Many are trying to reach Saudi Arabia via Yemen, while thousands of others head for South Africa, Israel and Europe, crossing deserts and seas and placing their lives in the hands of smugglers who often have little regard for their well-being.
Most of the migration from Ethiopia is undocumented, so accurate numbers are hard to come by, but the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported in 2010 that in Yemen alone nearly 35,000 of newly arrived migrants were Ethiopians, accounting for two-thirds of all new arrivals that year. Between January and October 2011, almost 52,000 Ethiopians made their way to Yemen.
Refugees from Somalia follow similar routes, often using the same smugglers, but their reasons for undertaking these dangerous journeys are more apparent: Somalia has been plagued by armed conflict for nearly two decades and is now in the midst of a famine.
Ethiopia is not engaged in a civil war, and although parts of the country have been hard hit by drought, it is one of the world’s largest recipients of development aid. However, it also has one of Africa’s largest populations – an estimated 75 million – with a growing rate of youth unemployment and a shortage of job opportunities.
“The main reason people migrate from Ethiopia to Yemen is because of need – they go there [Saudi Arabia] to earn money,” said Daud Elmi, 28, who left his village of Lafaisa in eastern Ethiopia to find work in Saudi in 2006.
Instead, he spent a year in a refugee camp in Djibouti, and another three months in a camp in Yemen, avoiding arrest by claiming to be a refugee from Somalia. After failing to earn enough money to cross into Saudi Arabia, he finally returned home.
Elmi advises others in his town who are planning to migrate to Yemen or Saudi not to take the risk, but a number still do. “Everyone goes there to improve his life,” he told IRIN. “What we earn here is hand-to-mouth – we can’t save. If you go there and send money home, you can build a house, start a business or help your relatives.”
Tagel Solomon, coordinator of irregular migration programmes at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), confirmed that Ethiopians usually migrate in search of economic opportunities.
Most are young men like Kadar Mowlid Mahamoud, 23, who teaches English and computer skills. He set off from Lafaisa in 2008, “seeking a better life” in Europe, but was lucky to make it through Somaliland, a self-declared state on the Gulf of Aden, and Yemen. He ran out of water near the Saudi Arabian border and resorted to drinking his own urine, only to be robbed at knifepoint shortly after crossing.
He eventually found casual labour on construction sites in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, and during the 18 months he spent there managed to save a little money. But after being severely injured in a car accident, his savings were wiped out by the hospital bill and he decided it was time to go home. He turned himself in to the authorities and was deported in October 2010.
Most Ethiopians who leave the country are classified as economic migrants and do not qualify for the protection and assistance that refugees receive, but a 2011 study of migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen by the Danish Refugee Council, notes that “a significant percentage fall in a grey zone that involves elements of economic migration brought on by political and economic oppression”.
Interviews with new arrivals in Yemen reveal that certain ethnic groups are harassed and suffer discrimination by local government officials in Ethiopia because of their perceived allegiance to rebel armed groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and even established opposition parties like the Oromo People’s Congress.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the authorities were carrying out mass arrests of ethnic Oromo Ethiopians, whom they alleged were members of the banned OLF. The Danish Refugee Council report said 47 percent of new Ethiopian arrivals registered in Yemen in 2010 were of Oromo ethnicity.
“You don’t even have to be an OLF sympathiser – any form of communication with someone who might have a link with the OLF could be enough to get you arrested, and this is what is very worrying,” Laetitia Bader, a researcher with HRW, told IRIN.
New Ethiopian arrivals interviewed in Yemen also confirmed the findings of a 2010 HRW report that ethnic groups such as the Oromos tend to have less access to international aid through donor-supported programmes, jobs and educational opportunities.
“Oromos are always linked to the Front,” said a 24-year-old woman quoted in the report. “As Oromos we can’t get work or an education. They [the government] will not allow us to develop.”
Solomon of IOM said the activities of smugglers and their agents have driven up migration from Ethiopia. “Smugglers come to villages and tell people they’ll get jobs [in the Middle East] and it’s relatively easy,” he told IRIN. “There have been a number of arrests as part of a government effort to crack down on this network, but there is a lot of money involved.”
Local stories of success or failure can be even more persuasive than the smugglers. In Lafaisa, one man is rumoured to have made it to Malta and to be sending money home to his family, but more common are stories like that of Abdirizak Mohamed Mohamoud, who set off for Italy but spent seven months in various Libyan jails, and another 18 months trying to earn enough money simply to get home.
Failed attempts to migrate can be financially devastating for a household that has pooled its resources and even sold property to raise the cash for smugglers’ fees. Mohamoud said he would not try again and discouraged others from making the same mistake. “I’m an example for my village,” he told IRIN. “If I had succeeded, all the others would have gone.”
Yet cautionary tales are not enough to counter the root causes of Ethiopia’s exodus, and even a negative personal experience often does not deter people from trying again.
IOM is running a project in the Oromia Zone of Amhara in Ethiopia to reduce migration by not only raising awareness of the risks, but by supporting income-generating schemes, and providing youth training.
No such programme exists in Lafaisa and Mahamoud still wants to go to Europe. “I will wait until the demonstrations [in Yemen] are over, then I’ll go back,” he told IRIN, adding that he advises his students to do the same.
“I have no future in Ethiopia,” he said. “I’ve seen Europe on TV, and it’s better.”