When Mohamed Yusuf left his home town in Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia a year ago at the age of 17, he thought life would change for the better. Instead, a difficult and unprofitable stay in Saudi Arabia ended when he was among the nearly 137,000 undocumented Ethiopian migrants deported by the Saudi authorities to date.
"At first, I thought I was going to change my life and those of my father and mother, who paid for the whole trip out of their meagre income," said Yusuf, whose father is a farmer in northern Ethiopia. However, the gruelling journey to Saudi Arabia and his stay there had been harrowing experiences, he told IRIN.
During the long trek through Ethiopia’s northeastern Afar Desert to Djibouti on the Red Sea, he endured hunger and thirst and had to bury some of his friends, who perished along the way. On reaching Djibouti, he paid smugglers 5,000 Ethiopian Birr (US$261) to take him from Obock, on Djibouti’s northern coast, across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. From there he made his way to Saudi Arabia.
The majority of male migrants from Ethiopia follow similar routes when crossing into Saudi and mostly depart from Obock, although many also leave from Somaliland. Female migrants usually enter as domestic workers under Saudi Arabia’s ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system.
Human rights groups say the system creates conditions for abuse, including rules requiring workers to obtain permission from their employer to change jobs. Those who do so without permission are considered undocumented and were among those rounded up during the government’s crackdown on foreign workers, which started in early November 2013.
Initially, Yusuf found work as a shepherd in a rural area of Saudi Arabia but decided to leave after two months because his employers refused to pay him the 800 Saudi Arabian riyals ($213) they owed him. "One day I decided to quit my job and fled to the city [of Jeddah]. And that was when I got captured by the police and put into prison for five months before coming here like this with many Ethiopians," he told IRIN.
There was no opportunity to earn back the cost of getting there, let alone fulfil his dream of a better life. “I’m confused and do not have any idea what I’m going to do next,” he told IRIN. "One thing is for sure, I will never go back to that country after seeing and hearing what is happening to Ethiopians there."
Number of returnees still rising
According to Human Rights Watch and testimony from returnees, during the crackdown, Ethiopian migrant workers were subjected to beatings by Saudi police and citizens that resulted in at least three deaths.
Another returnee, Kidane Gebre, told IRIN: "After hearing this, my mother will be terrified and waiting for me anxiously. Many people from my home town were victims of this violence."
Many of those rounded up were held in makeshift detention centres without adequate food or shelter while they awaited repatriation.
The Ethiopian government initially estimated that some 30,000 undocumented citizens were being detained and would need to be repatriated, but as of 16 December the number of returnees had reached 136,946. Of these, 84,721 were men, 45,157 women and 7,068 children.
Up until last week, over 7,000 were arriving every day, but according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number has now slowed to about 1,000 a day. A further 35,000 migrants are still expected, according to IOM.
Six transit centres have been set up in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to receive the returnees and, with the support of government, IOM has been providing temporary accommodation, meals, medical services and a $50 transportation allowance to help the migrants complete their journey home. The organization launched an appeal on 6 December for $13.1 million to continue addressing their needs, but to date had only raised $1.9 million.
“As the number of returnees increases, the financial gap has further widened,” notes a press briefing from IOM released on 17 December.
IOM's Chief of Mission in Ethiopia, Josiah Ogina said the migrants included vulnerable people, such as the victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, and disabled persons. "Many of those detained and returned to Ethiopia arrived in need of medical support," Ogina told international donors in Addis Ababa.
'A blessing in disguise'
Ethiopian government officials say they are viewing the situation as an opportunity to educate the public about the risks of irregular migration. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti, said most of returnees had told interviewers they would not have left the country if they had known more about the treatment of migrant workers in Saudi, and what they would have to endure to get there.
"We know that there are people who went there by selling their houses and [those of] their families as well. Despite a lot of sad stories, we consider this as a blessing in disguise, as it could be a lesson for those who want to go there illegally and without proper preparation,” said Mufti. “These migrants have stories to tell on how they moved out, which could help the government to track down traffickers and improve the situation in the future."
The number of returning migrants who will need more than just immediate assistance is high, but apart from organizing repatriation flights, the Ethiopian government has no plans to help them in the longer term. Mufti said the government's current focus is on "bringing them to their country and providing them with necessary services such as transportation to their home town".
Like other young people, the returnees could benefit from the government’s five-year Growth and Transformation Plan, which aims to stimulate economic growth and create jobs.
"We are creating a lot of job opportunities through Small and Medium Enterprises,” he said. “If we can do more on this, we can definitely absorb those who want to go out [of the country] and help change their lives and [those of] their families as well."