Mersa, Ethiopia – 20-year- old Yimam Asmare sobbed and buried his tired face, as he recalled the day he fled his family home to migrate to Saudi Arabia. Yimam was born and raised in Anto village- a small village surrounded by mountainous terrain in every direction, with a river that slices through and around it. Anto village sits on the foot of Ambasalo Mountain, roughly 14 kilometers from Mersa town, the capital city of Habru Woreda in Amhara region of Ethiopia. The village is home to approximately 4300 households, each home made up of an average of 6 family members.

Migrant returnee Yimam Asmare. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

Yimam is the youngest in a family of four. At the age of only 19, with no formal education, his parents gave him a small piece of land on which to grow vegetables for sale at a small town nearby. But following consecutive periods of drought his small farm could not earn him any dividends. Crop failure coupled with a lack of alternative livelihood options doubled his frustration and prompted him to start thinking about ways to leave his village. 

In early 2019 he started planning his exit from the village. With little knowledge of regular routes and limited opportunities to use them, he contacted ‘migrant brokers’ for help. Unaware of the dangers ahead of him, he left his village towards the end of April 2019 to start the audacious journey to Saudi Arabia through Djibouti, then across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen all the way to Jabalashe, the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Before leaving his village the ‘migrant brokers’ had informed him that the money he had was enough to cover expenses for the entire journey to Saudi Arabia. His ordeal began upon his arrival in Djibouti, where ‘migrant brokers’ demanded US$ 900 for transport to cross the Gulf of Aden. Desperate and out of options Yimam had no choice but to contact his mother to ask for her prayers and for the extra money.

Tayitu Shibeshi, narrating her son's ordeal. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

“He only contacted me when he was about to get into a boat to cross the sea from Djibouti to Yemen; he called to ask for my prayers and for the money. This was the first time I heard from him since the day he disappeared from home,” said Tayitu Shibeshi, Yimam’s mother with a shaking voice. Fearing the dangers surrounding her son, she moved swiftly to look for loans from neighbors and sold her dairy cow to raise the money he needed.

Tayitu Shibeshi. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

While crossing the gulf sea Yimam endured the brutal wrath of smugglers, which included savage beatings with the butt of their rifles to keep order in the boat and to silence panicking migrants. Other smugglers operating in the gulf sea regularly fired automatic weapons towards them, trying to rob their boat. “It was a long journey and the Yemen coast was invisible,” said Yimam, though they had only yet traveled a few hundred metres across the turbulent sea.

When he arrived in Yemen, the smugglers demanded for an additional US$ 1400, which they claimed was for bribing Saudi authorities at the border, or risk imprisonment. Once again Yimam called his mother to rescue him. Without hesitation she searched frantically for further loans to help her ill-fated son. Yimam was tired, hungry and dehydrated, but remained resolute. The next three weeks as he journeyed across Yemen was no easier- He witnessed migrants dying along the journey, he was robbed of his food, water and the little remaining cash he had before finally arriving at the border between Yemen and Saud Arabia. However his ordeal was far from over / upon arrival the smugglers led him straight to the Saudi authorities who immediately arrested and placed him in a detention center for processing. 

The popular route used by irregular migrants from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday 23rd of May 2019, a month after he left home, he was sent home from Saudi Arabia and landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that same day feeling defeated, yet relieved to be back in familiar surroundings. His mother once more sent him money for transport back to his village and he arrived at home the next day. Yimam has been back home for almost two months and is still struggling to make ends meet. His hope is to get a three-wheeler, popularly known as a ‘Bajaj’ to start a small transport business. Echoing her son’s voice Tayita Shibeshi said, “My son tried to migrate because he lost hope when drought ravaged his farm; he could not take it anymore. He is very hard working and determined but perennial crop failure caused by drought pushed him to the brink.” Now debt-ridden, Tayita sold her three remaining cows to clear the debt she accumulated when paying for her son's safe release from smugglers.

Empty storage hut where Yimam's family used to keep their farm harvest. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

Yimam is not the first from his family to attempt the perilous journey to Saudi Arabia via the Gulf of Aden- two of his siblings are already in Saudi Arabia. Out-migration from Anto village is becoming very common.

Geographically, Anto village is located in the shadow of a mountain, far from the moisture-carrying winds, therefore perennial droughts are very common in the area. The village is located in a region with the shortest rainy season in the entire country. Sporadic rains sometimes pour down on the mountains above, but the rains rarely reach the village. Climate change has contributed significantly to moisture deficit in the area. The river that used to thunder through the village has slowed to a trickle. This trickle now supplies the village with water for domestic use, livestock rearing and a small irrigation system.

The effects of climate change are clear to see; the landscape is characterized by dry, rocky soils and thin yellow maize crops- a clear sign of moisture deficit. All the residents we spoke to in Anto village mentioned their observation of the unusual shifting of weather patterns. 

Agegnew Aray and his wife Seade Asmire offloading farming equipment from their camel. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

Agegnew Aray, is a 28yr old local farmer who lives in Anto with his wife and son. They own a small plot of land where he grows maize, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes primarily for subsistence consumption. He lamented, “Drought is very common in this area, but there is nothing you can do because it is drought. Since I moved here 10 years ago, it has been getting hotter and hotter. Drought does not only result in crop failure but it also comes with deadly insects that destroy our crops. Many of my family members moved out of this area to look for better opportunities elsewhere because farming is no longer profitable here.”

Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

About 15 years ago Lutheran World Federation, in partnership with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekaneyusus Development and Social Services (EECMDSS) developed an irrigation scheme project, which diverts water from the river into a small canal that zigzags around the village to supply water to a few, small farms. Thanks to this basic irrigation scheme, beneficiary farmers are able to cultivate three times a year. 

One beneficiary of the canal system is 60-year-old Burhan Mohammed, who said, “The drought started here in 1984, and since then droughts have been getting worse and worse. Without this irrigation, we cannot harvest anything as the crops die before they reach their full potential.” Mohammed has been living in Anto village all his life and recalled the years when the area used to receive good rains. He saw rainfall diminishing over the years and affecting crop and animal productivity. 

60-year-old Burhan Mohammed. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

He added, “People will not die sitting in this area because of the drought; they move to cities to look for work. When they move to the city their goal is to raise money to move further to other countries. Those families with irrigated farms like mine can continue to cultivate, but others who rely on rain-fed agriculture tend to move away from the village in search of other livelihood opportunities. Families who can afford to send their family members to the Middle East, they do so, and it’s a way of coping with this drought”. 

Burhan Mohammed washing his hands using irrigation water that trickles in his farm. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

Migration has become a strategy to cope with the changing climate in Anto village. One of Mohammed’s sons moved to Saudi Arabia, through the Gulf of Aden to look for work due to perennial drought. Mohammed paid for all the costs of his son’s journey to Saudi Arabia; his rationale was that his small, irrigated farm was not enough to support a family of 7 members, therefore it was better to send his son abroad so that he can help support the family with his remittances.

Cows drinking water from the irrigation canal. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

During the rainy season, water gushes down the mountains flooding the river below. With little vegetation cover and loose soils, the scale of soil erosion is alarming. Now the river banks have become extremely degraded, threatening the irrigation system and the arable land adjacent to it. If the rate of erosion continues at this unprecedented level, the vital irrigation system which supplies the crops and livestock with water, will be destroyed. This will rob the village of their only source of livelihood and possibly render the village almost uninhabitable.

River threatening farming land and the irrigation canal above it. Photographer: IOM 2019/Ivyne Mabaso

Migration is often perceived as a failure to adapt to a changing environment, but in fact migration can also be an effective way for people to deal with climate and environmental change. Migration, in its forced forms, can indeed put people in vulnerable situations. But if well managed, migration can be beneficial to the migrant as well as their home and host countries. Income diversification as well as remittances invested in climate action, for example, can build the resilience of individuals and communities.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, promotes a balanced message and aims to minimize forced migration, facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration as well as to assist those already displaced.

IOM has been working on addressing the nexus between migration, environment and climate change since the 1990s at different levels: strengthening and sharing knowledge, capacity building, policy development and operational response. IOM has a fully-fledged Migration, Environment, and Climate Change (MECC) Division and work programme dedicated to tackling this complex and ever-evolving relationship between the environment and human mobility. This work covers both the global level through IOM’s Headquarters in Geneva as well as the regional and national levels through specialist staff in the IOM regional and country offices. 

In the East and Horn of Africa region, environmental considerations play an increasingly important role in migration management and policy-making. Migration resulting from environmental and climatic changes are predicted to continue and even worsen in the coming years, as the region is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, with floods and droughts being the most common hazards. IOM works at different levels in the East and Horn of Africa region- undertaking research to build the evidence base for policymakers and implementers; working with governments to develop policies that support safe and orderly migration and; implementing projects that help vulnerable communities to cope with climate change.

This story was written by the IOM Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) team in the Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa: Lisa Lim Ah Ken and Ivyne Mabaso with support from the IOM Ethiopia country office and MECC Headquarters in Geneva
For additional information please contact IOM Ethiopia Programme Support Unit at:
For more information on the links between migration, environment and climate change and IOM's work in this area,
visit the IOM Environmental Migration Portal: https://environmentalmigration.iom.