Barely three years after more than 160,000 Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia were expelled from the Kingdom, an estimated 400,000-750,000 Ethiopian migrant workers face a dire situation again. No one really knows the exact number involved; but it is in the hundreds of thousands. The eminent nature of these mass deportations reveal two intractable and interrelated fundamental human rights issues in international and domestic policy.
First and foremost is the inability of the Ethiopian government to meet the hopes and aspirations of its bulging youth. Those under the age of 35 constitute 70 percent of Ethiopia’s 104 million people. Experts estimate that Ethiopia needs to create more than 2.5 million jobs each year. Compounding this lack of opportunity is a crushing and debilitating system of government that crushes all forms of dissent, rejects the right to demand services and to hold government officials accountable for crimes against extrajudicial killings, forcible disappearances, evictions, displacements, jailing and torture.
Despite its constant rhetoric that it has embarked upon a period of unprecedented “renaissance” for its large population, Ethiopia’s police state is incapable of creating work opportunities or providing basic services. Instead, the regime resorts to all forms of cruel and inhumane treatments including encouraging hundreds of thousands to leave Ethiopia. The exodus of people is unprecedented in Ethiopian history. The regime continues to believe that this exodus generates foreign exchange and is therefore worth the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives and the dignity of Ethiopians.
Hence, the allure of a better life abroad and the push from cruel and inhumane treatment constitute the key divers of indescribable flight and brain drain from Ethiopia. Ordinary Ethiopians prefer to take risks and leave their homeland in droves than to suffer from humiliation, recurrent assaults and slow deaths at home. The government of Ethiopia is incapable of removing the root causes that led millions of peaceful citizens in Oromia, Amhara, Konso and other locations to revolt against this crushing system barely one year ago. More than 1,000 innocent people were murdered; and no one has been held accountable for these atrocities. Unwilling to respond to the popular revolt, the regime declared a State of Emergency for six months that it has now extended by 4 more months. For practical purposes, political, social and spiritual space is totally closed. A closed society cannot create jobs or establish an environment in which citizens would have a fighting chance to make a living in their homeland.
If the regime has failed to match the East Asian Miracle of growth and development over the past 27 years, do not expect that it can match them in the next 30 or 50 years. The fundamentals are broken and cannot be fixed by the same crowd that enriched themselves over a quarter century!! The tragedy in exclusionary and repressive governance shrouded under the developmental state is that, the regime’s leaders refuse to compare their contributions with the best of the best in the East and South Asia, Latin America, North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, they keep telling the Ethiopian people that the regime is doing better than the Imperial regime and the Dergue, both of which are long gone and history. Why not dare to compare Ethiopia’s growth with current success stories such as Botswana, Mauritius, Seychelles, Namibia and increasingly Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda etc.? Ethiopia’s per capita income is a third of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The regime has failed miserably in meeting the demands and needs of Ethiopian youth. They leaves in droves because the system is both hostile and disempowering. Any regime incapable of responding to its youthful population is at the same time incapable of serving the country and all of its citizens. Immigrants suffer from this vicious and cruel system.
Second, even in better times, Saudi Arabia is not known for humane treatment of migrant workers. Migrant workers do not have human rights; they are treated as disposable modern “slaves.” Therefore, the Saudi Arabia’s “Saudization” or indigenization program comes at the worst time for Ethiopian migrant workers. Millions of Ethiopians suffer from one of the worst cases of drought famine. A 2017 assessment of fragile states by the Fund for Peace identifies Ethiopia among the 15 most fragile countries in the world. The report underscores the fact that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that dominates the government exercises total monopoly over political, economic, security and other policy and decision-making institutions. “The TPLF control is self-evident. The military establishment is Tigrean.” Group grievances are common and are left un-addressed. Ethiopia’s middle class is in shambles. Wealth is concentrated in a few hands, mostly Tigreans. The TPLF controls almost all natural resources.
In a similar vein the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace opined that “The EPRDF position of power remains fundamentally fragile, owning primarily to the internal contradictions of the EPRDF regime.” Consequently, the regime is incapable and unable to meet the basic needs of citizens.
Against these dire conditions, migrant workers face enormous problems in Ethiopia. History is likely to repeat itself. Three years ago, those who returned to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia found themselves in a worst condition and thus returned to Saudi Arabia and other countries in droves. At the time, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups reported degrading conditions, indescribable human rights abuses by police and gangs in Saudi detention camps. The current deportation order might be far worse than the last. Because the numbers are far greater and the decision is not reversible or flexible. On 19 March, 2017, the Ministry of the Interior of Saudi Arabia issued a national campaign under the title of ‘A Nation Without Violations’ and gave “illegal migrants” 90 days from March 29, 2017 to leave the country without paying penalties. According to the edict, “illegal migrants” who fail to leave within the time frame will be evicted forcibly or face other punishments.
What is the responsibility of the government of Ethiopia?
First and foremost is for the Ethiopian government to express outrage against this cruel and unusual punishment and to defend the human rights of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. It is to urge the government of Saudi Arabia to treat Ethiopians with respect and dignity and to negotiate a reasonable, honorable and safe exit for all Ethiopians regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, health condition, income level and marital status. On this score, Ethiopian officials are consistently numb and show zero interest for Ethiopian lives either at home or abroad.
The decision by Saudi authorities to “revive the economies of companies and establishments and protect small businesses and projects from illegal expats, while also reducing unemployment rates and creating a safe economic and social environment” might seem reasonable on the surface. After all, all nations serve their national interests first. Currently, Saudi society depends on an estimated 9-12 million foreigners to support the economy, especially services. The Middle East Monitor estimates that a third of Saudi’s population is composed of foreigners from a broad spectrum of countries including Ethiopia. These foreigners claim that they are “unpaid, underpaid and ill-treated” by their employers. Worse off among these are migrant workers and illegal immigrants. Those who protest for decent wages and decent treatment are often “flogged and jailed.” They are treated worse than “dogs.”
The world community and callous governments such as Ethiopia’s show minimal interest. Ethiopian officials are much keener to benefit from remittances migrant workers send to Ethiopia more than they show an ounce of empathy for their ill treatment. The Ethiopian Embassy is literally closed for business when it comes to migrant workers.
It is true that in 2013, international pressure and especially vigorous and worldwide campaign spearheaded by Ethiopian Diaspora groups, most notably by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia and now the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) did a terrific job persuading both the Saudis and Ethiopian authorities to repatriate more than 160,000 Ethiopians.
Given the magnitude of the problem and the intractable root causes that push Ethiopians out of their homeland, Diaspora fund mobilization and support to repatriate more than 400,000 Ethiopians is virtually untenable.
The cost of repatriation must therefore be borne primarily by the government of Ethiopia. It is unreasonable to expect poor migrants who borrowed and used all family savings to migrate to Saudi Arabia to pay for their transportation to the country they left in the first place. The government ought to also entertain the notion of “regularization or legalization” of migrant workers whose skill sets are in demand within Saudi Arabia. It is inevitable that given lack of opportunities in Ethiopia, many thousands will renter Saudi Arabia, making the administrative costs of repeated reentry and expulsion prohibitive for the Saudis while tarnishing their public image perpetually and irreparably.
Further, the government of Ethiopia owes it to Ethiopian families of migrants to demand that the government of Saudi Arabia stop its barbaric treatment and abusive treatment of Ethiopian migrant workers. In 2013 Human Rights Watch and the Regional Mixed Migration Screening (RMMS) reported that returnees told them that “they were detained for weeks by Saudi authorities in appalling conditions with severe overcrowding, lack of access to air and daylight, sweltering heat and limited medical assistance.
Further Ethiopians suffered from “theft of migrants’ belongings, beatings, sexual abuses, rapes, maiming, flogging and killings.” Sadly, the government of Ethiopia never voiced concern let alone outrage. Given this negligence by Ethiopian officials, the international media did not report the atrocities.
Ethiopians should therefore conclude from this that similar atrocities will persist. If they cannot count on the government to deal with the root causes for their flight, it is unlikely that it will take a different position this time around. Yet, the situation in 2017 is even more ominous and much more urgent. In 2013/2014 165,000 Ethiopians were deported over the course of only 4 months. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDSA) estimates that at least 260,000 Ethiopian migrant workers returned to Saudi Arabia in 2016 alone.” UNDSA maintains a data base on the number of legal or regular Ethiopian migrants to Saudi Arabia, which in 2016 numbered 124,000. It does not have an accurate count of irregular or illegal migrants estimated at more than 4 times this number. Sadly, Ethiopians continue to migrate through Yemen and other locations, often risking their lives and human rights. Expulsions alone have done little to nothing to contain the tide.
Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia has granted 50,000-80,000 entry visas to Ethiopians. At least twenty thousand have returned to Ethiopia. Depending on which source you believe, hundreds of thousands are in limbo and desperate. Reports indicate that Saudi authorities have begun to arrest thousands. These prisoners are housed in concentration camps where they face the prospect of communicable diseases, hunger and ill-treatment.
This humanitarian crisis requires urgent and concerted response from the global community in general and human rights groups such as UNHCR, Red Crescent, the International Red Cross, the International Office for Migration (IOM) and other non-governmental organizations. IOM is best prepared and equipped to facilitate the deportation process while providing sustenance to those in detention centers as it did in Yemen in 2013. It is IOM that quotes the much higher figure of 750,000 Ethiopian migrants in limbo and facing deportation immediately.
The sheer number of these migrants makes it virtually impossible for the government of Ethiopia to repatriate all of them at the same time. Far worse, Ethiopia does not have the economic and infrastructural capacity to accommodate returnees and to restore their lives. This is the reason why the government requested IOM to raise global awareness, mobilize funds, spearhead the repatriation effort, provide post-arrival assistance and assist in the reintegration process.
However, IOM cannot negotiate the terms of treatment of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia or defend and safeguard that their fundamental human rights and human dignity. It cannot negotiate a longer grace period and time frame. Only Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn can do these.
At minimum, the Prime Minister should make an official visit to Saudi Arabia and make a personal plea to the highest officials of the Kingdom. The Prime Minister should also call on his own government to establish a high level Commission of Experts to look into the root causes of the problem; and come up with long term solutions for this recurring tragedy. Ethiopia should change its national shame image by offering solutions to social ills rather than punish dissent and crush human rights.
In the meantime, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister should commit his government to repatriate all those willing to leave Saudi Arabia free of charge. The safe return of Ethiopians cannot be left to the government of Saudi Arabia that wants them out. Nor can it be left to a third non-governmental organization whose primary role is facilitation.
The government of Ethiopia can no longer mask the problem. It is a national disgrace. It should be honest and bold enough to tell the Saudis and the global community that it cannot accommodate this enormous demand without global funding, including funding from the World Bank.
The large Ethiopian Diaspora has a vital role to play.
- It should carry out a concerted global effort by seeking international media coverage by renowned entities such as CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera.
. It should initiate a letter campaign to draw attention to human rights groups.
. Last but not least, the Diaspora should muster the courage to alert the global community that the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia is the root cause of the problem; and that the global community should stop shoring up one of the most corrupt, inept and repressive regimes in the world.
In this connection, Human Rights Watch’s report “Detained, Beaten, Deported: Saudi Abuses against Migrants during Mass Expulsions” depicts the structural problems deportees face. “Many arrived back in their countries destitute, unable to buy food or pay for transportation to their home areas, in some cases because Saudi officials arbitrarily confiscated their personal property. Many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants Saudi Arabia has deported in the last year and a half have been sent back to places where their safety is threatened.”
Evidence shows that Ethiopians won’t be safe at home when they return. By all measurements, the condition in Ethiopia is more suffocating, hostile and unwelcoming than it was three years ago.
What should we urge the government of Saudi Arabia to do?
- Consider relaxing the departure date
. Stop beating, flogging, torturing and abusing Ethiopian migrants; and bring those responsible for injustice including rapes to justice; and treat migrants with due process of international law. In 2013 in a neighborhood of southern Riyadh, where the majority of residents are Ethiopians, at least three Ethiopian workers were killed and numerous maimed and beaten.”
. Improve conditions of detention centers for migrants, provide proper shelters, safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and food; and
. Allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers and entertain the noble idea of recognizing a large number of Ethiopians as political refugees similar to other foreign migrants and immigrants.