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Migration & Refugees

Ethiopia Swamped by Tidal Wave of Returned Migrants

Dwindling land access in Ethiopia is a critical issue for 80 percent of the population who make a living as small farmers. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

ADDIS ABABA, Dec 21 2013 (IPS) - The return of 120,000 young undocumented migrant workers from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia has sparked fears that the influx will worsen the country’s high youth unemployment and put pressure on access to increasingly scarce land.

As a result, a growing number of young Ethiopians are choosing to migrate to Sudan to circumvent an indefinite travel ban slapped by the Ethiopian government last month on Ethiopian workers traveling to Middle Eastern countries.

"I was forced to work seven days a week, 20 hours a day. I was not allowed to leave the house. It was hell." -- A 23-year-old woman who just returned from Riyadh

Esther Negash, 28, is from a family of nine that lives on a four-hectare farm dedicated to growing maize in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. She has been out of work since leaving school 10 years ago.

Negash’s family recently decided to use their savings to fund her migration to Khartoum in search of employment.

“In the last two months, there have been many people returning from Saudi Arabia. This makes things worse for people like me who cannot find work,” she told IPS.

“The rains were short this year and we did not have a good harvest. My family is large, if we don’t get a good harvest then it is very difficult. We heard about work opportunities in Sudan and thought this was our only solution.”

A large number of Ethiopians migrate every year in search of brighter economic prospects, with the Middle East being the dominant destination.

Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on undocumented foreign workers began after a seven-month amnesty period expired on Nov. 3. Since then, 120,000 Ethiopian migrants have been repatriated to Ethiopia after being corralled in a deportation camp for two months, where conditions are reportedly abject.

Many Ethiopians have reported human rights violations at the hands of their employers as well as while under the control of security forces inside the camps.

IPS spoke to a 23-year-old woman who had just arrived in Ethiopia after working as a domestic in Riyadh for two years. Her account is similar to many other experiences narrated by returnees.

“My employer would sexually abuse me and beat me. I was forced to work seven days a week, 20 hours a day. I was not allowed to leave the house. It was hell,” she said.

“They did not pay me for one year even though I worked also for their relatives. I am so tired and so sad. [But] I am so happy to be back in Ethiopia,” she told IPS.

Despite the many terrible experiences recounted by Ethiopian returnees, poverty and limited economic prospects will continue to force Ethiopian workers to migrate to countries like Sudan and overseas, says the International Labour Organisation, which is working to make regular migration methods more attractive for Ethiopians instead of using unaccountable and illegal brokers to facilitate their migration.

“After the ban, people will try any means possible to work abroad due to a lack of employment opportunities in their home country,” George Okutho, director of the ILO Country Office for Ethiopia and Somalia, told IPS.

“These returnees travelled to Saudi Arabia looking for economic opportunities with a greener pasture mindset in the hope that they could send their family remittances to raise living standards at home. However, most of the time migrant workers are acting on misinformation about the prospects and country of destination,” he said.

A lack of education and skills make Ethiopian migrants especially vulnerable to working in dangerous and exploitative working conditions, both at home and abroad, said Okutho.

“The problem is many of Ethiopia’s migrant workers are uneducated and ill-eqipped even for the domestic work they seek outside the country,” he said. “The result is that even if they go to the Middle East or Sudan, they can earn a little more than when at home, but because they are untrained they end up working in very extreme and difficult circumstances without knowing their rights. “

The Ethiopian government’s planning and logistical capacity has been overwhelmed by the rapidly rising number of returnees. An initial expectation of 23,000 returnees jumped to 120,000 in one month.

“We are engaged with the Saudi government and we are working hard to return Ethiopians stranded in Saudi Arabia,” Dina Mufti, foreign affairs spokesperson, told IPS.

“The number of Ethiopians working illegally is much higher than we anticipated. The Ethiopian government recognises that these people will need employment and so we are trying to create opportunities to assist these people, many of them young, and rehabilitate them back into their communities,” she said.

Dwindling land access in Ethiopia is a critical issue for 80 percent of the population who make a living as small farmers. In the mountainous region of Tigray, the average land availability per household is 3.5 ha.

As life expectancy increases, the potential for subdividing farm plots reduces, leaving many of Ethiopia’s youth food insecure and unemployed.

In the last year, a large number of young people have joined regular protests staged in the country’s main cities to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with high unemployment and inflation.

The inundation of over 120,000 people has the potential to further disenfranchise youth in Ethiopia, where the majority of the population of 91 million earn less than two dollars a day.

Hewete Haile, 18, lives outside Sero Tabia, a small town where youth unemployment is spiraling. Out of 2,200 households, 560 young people between 17 and 35 are unemployed, without access to land or income.

Outside the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa, Haile is queuing with several hundred other young girls, mostly from remote rural villages, in hopes of obtaining a visa to allow her to look for work in Khartoum.

Hewete’s friends say a domestic in Khartoum is paid eight dollars a day compared to four dollars in Addis Ababa.

“I would not be leaving my country if there was a way for me to work and make a good income here in my country,” she told IPS.

“If Sudan does not work out then I will travel from there to the Middle East. I know what happened in Saudi Arabia. I would not be leaving Ethiopia if I could get work here, but it is getting more difficult all the time,” she said.

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