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Human Trafficking Center

Djibouti: The Next Thailand?



Apr 2016



By guest bloggers Hannah Kooy & Sanne Terlingen,*

This blog is part of a series based on the original, investigative research of the authors.  Their full report can be found here. The second part of this series will be published soon.

One hundred thousand a year. That’s the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) estimated number of migrants travelling through Djibouti to reach the Middle East. This number should be cause for concern, as the United States’ 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) notes, “En route and on arrival, migrants and refugees are especially vulnerable to being trafficked.”  

In the case of Djibouti, most migrants and refugees come from neighbouring countries: Ethiopia and Somalia. Some of them travel onwards immediately, some of them stay in Djibouti City– undocumented – to earn money to pay their smuggler before they can continue their journey.

Despite Djibouti’s small size, it’s central location on the Horn of Africa makes it a crucial transit point for several migration flows in the region, also making it a high-risk country for human trafficking.

But there is more which fuels the degree of human trafficking in Djibouti, in particular sex trafficking: the busy trucking corridor towards Ethiopia and the presence of thousands of foreign soldiers.

Foreign Military Bases

For the American military, Djibouti is the main logistical hub in Africa for the War on Terror. Camp Lemonnier is their only permanent military base on the continent. Most drones used in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in Yemen take off from Djibouti. Other militaries have settled in Djibouti to train their armies in the harsh desert climate (the French Foreign Legion) or to use its ports as a base for operations against the Somali pirates who terrorize the world’s busiest shipping route along the Gulf of Aden. Even China has recently started building their first African military base, to Washington’s displeasure.

Mass Surveillance vs. Blind Spot

Despite the substantial Western military presence, and the clear risks of human trafficking, there have been no publications about this issue in the English-language media. Which is peculiar: since the country is about the size of New Jersey, with less than a million inhabitants. Are 100.000 migrants transiting unnoticed? On top of that Djibouti is known for its relative political stability, but also for its lack of political freedom and strong surveillance of the population by the, you might say dictatorial, government.

As one U.S. embassy official proclaims in a cable published by Wikileaks, ‘Djibouti is less a country than a commercial city state controlled by one man, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh.’ From other Wikileaks cables we learn that Washington is well-informed about what goes on in Djibouti. The American government work in close cooperation with the Djiboutian intelligence services, who are lavishly praised by one U.S. official, “They have demonstrated the capability to deter terrorism and have been successful in intercepting and turning over suspected terrorists to U.S. authorities. […] Yes, the National Security Service has been extremely cooperative with Embassy requests; what they lack in experience they make up for in cooperation. The Embassy enjoys a strong relationship.”

Sex industry

In October 2015 when we paid the country a visit, we discovered that the scale on which human trafficking occurs in Djibouti should not be underestimated. Next to the trafficking along the migration route towards the Arabian Peninsula, it turned out a bustling nightlife had developed in Djibouti City. A nightlife in which undocumented Somali and Ethiopian women and girls perform sex work on a grand scale to cater to the needs of an ever-growing international party scene. Some international visitors even refer to Djibouti as the “Las Vegas of Africa.” A big part of the reason why this sex industry arose is the strong presence of foreign militaries. The 2014 TIP Report also acknowledges “[m]embers of foreign militaries stationed in Djibouti contribute to the demand for women and girls in prostitution, including possible trafficking victims.”  American law classifies all minors engaged in commercial sex as victims of trafficking, and many adult women live in conditions that make them vulnerable to trafficking as well.

Girls disappear from the camps

We discovered where the girls in the nightclubs come from during a visit to the U.N. refugee camp Ali Addeh. In addition to migrants, there are 21,000 registered refugees in Djibouti, of which the lion’s share lives in the Ali Addeh camp. The prospects here are bleak. There aren’t sufficient means to properly feed and house, let alone educate, the inhabitants. In a conversation with a group of women we learned that most minors leave the camp after the age of 15. Most girls look for work as a maid in the capital, which is hard to find – even for local girls –  as Djibouti has an unemployment rate of about 60 percent. This combination of desperation and the lack of other options leads some of them, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the one occupation which is in demand: sex work.

Like Thailand and the Philippines

The emergence of a sex industry close to a military base is not a first. As professor David Vine describes in his book Base Nation. How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, it is common for commercial sex zones to appear in the vicinity of American military bases worldwide. For instance, according to Vine, the Vietnam War contributed to the transformation of the Thai resort of Pattaya into “one of the world’s largest red light districts.” Pattaya was a favorite destination for spending time meant for R&R [rest and recreation], “or, as some called it, I&I – intoxication and intercourse.” As Vine notes, “Even during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been multiple reports of brothels and sex trafficking involving U.S. troops and contractors.”

The fact that the sprouting up of sex zones near military bases is an almost common phenomenon does not make it any less abominable. According to American legal standards, which form the basis for ranking in the TIP report, the Somali and Ethiopian minors in the sex industry in the clubs of Djibouti City are victims of human trafficking. As reported by the children’s charity organization Humanium, “In 2009 there were 2,430 arrests made because of sex work. 408 among them were between 10 and 17 years old.”

All of this occurs in a context where prostitution is against the law in Djibouti, and the act of patronizing a prostitute violates U.S. military law. As Vine rightly observes, “Given the prevalence of sex trafficking in the industry, troops also violate national and international prohibitions on supporting human trafficking. Unlike the Las Vegas fantasy, what goes on in the camptowns doesn’t stay in the camptowns.”

*Sanne Terlingen and Hannah Kooy are investigative journalists working for OneWorld in the Netherlands. In December 2015 they published a longread article on human trafficking in Djibouti, which you can read here. They are currently working on a follow-up publication. Feel free to contact them via and

Photo Credit: Sanne Terlingen

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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