Ethiopia braces for repatriation of undocumented migrants from Saudi Arabia

Ethiopian migrants detained in a Sana'a detention centre in Yemen waiting to be repatriated (Photo: Ramón Pereiro/MSF)

More than 50 days into Saudi Arabia’s 90 day amnesty period for undocumented workers to leave the country, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians face deportation. An estimated 400,000 Ethiopians live in Saudi Arabia, of whom only 23,000 have taken travel documents, according to Meles Alem, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Saudi Arabia’s “nation without violations” campaign, launched March 29th, aims at deporting five million undocumented workers. Some of the incentives provided during the grace period include permission to later return to the Kingdom on the condition that they pursue legal methods to gain entry. During the grace period they will also be exempted from any fines or penalties linked to violating Saudi residency and labor laws.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry is urging migrant workers in Saudi Arabia to take advantage of the period. Spokesman Meles told journalists this week that the Ethiopian government is granting duty-free privileges on 21 items for the would-be returnees to further encourage their safe repatriation.

In 2013, after a seven-month amnesty period for undocumented workers expired, a violent crackdown on migrant workers forced Ethiopia to repatriate more than a 140 000 of its citizens including unaccompanied minors. During the crackdown migrant workers faced violent attacks by Saudi police and private citizens, causing the deaths of three Ethiopians, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Many of the deportees returned empty-handed and there are fears that like incidents might happen again at the end of the current amnesty period.

Assisting returnees

The Ethiopian government has taken measures to make prepare for another mass repatriation, according to Minister of Communications Negeri Lencho. “The government is working to protect the rights of its citizens while returning home and a national task force has also been established to effectively coordinate their safe return,” Negeri said at the end of March.

According to Meles, a delegation led by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Aklilu Gebremicheal visited Saudi Arabia in April and discussed the issue with senior Saudi officials as part of the government’s effort. New mobile offices are also opened which will allow Ethiopians to get visas easily to leave that country.

In the meantime, Ethiopia itself has been hit by drought, putting some seven million people at risk of hunger. With the impending arrival of potentially hundreds of thousands of needy migrants, officials in Addis Ababa are bracing for another humanitarian problem.

Meles, however, didn’t specify the amount of money required for providing emergency assistance to the returnees as well as helping  efforts of reintegration. But according to a report by Wazema, a radio founded by exiled Ethiopian journalists, authorities in Addis Ababa have requested $ 85-90 million to support efforts in rehabilitating the returnees. The government envisions a joint effort with humanitarian workers and regional governments, which are asked to create jobs and provide working capital for the returning migrants, reports Wazema.

Why do Ethiopians migrate to Saudi Arabia?

Saudi_Arabia_map

Saudi Arabia is a preferred country for many young Ethiopians who find the local job prospects to be limited. Ethiopian women, especially those without a college education, are more likely to seek mostly domestic works in Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom’s bad record on migrant rights.

Chris Horwood of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) says that endemic poverty caused by economic inequality, poor education and lack of training options are the main drivers of migration from Ethiopia.

Once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, undocumented Ethiopian domestic workers face severe challenges. They are excluded from the protections granted by Kingdom’s labor law. They can secure a visa and legal status only through employers, which creates room for abuse and exploitation. Mental, physical and sexual abuses are frequent complaints by domestic workers from Ethiopia, says HRW.


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