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.
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.
“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. “
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.
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.