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Analysis – daring a long journey just to be across borders

The number of young Ethiopians trying to leave the country at any cost via the eastern part of Ethiopia shows no decline

Kalkidan Yibeltal

Harar- Inside the compound of the Harari Regional Police Commission’s Headquarters in eastern Ethiopia sit an assemblage of some one hundred young men and women waiting for buses to take them back to where they came from – their home villages in the Northern part of the country. They have resemblances transcending their disheveled appearances and deranged gazes. Many of them are in their early twenties; while some are not well past their teens. They all have one thing in common: they have taken the long journey from their home towns and villages just to cross the Eastern border and enter Somalia. But their final destination and hope is not in Somalia, but somewhere Gulf States.


Many of them see Saudi Arabia as their preferred destination. They are determined to take whatever it takes including spending time in places like Somalia and Yemen. But now they are caught in quite predictable fashion, in quite predictable places; they have to face the harsh reality that all what they have paid – financially, emotionally, energetically and in time, has not been enough. Some of them have seen their journey cut short in Harar, the ancient city some 500 km from Addis Abeba. But some others have managed to make it as far as Jigjiga, the Seat of the Somali Regional State further east. That was where Ahmed Muhe was caught by the police.

Ahmed is something of an outlier. He is only 11 (perhaps 12) years old. When, weeks ago, he decided to follow his older brother “to Jeddah,” he was only a grade five student. He said he had stolen 800 ETB (US$45 roughly) from his parents to fund his journey.


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Together, they left their hometown, Kemise, up in the North, in Wollo area of the Amhara Regional State. Four days later they ended up in Jigjiga. “Then my brother told me to buy [bottled] water and I went to the kiosk,” he says alternating swiftly between Amharic and Afan Oromo. “When I returned, he wasn’t there.”
Looking at Ahmed, an expression of bewilderment betrays the face of Commander Tassew Challew, Public Relations Head at Harari Regional Police Commission. “Almost all of [those trying to cross the border to Somalia] illegally are under the age of 25. We get a lot of 15, 16 year olds. But kids like him? That is a first.”


According to the Commander, in the past Ethiopian year (from September 2014 to August 2015) around 8000 would be migrants, of whom 1000 were women, were caught by the police. The commission prepares buses (like now) to take them to their home towns and villages. Or to be precise, they were taken to Addis Abeba, where they were supposed to return to their home towns and villages. Unfortunately, there are occasions when some of them drop off the buses at the first opportunity they get and return back to Jigjiga immediately, Commander Tassew concedes. Many others go home as planned. But they stay there only for a while, often taking off for another shot in a couple of month’s time.

The Commander sees the absence of a well-organized structure that facilitates their return home a particularly pressing issue.

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Shambel Mohamed knows the severity of the route to Saudi Arabia and the perils one encounters once one arrives there. It was only last April that he was deported to Ethiopia from Riyadh. He traveled to the oil rich country which is often criticized for its human rights abuses via Djibouti. He paid 6000 ETB (About US$300) for a boat that took him to Yemen where he spent a while working in a farm trying to save money for the other half of his trip.

Shambel’s experience as a farmer in a small rural area around Kombolcha in Amhara Regional State, where he is originally from, certainly helped him. He was firm in his belief that all inhumane treatments he had to go through in Yemen: the beatings and his stolen money, among them, would not in any way stop him. What he didn’t foresee coming was he could only stay in Saudi Arabia for three months before he was caught by law enforcement officers. “I came back bare handed,” he says. It is not difficult to read his despair.


Refugees in Harar A - Photo - Fistum Fisseha

Waiting in vain

After returning home he rejoined his old profession; farming. Explaining his rationale for attempting once again to travel to Saudi Arabia, a plan which was prematurely cut before he left Eastern Ethiopia this time, Shambel said “God knows [what happens to me.] No one changes his/her life in farming,” a sentiment shared by fellow traveller Lemlem.

It is especially hard for a farmer these days, as Lemlem testifies. She is from Raya, the southern tip of the Northernmost State in Tigray. Her education came to an end at grade 10 when she failed the national exam. “I couldn’t even get grades that would take me to technical school,” she says.Thus, before she sets her eyes on the long journey, she had to work as a farmer. “But it is difficult,” she said in a weak voice, her Tigregna accent growing ever more distinct. “[Especially] now, since there is no rain”


The sources and the means
In the first three months of the Ethiopian year 2008, (Sep – Nov 2015) close to a thousand young men and women were stopped while trying to cross to Somalia. This was done in a collaborative effort between the Harari and Somali Regional States as well as Eastern Hararghe Zone of the Oromia Regional State,” says Commander Tassew. The leading sources for migrants are the neighboring regions of Tigray and Amhara in the Northern part of the country, from where 663 of them initiated their journey.

According to the Commander, the Police Commission managed to arrest 15 human traffickers during the previous Ethiopian year. Ten of them were convicted and are serving time in jail. “This year, we have so far arrested 6.” The police have to rely on their own investigative techniques to trace the traffickers, as none of the would be migrants have the habit of exposing the masterminds behind their journeys or how they came to travel that long distances. All of the would be migrants interviewed for this article attest, some of them quite strongly, that they have acted alone and with no help whatsoever throughout their journey from the North to the Eastern part of the country. “It is like they took a vow not to utter a word,” says a surprised police officer.
Soon after the interview, the young men and women will be in buses heading to Addis Abeba. In a day or so they are expected to be in yet another bus to their home towns and villages. At the end of a very tiresome and trying journey they will arrive carrying their luggage of defeat and of choicelessness.


It is no brainer to think that once again, exposed to the lulling whistles of traffickers or the haunting dream of taking another chance for a better life, many of them will be on another bus to another journey.



Cover Photo Caption: Ahmed is yet the youngest would be immigrants who were caught by the police in Jigjiga, eastern Ethiopia. He travelled all the way from the kemise, in the Amhara regional state in northern Ethiopia

Photo: Fistum Fisseha/Addis Standard

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