalian women and girls in Ethiopian refugee camps, it is casually mentioned how these girls might end up in the sex industry in Djibouti and Saudi Arabia. Key informants characterize the rate of trafficking as “horrific”. Still, the remainder of the report does not elaborate on the vulnerability of migrants for human trafficking.

Also in the other reports of the organization the human trafficking route through Djibouti is not addressed.

RMMS describes how Ethiopian girls and women are sold by traffickers. According to migrant reports, they are sold to Saudi Arabian families as virtual ‘slave’ domestic workers while others are used in clandestine sexual exploitation networks.

Somalia: 29 reports

Somalia is a failed stated. This is such a fait accompli that the reports of human rights organizations barely address this fact. In 2011, Amnesty International does dedicate a special report to the situation of children in southern and central Somalia. “Their lives are in constant danger and their hopes for the future have been shattered by armed conflict and grave human rights abuses. Homes are bombed, families killed, schools destroyed or closed.”

Furthermore, the organizations primarily aim their research efforts at the human rights violations following the fight against Al-Shabaab (both by the terrorist organizations itself, as by the local AMISOM soldiers fighting Al-Shabaab), and the living conditions of displaced Somali.

“Aid organizations report severe human rights violations in Somalia, but they do not investigate what happens to the girls who flee across the border because of this”

“Two decades of civil conflict and state collapse have created a large population of displaced persons and other people vulnerable to sexual violence,” Human Rights Watch concludes in the reportHere, Rape is Normal. “Armed assailants, including members of state security forces, operating with complete impunity, sexually assault, rape, beat, shoot, and stab women and girls inside camps for the displaced and as they walk to market, tend to their fields, or forage for firewood. […] Many victims will not report rape and sexual assault because they lack confidence in the justice system, are unaware of available health and justice services or cannot access them.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch reports on sexual violence committed by international peace soldiers of AMISOM. “Soldiers have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual abuse.”Trafficking: Nightlife in Djibouti

No report addresses the situation of the more than twenty thousand Somali refugees residing in Djibouti. Also the sexual exploitation of Somali girls, who were born in the Djiboutian refugee camps Ali Addeh and Holl, isn’t a topic in any of the reports. Girls who, as we observed, end up in the sex industry and night clubs of Djibouti City. Their primary customers: French and American soldiers and contractors.

Saudi-Arabia: 21 reports

Many of the reports published on Saudi-Arabia address the human rights of migrants. Issues are, among others, the forceful deportation of thousands of Ethiopian and Somali migrants
and the exploitation of domestic servants.

“The Indonesian, Sri Lankan, and Philippine embassies handle thousands of complaints of unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, or poor working conditions each year. In many other cases, abuses are never reported at all.”

Amnesty International reports on the harsh conditions in which Indian migrants have to work. The fate of Somali and Ethiopian domestic- and sex workers is not reported on.

Djibouti: 4 reports

The key question remains: how much research did the five investigated organizations conduct into Djibouti?

“Merely one report has been based on original research in Djibouti”

The three largest organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee) did not publish any reports on the country since 2010. Amnesty International did not even include the country in its Annual Report.

RMMS does seem to pay attention to Djibouti. The small organization published three reports on Djibouti in the selected time frame, which even address the migrant issue. However, when studying the data, it turns out two of these reports cover all five countries in the human trafficking chain of profit, thus these reports do not specifically asses Djibouti in depth. The third report covers four countries: Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen. None of these reports contains original and self-conducted research in Djibouti. The information is all gathered from second-hand sources, without conducting on-the-ground research to obtain data.

The only organization which has conducted on-the-ground research in Djibouti is the Women’s Refugee Commission. In 2011, WRC investigated family planning by Somali refugees in the refugee camp Ali Addeh – which we also visited for our longread Fear and Loathing in Djibouti.

However, this report only deals with the situation of Somali refugees inside the camp. How they got there and what happens to refugees who (temporarily) reside outside of the camp remains unanswered.

Response Women’s Refugee Commission

“While the WRC does not have a particular focus on trafficking, our work in other areas such as promoting safe livelihoods programming for refugees, or modeling approaches that build the skills, capacities and social capital of displaced adolescent girls would contribute to mitigating the risks of trafficking. We do not have plans at present for research in Djibouti but, as noted, I will make sure my colleagues are informed of your findings.”

This is remarkable since the women in Ali Addeh told us at the very first introduction that their daughters disappear from the camp, never to return. They leave for Djibouti City to find employment in domestic work. Since even for locals there is barely any work (60 percent is unemployed), these girls often end up doing sex work in Djibouti’s commercial sex industry, later they might be smuggled onwards to Yemen and Saudi-Arabia.

Trafficking: Somalische vluchteling in kamp Ali Addeh in Djibouti

Blind Spot

Since 2010, the investigated human rights organizations published more than 1700 reports. 103 of these concerned the five countries belonging to the human trafficking route. Of all these reports, only one has been based on original, self-conducted research in Djibouti. Specifically this report makes no mention at all of the human trafficking situation or of the enormous western military presence in the country.

While these 103 publications do show that human rights organizations have received indications of severe human rights violations in Djibouti. There are clear indications that criminal gangs in Djibouti play an important part in human smuggling and human trafficking. The reports also certainly show that girls and women become victim of sexual violence and possibly end up in the sex industry during their travel to the next country on their migration route.

“Choices” & “limited resources”

Why don’t human rights organizations address these issues? How do they actually make the decision in which countries they will conduct research? Why is there so little attention for Djibouti?
We contacted the five organizations and asked them for an explanation to these questions. The official responses (see the grey boxes) could be summarized as follows: “choices had to be made”, there are only “limited resources”, and this is why the organizations assess “where they will have added value”.

Response International Rescue Committee

“IRC works in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. IRC has never worked in Djibouti […] Our decision to carry out research is based on where we can add value and where there are gaps in the existing research base.”

It sounds logical, but Human Rights Watch published 457 reports in the assessed time frame. To compare: there are 195 internationally recognized independent countries in the world. HRW was able to publish 14 reports on Yemen. Even in countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Japan research was conducted. Also in countries which are far smaller than Djibouti, like Sao Tomé en Principe, Bahrein, Malta and Lebanon.

Response Human Rights Watch

“Much as we would like to be able to work on more countries and issues, this is simply not possible with our limited staff numbers and resources. Our Africa division, for example, has less than 30 staff, many of whom already work on more than one country. As you can see from our website, we try to regularly monitor and work on about 30 countries in Africa, which is far less than the total number of states on the continent. For instance, in addition to Djibouti, we also don’t work on Gabon, Benin, Madagascar, and Mauritius, to name a few. […] The inability to work on these countries should not be understood as a suggestion that there are no serious human rights concerns in those countries. […] With regard to your question about who makes these decisions, it is the staff and management of the Africa division, in collaboration with relevant colleagues and senior management of Human Rights Watch, who ultimately decide and agree on the choice of priorities. […] HRW staff have considered field work in Djibouti at various times over the years, and have visited the country in the past to conduct investigations on other regional issues.”

Amnesty International published even more reports: 1136. Almost six times as many countries there are in the world. The same counts for this list of reports: it contains rich western countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany. And countries much smaller than Djibouti, like the Fiji islands, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Maldives.

Response Amnesty International

“Due to capacity, we are not able to cover all countries in the world,” a spokesperson of Amnesty International informs us. “There were 160 countries and territories included in Amnesty International’s last Annual Report. The absence of a country from the report does not of course indicate a clean human rights record.”

“Djibouti has not been a priority for us in the past years.” a spokesperson informs us on behalf of Amnesty’s office in the Netherlands. “We haven’t attempted to conduct research there, so we don’t know whether we would get permission.” […] “There are quite a few countries where Amnesty is not allowed to work, like China, Iran and Saudi-Arabia. This complicates investigations, but it doesn’t render it impossible. In this case we use contacts in the country, witness statement by refugees, et cetera.”

The only organization which responds to our questions by defending their research choices is RMMS. This organization focused on ‘mixed migration’. “In this context Djibouti is mainly an important transit country.” Despite their limited capacity (three employees), RMMS has paid several visits to Djibouti.

Response Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat

“The RMMS focuses on mixed migration, including migrants, refugees, IDPs, labour/economic/irregular migration, migrant smuggling and human trafficking. We focus on all countries in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia and Yemen) as well on the countries along the major routes out of the Horn of Africa (Southern African countries, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel).

Our core focus is mixed migration, hence our focus on Djibouti as an important transit country for mixed migration. The large presence of foreign militaries in Djibouti has not featured in our reports, because it never came across as a defining factor in Djibouti’s status as an important mixed migration transit land. We are following your focus on this with great interest though.
We work with a very small team of 3 people we thus have to divide our resources among a large number of countries and topics. We have not published many reports that included an in-depth focus on one particular topic (such as human trafficking) or one particular country (such as Djibouti).

RMMS published an updated Djibouti country profile in July 2016 (a time period which is not included in this data investigation, red.). The past year, two field trips have been carried out to Djibouti by consultants hired by RMMS, in the light of a regional research into human trafficking hotspots in the region. Another RMMS consultant visited Djibouti for an investigation into children in migration flows. We have also recruited 4 new monitors for our  4mi project in Djibouti. Therefore, we don’t think you could conclude we didn’t do research in Djibouti or that Djibouti is a blind spot for RMMS.”

“A repeat of Bosnia”

“Trafficking is huge in Djibouti,” says Madeleine Rees, secretary-general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and former head of the Women’s Rights and Gender Unit of OHCHR, the human rights organization of the United Nations. Still, Rees is not surprised. “We have been here before. From the R and R’s of Vietnam to the peacekeeping in Bosnia, where you have militaries you have a potential market for those who would sell sex, the sex of others that is.”

“The perfect free market storm for sexual exploitation that was Bosnia reinvents itself.”

In the late 90’s Rees helped to blow the whistle on the involvement of UN peace keeping soldiers and contractors in the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women in post-war Bosnia. The cover-up of this sex scandal, which was outed by UN peacekeeper Kathryn Bolkovac in cooperation with Rees, was made into a movie in 2010 titled The Whistleblower.

“Militaries have a knack of persisting in making women objects”, says Rees. “Actively encouraged, or tacitly tolerated, their role being to fulfil the needs of the men in uniform. Pernicious in all forms, but particularly so when it comes to sex.”

Undocumented migrants who have sex with members of the military are labeled as prostitutes, unjustly so according to Rees: “No possibility of equal negotiations, so a misnomer to refer to it as prostitution, which is how all the militaries and states who are involved in Djibouti define it. What you have instead is full on sexual exploitation and trafficking. Djibouti is one of the most militarised places on earth. Look at a map and you will see that its neighbours are a mixture of so called ‘failed’ states, characterised by civil wars, dictatorships and instability. People flee. When they do so they are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses most of which are manifest in Djibouti.” Rees: “The perfect free market storm for sexual exploitation that was Bosnia reinvents itself.”

From blind spot to spotlight

The way in which human rights organisations deal with the issue of trafficking in Djibouti is also similar to what happened in Bosnia, according to Rees: “There have been reports, but trafficking is mentioned in passing, there has not been a fulsome analysis, an attempt to prevent it, to support women and children who are the victims of it, to investigate and prosecute…this is again a repeat of Bosnia. Ultimately, human rights NGOs took up that challenge (red. in Bosnia), raised the funds took the risks and exposed the extent of what was going on, hand in hand with the OHCHR. The government engaged and ultimately the users were exposed and it was addressed, imperfectly but addressed”, Rees states.

“That blind spot that seems to keep Djibouti away from public exposure and scrutiny has to have a spotlight shone upon it.”

“The horrors that are manifesting in Djibouti need the same exposure,” Rees proclaims. “It is bad enough that foreign countries move in and militarise entire societies, it is worse when they allow crimes to be committed with impunity. An end needs to be brought to the violations to which the vulnerable are subjected, so that the men in uniform and their counterpart private contractors can be ’entertained’. That blind spot that seems to keep Djibouti away from public exposure and scrutiny has to have a spotlight shone upon it.”

The Djibouti-project

This narrative is part of a OneWorld series of articles on Djibouti. In part 1, Fear and Loathing in Djibouti, we revealed how the US waters down signals of human trafficking in favor of the War on Terror. And how the sex industry is fed by a growing presence of American contractors and other foreign militaries.

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