The narrow strait that separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula is so treacherous it is called Bab el Mandeb — “gateway of grief.” It’s earned its miserable name lately as African migrants try to pass through war-torn Yemen to flee dire poverty and hunger and reach Saudi Arabia, and jobs.
To escape the authorities, a ruthless smuggler threw migrants into the sealast week, drowning more than 50. More than 30 are missing. Shockingly, migrants said the smuggler returned to Somalia to pick up more desperate people, according to Laurent de Boeck of the International Organization for Migration, which helped survivors.
Many of the migrants are teenagers from Somalia and Ethiopia, where there are few jobs and severe drought is pushing people to the verge of famine. Employment in Saudi Arabia can help their families survive, but to get it they have to travel through Yemen — where a serious cholera epidemic is adding to misery and nearly seven million people subsist on food aid.
The breakdown of authority in Yemen has been a boon for the human traffickers. The level of desperation in Africa and changes in work-permit rules in Saudi Arabia have made legal migration more difficult. More than 55,000 migrants got to Yemen this year, following more than 111,000 who arrived last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, which is a United Nations agency.
Deaths of migrants who set off for Europe from Libya drew international attention and prompted promises of action from the European Union. More than 2,400 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean so far this year, compared with at least 114 en route to Yemen.
But the latest tragedy is testimony to a misery so great, teenagers are willing to travel through hell for a chance at a better life.
Rather than cut aid to Africa, as the Trump administration has threatened to do, the administration needs to provide Africa with more help than ever.
And if Saudi Arabia allowed more Africans to travel there legally to work, it would help prevent tragedies like the one last week and put the ruthless smugglers who prey on young Africans out of business.