Illegal immigration :Saving young Ethiopian men and women from themselves

The painful stories of Ethiopian women in the Middle East has now given way to Ethiopian men and women dying in the middle of nowhere in Southern African countries 

Emnet Assefa

Over the last few years news of young Ethiopian men and women found dead inside jam-packed containers loaded on heavy duty trucks has become a routine media exercise both locally and in many parts of the continent. Most of the times the victims in these gruesome stories are Eritreans, Yemenis and Somalis; at other times it involves an entire truck-load of Ethiopians. All die while trying to cross borders in their attempts to go to Southern African countries, notably South Africa.

A news report that surfaced in June 2012 from Malawi has shuddered Ethiopians in the country and abroad:  “At least 45 Ethiopian illegal immigrants have died and 72 others are in critical condition from lack of clean air in a container they were in, apparently on their way to Malawi via Tanzania,” reported  IPPmedia. The bodies were found inside a container tossed in a forest after the truck driver abandoned them when he realized that many of the people loaded inside the containers have died of possibly suffocation but also hunger and dehydration.  There is a two word driving force behind this tell:  human trafficking.

In this particular case, the government in Malawi has put the blame on Tanzanian human traffickers who it said were helping illegal immigrants from Nairobi, Kenya, to come to South Africa via Arusha, Tanzania, using illegal routes.

Exodus en masse

As a country bearing the brunt of similar stories, six months ago Ethiopia has established a national task force chaired by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Demeke Mekonen and comprising other high level regional and federal state officials. The aim is simple: to stop human traffickers from smuggling young Ethiopians abroad; six month down the line, the job looks anything but simple; it is monumental.

Since its establishment, the national task force has managed to establish branch offices in all the nine regions and two city administrations with a responsibility of putting in place mechanisms to control illegal trafficking of people from regional cities and remote areas.

The national task force has conducted its second meeting in the first week of January this year at the office of Prime Minister Hailmariam Desalegn. According to reports by the regional branches of the national task force thousands of young Ethiopians from rural parts of the country, as they happen to be the easy targets of human traffickers, have continued falling victims of the systematic web of human trafficking run by none other than Ethiopians themselves. According to a report presented at the meeting 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 regions in the west were caught trying to cross borders over the past six months only.

While the figure above is for people who were caught, the national task force says a staggering 14,866 Ethiopians only from two areas in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region are believed to have crossed the Ethiopian border and gone to South Africa; unaccounted number of young men and women from Gambella region are also believed to have crossed to South Sudan after the latter’s referendum in January 2011 in search of a new identity in the new state and a better job opportunity; and the town of Dire Dawa in the East is the gateway to the neighbouring Djibouti and is believed to see 20,000 Ethiopians crossing through it every year.

This figure is different from that of Ethiopians currently working as domestic helpers in the Middle East. Some conservative estimates put that number as many as 200, 000.

 A good beginning to treat a national headache

So far part of what the national task force has accomplished is preventing people who are caught on the spot from leaving the country illegally and educating them about their journey ahead. It has also opened 61 court cases against people who are under policy custody suspected of running human trafficking chains through different regions. However, so sophisticated  is the network that thousands of Ethiopians mostly from rural parts of the country are still on their way crossing borders loaded on containers and trucks.

The national task force says it has drafted a document that could serve as a guideline for its activities and is waiting for approval from the members. The document deals with issues such as stronger commitments between countries where people are being trafficked from and to, improved border securities as well as public awareness on illegal movements of groups of people.

However, judging from the depth and magnitude of the problem at national level, what the national task force has done so far is simply trying to put the fire out after it went off.   Currently the trafficking network run by Ethiopians themselves stretches from Ethiopia through a middle country (in most case Kenya) to a few more countries in southern Africa such as Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia with network ringleaders coordinating their acts using only telephones that an illegal immigrant who has failed to pay at one point will be tossed out of the truck carrying the container anytime, anywhere.

The obvious reasons people who are victims of this complicated web of trafficking give is unemployment and the search for a better life, which is not far from the truth, but only partially.  Ironically a single would be immigrant may end up paying anywhere between 50, 000 to 80, 000 birr to hop inside a container loaded into the truck taking him across inhospitable borders.

Saving young men and women who see no future in their own country from themselves and dismantling an organized human trafficking network run by fellow countrymen may take more than what a single task force can handle at once; but it is a good beginning.

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