Year on year the numbers of men, women and children leaving Ethiopia for one of the Gulf states and beyond in search of work and freedom from repression is increasing.
Desperately seeking a future
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that this year around 85,000 Ethiopians left for Yemen, the hub of migration out of the Horn of Africa, lured by the often hollow prospect of earning enough money to support their family.
In the last six years about 250,000 Ethiopians have made the dangerous journey into this very poor and deeply divided country, which boasts the world’s second highest rate of chronic child malnutrition and where nearly half the population live in poverty.
But instead of jobs they sit low on the domestic workers hierarchy and, along with other African nationals, are discriminated against, not just in Yemen but throughout the Gulf region where xenophobia and racism are reflected in the region’s politics and government policies.
Most of the migrants fall in the 18-30 age group and come from rural or semi-rural parts of Ethiopia. They are typically poorly educated and many lack basic literacy. While most are driven to emigrate by poverty, about a 25 per cent are estimated to be members of opposition parties – notably the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogoden National Liberation Front – fleeing persecution by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, which rules over what is in effect a single-party state and allows no dissent or opposition even iwithin the bounds set by the constitution.
Smugglers masquerading under the acceptable guise of “brokers” exploit vulnerable individuals living in rural areas and having no knowledge of the wider world. Embedded within the community, they paint a picture of migration coloured by wealth and prosperity, opportunity and excitement. Accounts of horrific migration experiences are known but often ignored.
Migrants and smugglers alike are pushed to extremes, desperately trying to survive in a “dog eat dog” world that is dominated by an unjust, corrupt market economy which persecutes the poor and concentrates unlimited wealth and power in the hands of the few. It is a system in which huge corporations, banks and financial institutions of the developed nations, along with their allied governments, condition and define developing countries as they try against all odds to haul themselves out of poverty.
Hopeless journeys made in hope
Djibouti City is the first major stage in the harrowing journey to Yemen. Here or at sea all possessions –mobile phones, cash and clothes – are stolen by the smugglers, corrupt police or border guards. The journey to Djibouti’s capital is a harsh and dangerous one in which many Ethiopian migrants die of starvation, dehydration or are killed by bandits.
According to the US State Department, upon reaching Djibouti City migrant “women and girls may fall victim to domestic servitude or forced prostitution”. At Obock, the preferred crossing point into Yemen and gateway to the Gulf, the migrants “have no access to food, safe drinking water or shelter from the sun” and wait for days or weeks for favourable conditions to cross the perilous waters of the Gulf of Aden, in flimsy boats manned by vicious criminal gangs. The migrants usually come from Ethiopia by truck, although occasionally the entire journey is made on foot, over weeks through one of the hottest, most inhospitable areas in the world. Inevitably, many peril along the way.
Abduction, murder and rape
As shocking is the violent treatment migrants face. Murder, abduction and ransom demands, torture, rape and sexual abuse are the nightmares many are subjected to by criminal gangs and smugglers – all in the pursuit of 100 US dollars a month to feed and clothe their families a thousand or more kilometres away.
On arrival in Yemen men and women are separated, wives taken from husbands, daughters from fathers, brothers from sisters. Trafficking and multiple rape of women is widespread. A report by the humanitarian news service IRIN states that “the majority of the approximately 3,000 women held by smugglers in Haradh [on the border with Saudi Arabia] over the past year were raped, many of them repeatedly”.
The Danish Refugee Council relates this account from a 15-year-old boy who was captured by a gang. “They tied a rope round my legs and hung me upside down and beat me almost to death for three days. I was made to watch an Ethiopian woman being raped and an Ethiopian baby about one year old being killed.” Cases of male rape – a punishment for trying to stop the rape of a wife or sister – have also been documented.
Although deaths at the hands of smugglers have dramatically decreased, they have been replaced by abduction, the terrifying experience of the majority. With ransoms of between 100 and 300 dollars being demanded from family members who can barely feed themselves, many abductees linger on in captivity. Torture and violence at the hands of hostage takers is brutal: pulling teeth, gouging eyes, driving nails through hands and feet, cigarette burns are all reported. If ransoms are not paid, migrants are often beaten to death.
In March this year 70 Ethiopian men and women were discovered in Yemen’s Hajjah Governorate, near the border with Saudi Arabia. According to IRIN, “their captors, they said, had beaten them with pipes, burned them with cigarettes and poured liniment in their eyes, making them scream in pain”. This horrific incident came shortly after the killing of three Ethiopian men in January, shot while trying to escape from smugglers.
The ordeal of women begins in Djibouti. The Danish Refugee Council quotes an Ethiopian man recounting the sea passage when “four Yemeni smugglers were on board the boat. They raped the girls in front of us, we were not able to move or to speak, and those girls were already sold to Yemeni traffickers.” Many are abducted and held captive, sometimes for months on end. Their harrowing experiences are illustrated by the story of a 16-year-old girl from Wollo – recounted by the Danish Refugee Council – who was imprisoned for six months and repeatedly raped by gang members. Many other women report being “raped at almost every stage in their journey and stay within Yemen”. They “are often captured, kidnapped and disappear, and it is believed they are trafficked for sexual or domestic slavery”.
Yemeni government collusion
People smugglers are organized and well armed. According to the chief of police for Haradh District, which borders Saudi Arabia, where 4,000 Ethiopians currently await repatriation, “we face fierce resistance and shootouts. It’s like fighting an insurgency… As long as these people keep arriving the smugglers will keep taking them. There is nothing we can do.”
The Yemeni and Ethiopian governments have been discussing ways to present “all facilities required to return the Ethiopian refugees to their home,” said the Yemeni interior minister, without mentioning the brutal criminality taking place inside his country, the security services’ corruption and the complete lack of police activity to apprehend the smugglers, protect the migrants and end the trafficking.
The Yemeni authorities, who are shamefully complicit in the violence, are portraying Ethiopian and other migrants as the cause of and reason for the increased level of extreme criminality. In a sign that suggests possible state collusion with criminal gangs, it has been reported that Yemeni police activity “is also frequently preventing patrols along Yemen’s shores by humanitarian teams as they try to reach new arrivals before the smugglers”.
Corruption is endemic, with security officials coordinating with smugglers on the border with Saudi Arabia, “A climate of collusion and low political will to apprehend and prosecute smugglers is allowing the trade and abuse of migrants to flourish,” Reuters reports. The country is run – according to a military officer on the payroll of the smugglers to the tune of 2,000 dollars a month – “by tribes not policemen: these people are my friends.” These people are turning a bind eye to the murder, rape and the trafficking of innocent migrants seeking work to feed their families.
The right to be free and safe
The quest and heartfelt desire of the people of Ethiopia is for social justice and liberty, not migration to the Gulf or beyond. They are a deeply proud and dignified people who love the land of their birth. Overwhelmingly, they risk life and limb not in search of material wealth but to escape economic hardship and political imprisonment at the hands of a highly repressive regime that seeks total control and denies all freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution.
The political space must be opened, to allow – indeed, encourage – political and social participation and responsibility. This would cultivate an atmosphere of hope and strengthen the community. A nationwide programme to raise awareness of the dangers inherent in migration via Yemen and to the Gulf countries more broadly is an imperative responsibility of the government, which can be aided in this by international non-governmental organizations.
The non-partisan distribution of development aid – an ignored legal requirement – would be a positive step in bringing relief from extreme economic hardship and curtailing migration. Currently, grain fertilizers and food are selectively distributed by regime stooges based not on need, but on political affiliation. Ethiopia’s primary donors – the USA, Britain and the European Union – have a responsibility to ensure this is addressed, in addition to insisting that the Ethiopian government observes human rights, adheres to domestic and international law and end state repression. All such steps would build confidence in change, reducing the need to migrate.
Development that does not address humanitarian needs justly and denies the observation of basic human rights enshrined in law, pollutes the notion of change, allows state corruption to grow and confines government responsibility to the realization of targets set by international institutions seeking to maximize their returns and build political and economic models of conformity and control.
The Ethiopian government must take all necessary steps to safeguard its citizens. Appropriate consular support is essential in offering protection, advice and sanctuary to migrants, irrespective of their political affiliation or ethnicity. Urgent, sustained and coordinated efforts are needed by the affected countries to close down the criminal networks, route out corruption and safeguard migrants.
The innocent men, women and children from Ethiopia who make an impossible choice by migrating are not the villains in this ongoing human tragedy. They are the victims trapped in a terrifying nightmare.