By Amsale Getnet Aberra
Over the years I have met with a range of people from different parts of the world who could not stop talking about Ethiopia being the cradle of human kind and the land of cultural richness. I have also met individuals including academicians and policy makers with their own beliefs and biases that Ethiopians as coming from the land of extreme poverty, their exodus to the Middle East and beyond was the only way to survival and their (our) being was dependent on the charity of other countries including the Arab world. I was even told that Ethiopians who fled their country out of their economic desperation deserved all the treatment they receive in their new destinations as they need to confirm to the value system of their new community. The conversation I have had about the treatment of Ethiopians in the Arab world, although always end up with me being offended about what was said about my country and about my people, it always brings to my mind the assertion of the EPRDF that our economy has been hailed for its double digit growth making the country the top three African economies. I am not an economist by profession but as a citizen of the country, I have witnessed the level of poverty that pushes people to take extreme risks to leave our country, the income inequality and a few ethnically cloned well-to-do groups running the country. It is also worth mentioning here that EPRDF’s ethnic federalism policy that has brought to power the Tigray minority into much of the public sector has been corrupt and unaccountable exposing the rest of the population to extreme poverty. For example, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Ethiopia is perceived to be among the most corrupt nations and ranks 113rd out of 174 countries in 2012, giving context to the income disparity along the lines of ethnicity and political affiliations.
Ethiopia through the Lenses of Forced Migration
I would like to mention that the perils of the Ethiopian community as refugees, internally displaced persons or those subject to human trafficking is worth an in-depth exploration and cannot possible be done justice to in just a few words. I would, therefore, like to mention to my readers that the following are a few case studies dealing with the ordeal of Ethiopian men and women who have been trafficked en-route to Yemen, Israel and Southern Africa.
On the same note, although Ethiopian migrants might have a refugee claim on their own rights due to the persecution that they faced at the hands of the Ethiopian government, mostly on account of their political opinion, religion or ethnicity, the article does not particularly deal with recognized Ethiopian refugees per-se. Therefore, my reference to Ethiopian migrants could include potential refugees for the purposes of the UN refugee convention and/ or economic migrants.
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En-Route to Yemen and Beyond
“Desperate Choices, conditions, risks and protection failures affecting Ethiopian migrants in Yemen”, a research project published by the Danish Refugee Council and the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat depicts the disturbing reality of migration (mostly illegal) of Ethiopians to Yemen as a final destination or as a route to Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East. According to the 2012 Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat report, 75,000 Ethiopian migrants have travelled irregularly into Yemen in the year 2011. Ethiopian migrants who have made the desperate choice to travel on land from Ethiopia across Djibouti or Somalia and then by sea across the Arabian and Red Sea are faced with death from starvation, dehydration, banditry, suffocation from travelling in an overcrowded boat, drowning and even killing by their own smugglers and boat owners.
The following excerpts of interviews with an Ethiopian migrant who travelled from Wollo to Yemen followed by an Ethiopian male migrant from Addis Ababa to the same destination are clear representations of not only the physical, psychological and emotional violence Ethiopian migrants face but also the traumatic experience they had to endure to free themselves from among other things, poverty, human rights violations and political suppression in the EPRDF’s Ethiopia.
“There were so many dead bodies and skeletons en route from my home in Wollo [Ethiopia] to the coast in Djibouti that if you had to make the journey on your own you would not get lost because you could follow the remains of all those people who had failed to complete their journey”.
An Ethiopian female migrant from Wollo
“We were sad, angry and had lost hope due to the voyage. How many are thrown by the owner of the boat…how many are drown near the beach. We couldn’t help those (who) drown near to the beach since it was dark”.
An Ethiopian Male migrant from Addis Ababa
The unfortunate reality of the Ethiopian migrants in Yemen, Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf countries is not much different from what they faced in their own country Ethiopia. The Ethiopian migrant populations are subject to, among other things human rights abuses, sexual violence, extreme poverty, workplace discrimination and harassment by the authorities without any support from the Ethiopian embassies or consulates abroad.
The Ethiopian migrants as they are referred as “the boat people” are also subject to deportation back to Ethiopia, irrespective of the cause of their migration, either as economic migrants or as potential refugees for having fear of past or future persecution at the hands of the EPRDF government.
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The second set of Ethiopian migrants with the hopes of finding freedom from want and political suppression travel to Sudan and then to Egypt, a final destination or a transit country for some who want to continue to Israel passing through the Senai Peninsula, Libya or the Northern Mediterranean.
The desperation of the Ethiopian migrants that has forced them to flee their country in the worst possible way is filled with risks, especially when crossing the Senai dessert. CNN’s documentary “a deadly journey through the dessert” depicts the plight of refugees and migrants from the horn of Africa who try to cross the Senai dessert into Israel. The inhumane and degrading treatments inflicted by the traffickers with the hopes of receiving ransom include rape, beating, torture and electrocution. Local human rights groups including New Generation Foundation for Human Rights have also reported the booming lucrative illegal organ trafficking industry in Egypt which is primarily based on stealing body parts of migrants, including Ethiopians while they are still alive.
The plight of Ethiopian migrants also continues when they are subject to “Egypt’s shoot to kill policy” while attempting to enter Israel via the Senai dessert. The former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay underscored the need for an inquiry into the killing and disappearance of migrants on the Egyptian Israeli border and explained the situation as; ”while migrants often lose their lives accidentally while traveling in over-crowded boats, or trying to cross remote land borders, I know of no other country where so many unarmed migrants and asylum-seekers appear to have been deliberately killed in this way by Government forces.”.
The lucky few African migrants, including Ethiopians who have made it to Israel are also subject to detention and deportation back to their respective countries according to Israel’s policy of preserving the Jewish Character of the state with its xenophobic touch. Therefore, African refugees and migrants of over sixty thousand, also known as “infiltrators” are at risk of deportation back to their governments who might have persecuted them and due to structural discrimination and violence subjected them to extreme poverty and deprivation of resources.
En-route to Southern Africa and Beyond
African migrants including Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalis use Kenya and Tanzania as a passage route to South Africa, which for some is a final destination or a way to oversees countries. The plight of the Ethiopian migrants that resulted in the death of 42 Ethiopian migrants who had been packed into a track heading from Tanzania to Malawi last year in June cannot be forgotten. According to a survivor who was lucky enough to live through the ordeal, the 127 Ethiopian migrants who had started their journey from Ethiopia in two tracks travelled through Nairobi and Arusha in Tanzania until they were transferred into one truck, which resulted in their death due to lack of oxygen in the container.
The death toll of Ethiopian migrants attempting to cross into Malawi and then to Mozambique to make it to South Africa is very much on the rise. The ordeal of a 55-year-old evangelist minister and political dissident from southern Ethiopia who had to pay smugglers to take him from Moyale in Kenya to Johannesburg in South Africa included being left by the smugglers for five days without any food or water near the Malawi border which led to the death of many other migrants due to heat and malaria. The Ethiopian migrant who had been interviewed by IRIN which is the news portal for UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, explained that while he was into hiding near the Malwi border, another group of Ethiopian migrants using a different smuggler were attempting to cross Lake Malawi when their overloaded boat capsized, 47 of the migrants drowned.
The scale of tragedies faced by Ethiopian migrants is an indication of a thriving and deadly human smuggling industry that is costing Ethiopians a lot of valuable lives. However, despite the increase in fatalities, it seems not to have a deterrent effect on the decision made by the Ethiopian community struggling with conflict, political oppression, drought and extreme poverty to not to take such risky routes to leave their country. A decision of able-minded Ethiopians to take whatever risk comes to them including death is a sign of desperation and lack of choice in one’s own country created by the dictatorship of the EPRDF regime and its lack of good governance..
Amsale Getnet Aberra is LL.M student at the University of Washington and may be reached at email@example.com