Governing by crisis : A labor migration gone terribly wrong

 The abuse of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is not an overnight happening; it took decades and involved Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and the world at large. To contain it Ethiopia is now in a state of governing by crisis  

 Tesfaye Ejigu

Over the past two decades, the face of migration in and from Ethiopia has been changing from small numbers of political refugee flows in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s to a gradual mass form of labor migration as Ethiopians started to enjoy traveling freely to seek employment opportunities abroad. Although Ethiopia is witnessing its own share of skilled labor drain, the larger picture of labor migration is now characterized by low skilled mass labor migration mostly to Middle Eastern countries notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai.

The number of Ethiopian migrant workers showed a drastic increase after 2010, according to Mesele Assefa, private employment licensing team leader at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA). In 2009, not more than 20,000 labor migrants got registered by the Ministry and only 160 employment agencies existed, most of them in Addis Ababa. In 2011 the number of registered migrant workers doubled to 41,000 while the number of employment agencies reached 262.

Regional cityAdmin. Sex male  female  total  %
Tigray 921 8390 9311 5.10
Afar 84 558 642 0.35
Amhara 2715 55877 58592 32.07
Oromia 1790 67219 69009 37.77
Addis Ababa 1224 17667 18891 10.34
SNNP 478 24821 25299 13.85
Benishangul-Gumuz 23 362 385 0.21
Gambela 4 28 32 0.02
Dire Dawa 24 388 412 0.23
Harari 3 85 88 0.05
Somali 0 35 35 0.02
Total 7266 17,5430 182,696 100.00

Table 1 Number of Ethiopian migrant workers by regional states and sex as from July 8/2012-July7/2013. Source: MOLSA

When it comes to labor migration Ethiopians’ is no different than the mobility of millions of migrant workers worldwide who are shuttling from countries to countries in search of better lives. Although there have been favorable political and economic conditions that helped minimize en mass labor migration over the past two decades, crippled economic policies that exacerbate unemployment, population pressure, poverty, rights abuses and staggering income disparity have pushed millions of Ethiopians to leave their countries by any means available.

According to a 2010 World Bank report on the state of unemployment in Ethiopia, for example, youth unemployment was at 20.5% in 2009 of which female labor force aged between 14 – 24was 29.4% as of Jan. 2006, down from 40.5% in Jan. 2004. The figure for unemployed male labor force of the same age stood at 19.5% in Jan. 2006, down from 28.3% in Jan. 2004.  While this could be the official version, many suggest unofficially youth unemployment in Ethiopia could reach an alarming 40 -45% at any given moment.

Photo Faisal Al Nasser Reuters
A sad way of homecoming / Photo Faisal Al Nasser Reuters

MOLSA says women migrant workers to the Gulf States are overwhelmingly single, between 20 and 30 years of age, and 70% Muslims.

Unable to lead decent lives in their home country thousands of Ethiopians have ventured further afield to the Gulf States both legally and illegally. Hundreds of those who were tricked by a well organized human trafficking chain led by a few Ethiopians have risked their lives trying to reach the kingdom of Saudi Arabia via Yemen by sea.

In Sep. 2012, the government in Ethiopia has set up a national task force to combat human trafficking. It is led by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen. According to a Feb 2013 report by the regional branches of the national task force, thousands of young Ethiopians from rural parts of the countryhave fallen victims of a systematic web of human trafficking. In just six months only the regional offices of the national task force were able to rescue 12, 735 Ethiopians through Amhara region in the north, 785 through Afar, and 7,579 through Somali in the east, as well as 400 through Benishangul Gumuz region in the west. They were all about to be smuggled by organized traffickers.

The Saudi pain

Currently, Ethiopian labor migrants are scattered around pretty much everywhere in the Middle East. But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia beats all other host nations.

In August this year a document by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed approximately 50,000 African refugees have arrived in Yemen since the beginning of 2013 through the end of July 2013. Forty two thousand of them were Ethiopians, and 8,000 Somalis as well as a small number of refugees from other nations. Although the number quadrupled in the recent years, Saudi Arabia has always been a major destination for Ethiopian migrant workers. According to Mesele, currently “an estimated two million [Ethiopian] migrant workers live in Saudi Arabia alone.”

Country of Destination  Sex        
  male female total %
Saudi Arabia 7127 154660 161787 88.56
kuwait 130 20659 20789 11.38
others 12 108 120 0.06
Total 7269 175427 182696 100.00

Table 2: Number of Ethiopian labor migrants by major country of destination and Sex from July 8/2012- July 7/2013. Source: MOLSA

Claiming the negative economic impact made possible by millions of migrant workers in its turf, at the end of last year the Saudi government announced all undocumented migrant workers in the country to either legalize their documents or leave the country within seven months of time. Countries such as Philippines and Pakistan have used the time to legalize close to a million migrant workers each and took home those with no documents.  But for reasons its officials have not disclosed, yet, Ethiopia has missed the train. In June this year, its Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adnahom made an effective diplomatic lobbying with the Saudi government to which the later agreed to extend the deadline by four more months. That too elapsed. Now, Ethiopians are watching in horror as thousands of their fellow citizens are being visibly dragged by Saudi police, assaulted, raped and thrown into detention centers, and evacuated by up to ten planes a day from Saudi Arabia back home. A national committee is set up to deal with the catastrophe but at the forefront is Dr. Tedros (pictured above). As migrant workers kept on coming (more than 50, 000 by the time Addis Standard went to the press), so do the stories that shed light on what went wrong, when and where. There are too many unverifiable stories from some of the returnees, including rampant corruption at the Ethiopian Embassy in Saudi Arabia and ineffective bureaucracy. But Asked by this magazine, Dr. Tedros said since the announcement by the government in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia’s Embassy in Saudi Arabia has facilitated the legalization of 38,199 undocumented migrant workers.

Two to tango

The abuse of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is not an overnight happening. Melese said, “in 2010, there were 800 complaints of various types of abuses filedby Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.  In 2011, the number grew to 1200, and in 2012 it reached 3000.”

All countries of the Middle East have ratified the Palermo Protocol and the ILO Conventions on forced labor (1930, No. 29), yet the world watched Saudi Arabia in silence over the last two decades when it freely ran migrant employment through a hideous system called Kafala in which individuals are allowed to sponsor unskilled migrant workers into the country, taking care of their visas and legal documents. Countless horror stories of abuses against migrant workers from many countries have made it out to the attention of the world, regrettably, to no consequence on the oil-rich kingdom. There are many Ethiopian deportees who have lived in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades and have come back home empty handed – under the Kafala system, not only are they subjected to individual’s mercy, they are not allowed to own property.

Perhaps to avoid an unpleasant diplomatic repercussion, the government in Ethiopia also failed to hold the government of Saudi Arabia  responsible by using, for example,  the 2004 ILO convention 143 on Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers, although both Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia have ratified the convention.

In principle MOLSA is responsible for checking on the labor conditions abroad and ensuring fair employment contracts were upheld before allowing labor migration at least through the legal channel. This holds true to all the three forms of employment: through self-effort, through government-to-government arrangements and through private employment agencies.

In Ethiopia when it is not trafficking, the devil is within the private employment agencies. Lack of timely and effective labor inspection by MOLSA means most of these agencies were running their businesses at a massive scale and manner no different than trafficking itself. Mesele admitted MOLSA followed wrong licensing procedures to establish or legalize these agencies, which are now all suspended by the government as is travel to all Middle Eastern countries.  “Employment processing requires knowledge to effectively undertake responsibilities,” Melese said.

Ambassador Dina Mufti, spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs told journalists that crimes committed against Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia will be investigated soon after the evacuation was completed. So far three Ethiopians are officially known to have died of police’s shooting, but some deportees say the number could be in its hundreds. “The present predicament is like running water,”says Dr. Tedros.

Failure at home

In any case, Ethiopia is responsible for all the plights its people are suffering because the traffickers and agents are local. The gulf countries are destinations blamed for having voluptuous appetite for domestic abuse. A 2011 annual report by the US Secretary of State to monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person ranked Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait as Tier 3 – the lowest possible category.

In an interview with this magazine Ambassador Dina also admitted the root cause of abuse was based in the country of origin, Ethiopia. Lack of good governance might have served as a push factor for migration from the rural areas, Ambassador Dina believes.

There is also a lose link between MOLSA, the main Department of Immigration and National Affairs, which is responsible for issuing passports, and regional administrative offices responsible for issuing identity cards for would be migrant workers. According to a document by MOLSA nearly a quarter of registred migrant workers cannot read or write.

Recently the main Department of Immigration and National Affairs has decentralized its services by allowing regional offices in main cities to issue passports. But that too is massively abused by ringleaders who handpick hundreds of migrant workers from rural areas to claim passports that they never have a chance to see even when they embark on their perilous journeys.

A legal way out?

Ambassador Dina said Ethiopia has agreements signed with Saudi Arabia on labor migration that meet ILO standards, but said he is not aware if that approves the Kafala.

Nonetheless, Dr. Yaecob Hailemariam, an expert on International Law, is vociferous on the legal routes to justice. He said Ethiopia can use the 1919 ILO conventions on labor rights, the Arab Charter and Islamic Conference or the UN Human rights Council to sue Saudi Arabia if Ethiopian officials summon the courage to resort into a legal ending.That may not be in the interest of both countries, however. A diplomatic relation that began more than half a century ago is now at a stage where Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy Strategy Document quoted the government on its relations with the Saudi government as saying, “The Middle East is a region that significantly influences our security and economic development in a substantial way…  Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia share interests in the security of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, which links rather than divides Africa and the Middle East.”

Dr. Tedros is also of the opinion that although “there is a possibility to resort to legal means, it’s not a priority.” For now Dr. Tedros is mobilizing a massive support from Ethiopians to help the deportees – using his social media networks to inform on the number of deportees and promote an account number set up for wiring financial support. But beyond this governing by crisis, Ethiopia’s looming challenge is on how to sustainably integrate and find decent jobs to the deportees, whose number is now estimated to reach at a staggering 100,000 or may be more.

Cover Photo – Addis Standard

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