Ethiopians see illegal migration as the only escape from violence

Analysis by Lauren Carruth and Lahra Smith/WP

Ethiopians disembark from a boat that carried them to Yemen in 2019. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Earlier this month, more than 300 people were killed in Ethiopia, as part of ongoing ethnic violence. The alleged atrocity comes on the heels of continuing conflicts — and a “climate of fear” for many political minorities and outspoken activists.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have fled their home country, often without visas or other documentation and often traveling secretly to avoid the attention of authorities. Many of these women and men head eastward, through neighboring Djibouti and across the Red Sea, in search of work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations. Ethiopians risk encountering armed conflict in Yemen and face additional dangers from drowning, dehydration, vehicle crashes, human trafficking and detention in inhumane prisons.

Why do so many people — even young mothers — risk everything to leave? Our ethnographic research in the Horn of Africa, including interviews with female migrants and the people and organizations assisting them, provides some insight.

What’s happening in Ethiopia is part of a larger trend. Around the world, many people fleeing violence in their home countries see little choice but to risk dangerous and clandestine journeys abroad. And while many are seeking employment, our research finds that, more fundamentally, they are escaping political and personal violence in Ethiopia.

Why women leave
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) finds that most Ethiopians heading eastward are ethnic Oromos, and up to half may be women. Women from the Oromia region of Ethiopia face disproportionate levels of medical insecurity and political repression as well as physical violence, domestic violence and sexual violence compared to other Ethiopians. Population displacement, human rights violations and repression of political dissent throughout Ethiopia and for many Ethiopian ethnic groups also continue. All of these conditions contribute to decisions to migrate abroad, as well as women’s relative lack of financial and social support along their journeys.

One woman we interviewed, Ayyantu, said she wanted to leave Ethiopia to find work, but also because of what she called “forced villagization,” or forced displacement, in the verdant eastern highlands of the country. Local officials had stolen her family’s livestock and other belongings, she said, and accused them of treasonous political activism. She and her brother decided she should go to Saudi Arabia for a housekeeping or child care job. Her brother helped save money for a “delala” — a guide — to help her cross the desert expanses and international borders. (The names of interview subjects have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Refugee camps are often isolated and miserable

Some Oromo Ethiopians who experienced threats or persecution at home, like Ayyantu and her family, seek asylum in towns and refugee camps scattered throughout Djibouti. But Djibouti’s arid landscapes and remote camps offer little in the way of economic or resettlement opportunities. Ali Addeh camp, for example, remains underfunded, and it’s located far from industrial, educational or transportation hubs. The climate is dry, hot and unfit for farming

The Markazi refugee camp, on the northeastern coast of Djibouti, is only a few miles from a bustling port. Yet there’s little shade in the camp, where temperatures regularly top 110 degrees Fahrenheit and dust storms regularly upend residential structures.

African refugees are exploited

Women we’ve interviewed who are fleeing violence and threats of persecution in Ethiopia often decline to live in desolate camps like these. Instead, they want to migrate elsewhere, to find work in countries where their labor is in high demand.

Popular destination countries for Ethiopian labor migrants, like Saudi Arabia, have not signed the Refugee Convention, a U.N. treaty that recognizes the human rights of people to seek asylum from persecution. These countries do not designate or recognize refugees as such and often do not guarantee them special protections or benefits. Many refugees live and work in these countries without legal status or documentation, which means they are subject to deportation and exploitation.

Escape routes are dangerous

More than a year before we met her, Ayyantu and three of her female friends packed into a car and rode 300 miles nonstop to the Ethiopian border with Djibouti. They got out of the car at night and walked across a remote stretch of desert, guided by a delala, and then got back in the same car, on the other side of the border. They were then driven two more hours to the town of Dikhil in the middle of Djibouti — nowhere near the Red Sea coast.

The delala then abandoned them. The four women found themselves trapped in Dikhil, without money or formal assistance, for the next year. They were forced to beg and take small jobs to survive.

Ayyantu described how memories of her sister, who had left Ethiopia 10 years earlier, kept her going. But Ayyantu refused to accept rumors of her sister’s struggles and instead imagined her living freely and happily in Saudi Arabia.

Ayyantu finally called her sister for help but was wired only enough money to pay for another delala to guide the friends by foot approximately 180 miles, along remote and mountainous trails, to an IOM transit center in northeastern Djibouti where they could get a plane ticket back home to Ethiopia.

Migration offers escape

Ayyantu and many other Ethiopians migrate abroad to escape violence. But most of the women we spoke to also expressed desires for opportunity and freedom — even adventure. In addition to escape, they wanted the chance, power and means to “build their own house,” as one woman phrased it.

Many Ethiopians — and people all around the world — continue to face violence and persecution at home. Refugee camps often offer refugees little hope of a better life. And opportunities for resettlement for African refugees in Europe and North America remain nearly impossible to access.

Without viable camps to seek refuge in, without countries that will resettle and protect them and without visas for work abroad, people like Ayyantu fleeing violence cross borders illegally and seek new lives wherever they can. And they survive these journeys not because of assistance or protection from governments, for the most part, but instead by drawing on informal networks of support — paid guides, family members and friends.

Lauren Carruth is a medical anthropologist who studies humanitarian response, global health, displacement and nutrition. She is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University and author of “Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region” (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Lahra Smith is a political scientist who studies citizenship, migration and political development in Africa. She is an associate professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University and director of the African Studies Program.

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