He witnessed people dying from dehydration, and silently watched people being beaten up to death; he knows the true meaning of thirst and hunger; he understands what a near-death experience is all about; and he did all this in the longest 30 days of his life while traveling to Saudi Arabia from his birthplace Ataye, located in Northern Shewa Zone of the Amhara Regional State. The world has its own way of breaking people’s spirit, and at a young age he witnessed those horrible things. Although the young man tries to cut his conversation short and avoids direct eye contact as much as possible, his face and the tone of voice says a lot about what he has been through.
After sacrificing all that he got he was being hired as a goat herder. After traveling an excruciating 1710km, the pain was nowhere near the end. Sadly, what he can find for a job was what he had thought he left behind in his home – goat herding. His journey might not be unique, but it is representative of most illegal immigrants' voyage across borders looking for a better future, without having the slightest knowledge of what their destination would be.
Clearly, what happened on the road still haunts him. But his attempt to come to terms with his traumatic experience rather reveals his pain. “Oh! people died when we were on the boat,” he tries to speak of it as if it is quite normal; as if people die a violent death every day and that it is a normal thing to witness. Before he decided to cross borders with his elder brothers in search of a better future, all he knew, all his family knew, was farming.
He started off his long journey from Ataye to Afar and reached a place called Ayu, from where he boarded a small crowded boat going to Yemen. On board the ship, he paid 15,000 birr to escape beatings and being tossed out into the sea. From Yemen he continued up north to his destination, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he had to pay an additional 5,000 birr upon arrival. He says all of his travel expenses were to be paid to his creditors by the 5,000 birr he earned from his job as a goat herder, which he did for about a year. Unfortunately, he still owes considerable portion of that money to his creditors.
“When the crackdown started, I was caught by the police and was put in jail for ten days,” he says reluctantly. After arriving here he did not bother to call his parents;. “What would they do for me?” he asks. It is very difficult to read the young man. Wearing a plastic flip-flop pair of shoes, he looks very pale and at times not troubled by what has happened. Now, he does not want to go back to Saudi Arabia or any foreign land, except back to his family's farm. He says that farming is the only viable option for him and does not want to do anything else. His siblings went back before him. What the brothers have to show for their time in Saudi is a house they built for their parents.
The scene at the airport customs and the commotion is unbearable, somehow making it very difficult to focus. A loudspeaker plays musics while the buses which are lined up to transport the returnees call on their passengers by advertising different cities' name they are going to. The airport is usually busy with returnees running around looking for luggages trolling around the dusty ground of the customs in complete disarray.
Following the crackdown on Ethiopian immigrants in Saudi Arabia more than 120,000 emigrants arrived in Addis Ababa during the past couple of weeks. Together with other stakeholders, the government of Ethiopia said that it had a rehabilitation program for the men and women returning from the middle-eastern nation. The relief program is supported by many organizations in providing assistance to welcome them, medical and psychological support, food, sanitation materials, temporary shelter and transportation, reunification with the family and others. Although the government on its part approved a budget for this process, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) is still stressing the need for different stakeholders to take part in rehabilitating these people, especially after they go to their respective regions. With the daily flights increasing and many more coming back to their county, currently 7,000 people land at Bole International Airport every day with severe physical exhaustion and emotional trauma. In fact, there are mothers who gave birth on their way here. Temporary shelters coordinator from MoFA, Getachew Teshome, says that there are five temporary shelters around the capital where priority is given to pregnant women and mothers. He says that the ones who come in the daytime will collect their luggage, register and will travel to their respective destination; but those coming via the night flight will have to stay in the shelters until they collect their luggage.
Nigussie Mekonnen, human trafficking control and employment agencies affair work process coordinator at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) have been here for the past 22 days. According to Nigussie, his team gives orientation up to eight times a day on average. But at times the process could go up to 17 times depending on the frequency of the flights.
When they arrive at the airport they are put in a tent to give them a welcoming message. At the airport customs they are welcomed at the temporary staying place. Nigussie observed that the returnees get excited even to be here, and mostly by the of welcoming that awaits them at the airport. There are more than ten migration offices which register the returnees and give them nine hundred birr for transport. After registration, they will be issued a card (red card) for identification, which they will be told to keep with them at all times.
So far, Tigray region leads in the number of returnees followed by Amhara and Oromiya regions. There is a free call center where they make local or intentional calls and/or to Commercial Bank of Ethiopia for their needs to exchange currency. There is medical service especially for the mentally ill and a mobile clinic service inside the airport customs also offers medical help for the returnees. In the orientation, emphasis is given on how lucky they are to be here and to be alive while many had died. Nigussie believes that the majority are happy to be here, happy to be alive.
In the compound of the airport customs, there are also organizations such as Amassis advertising and publishing in collaboration with foreign affairs office registering the returnees so that they can find employment.
According to Hermela Zeleke, marketing officer at Amassis, many organizations are taking part in supporting, while many promised to offer employment not only in Addis but also in different cities. According to her, many of the returnees are frustrated with the situation and are ready to work here. With the exception of a chemistry graduate from Haromaya University and one teacher, she says that many of the returnees were primary school dropouts. And she believes that many of them left their country to find better employment and, given the chance, they will work in their country.
But, she also concedes that it would be very ambitious to expect decent jobs will be available for them. On top of that, she points out how difficult it would be to say that returnees themselves are ready to settle for whatever job they might find, if they can not earn income that will fulfill their basic needs.
One of the guys who was checking out the job registration desk does not seems to be convinced by the idea; he could not decided whether he should register or not. He left from Shoa Robit area with his younger sister when he was only 19; he paid thousands of birr to cross to Saudi only to come back to his country after a year and a half . He says that he took training in the field of industry while he was here but could not pass the COC exam twice, pushing him to leave the country. “I had no hope of making it in this country,” he says. Even though he is glad to be back, he says he is not that thrilled about the future and the possibility of work in Ethiopia; but even for him migrating seems to be out of the question.
Sadly, many are still planning for another migration despite the traumatic experience they just went through.
Betelhem Belay, a nurse in Yesetoch Marefiya ena Limat Association, and also shelter coordinator, says that many of them are in a much stressed situation. According to her, what the future holds for them will not come out now rather after a while reality starts to sink in. “There are women who were not paid, who are impregnated, victims of rape, who have babies which are in a very vulnerable situation,” she explains. Some of them do not speak, according to her, while many are violent and very aggressive, and had to be sedated and send to mental hospitals. According to Betelhem, the rehabilitation program should take into consideration such psychological issues.
“A woman who has five children cannot be excited only by coming here. She is worried what to do with the children. I saw how her children were crying pleading for her to take them to their home, back to Saudi Arabia,” Bethelhem says. She says against all the odds, there are also returnees who were asking for other Middle-Eastern countries if it is still allowed to go there. It is heartbreaking to see a woman who borrowed 20,000 birr from her aunt to come back with nothing but the cloth she is wearing. This woman, Betelhem told The Reporter, pleaded to get a job at their center as she could not be united with her family without paying her debt.
All this would make the rehabilitation program very difficult, she believes. Those people who crossed countries to escape from poverty, unemployment against all the odds and who are deported without their willingness, make the rehabilitation process difficult.
On the national scale, a Federal Anti-human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator and member of national rehabilitation committee in the Prime Minister’s Office, Solomon Tesfaye, told The Reporter that it is the regional governments which will run the rehabilitation program on their own budget. The regions have a budget to create job opportunities, and Solomon believes that this budget is also enough to create jobs for the returnees. He say they have to pass through the formal channels to get jobs. The names of the returnees will be sent to their respective regions where the committee will push for the returnees to get a priority. According to Solomon, the government’s attention is now on bringing them to Ethiopia; but in Addis Ababa, for instance, the rehabilitation program can be seen to have gone a step further. The first job will be in making them believe that they can work in this country.
According to information from Addis Ababa labor and social affairs bureau, the stakeholders in rehabilitation program will be a small-scale and micro finance enterprise, TVET college, Addis credit and saving bureau, health bureau, and others. The plan is drafted for the rehabilitation program. In fact, rehabilitation was also part of the bureau’s work in the past couple of years. After studying the returnees’ number, there will be a budget revision. The names of the returnees are sent to the ten sub-cities and different stakeholders are ready to start their work. Many appreciated the relief program and also recommend the rehabilitation program to be done in the same energy. Addis Ababa University, Social Science College dean Gebre Yntiso (Ph.D.) is one of them. He suggests planning the rehabilitation program very well so that it would not be a campaign. He says this after studying the Derg settlement program for six hundred thousand people where the rehabilitation program failed and there was no sustainable result.
According to him when people migrate, they might face hardships such as homelessness, unemployment, having no income and other health hazards. After the food and temporary shelter, he emphasizes finding a sustainable solution for the root cause such as giving them trainings so that they can earn their own income. Trainings that are given should be according to their interest, previous experience and ability. These people once had a good income and a viable finance to live by, and being on the charitable side, according to Gebre, might make them feel alienated. He says the government should work hand-in-hand with the different stakeholders and community volunteers. Preventing the illegal emigration and raising awareness should be part of the rehabilitation process, according to Gebre. He emphasizes that the returnees know what the country’s economy is like and though they were used to getting better income abroad, what the rehabilitation program can do is still as per the capacity of the economy.
“They know what the country’s situation is and I don’t think they expect something any different. More than the repatriated ones there might be thousands who are eager to leave this country. So the root cause of the problem should be solved. The economy of the country might not provide like they wanted it. It is not the case even in the developed countries,” Gebre says. But he believes the situation can be handled by the country itself without the help of other countries.
Nigussie, on his part, says that the rehabilitation process is the key where preparation is under way and agreements have been signed between the ministry and small-scale enterprises, micro finance institutions, TVET and Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). Apart from that, an agreement was reached with charitable organizations and hospitals. He believes that visits of religious leaders, the business community, officials could help change their attitude towards working in their country. However, he admits that there might be those who don’t change their attitude by any means.
“Preparation have made and a committee is established in the mayor’s office in Addis Ababa for the rehabilitation process. Illegal migration is not the work of one office. It is rather collaboration among the different stakeholders ,” Nigussie says. Even though he does not reveal the exact budget for the whole rehabilitation program, he said that apart from the sub-cities budget, the amount of budget for awareness program is two-three million birr for this year. In the rehabilitation program there is a field called creating job opportunity which has an independent budget. In Addis Ababa, an emergency budget is added for the rehabilitation process. On top of that, all the regional and zonal governments also had a an emergency meeting where they discussed how to revise their budget to accommodate Ethiopians being expelled from Saudi Arabia. Creating job opportunity is a field which can be successful only with the collaboration of individuals and those on the government side.
He does not also hide the fact that the challenges of skyrocketing prices where labor is cheap by comparison will work against rehabilitation effort.
“There should be an economy which can carry the sky-rocketing price. Otherwise the cycle will be vicious and there will not be a sustainable solution in rehabilitating them or preventing them not to pass that route,” Nigussie says.
In the past, he says, there were returnees although not up to this scale who were successfully rehabilitated to an extent that some of them were models who started to earn very good income; however, they were more of an exception than the rule. This chaos is new to country. So he says it is too soon to say what the result might be.