Year on year the numbers of men women and children leaving Ethiopia in search of work and freedom from repression in one of the Gulf States and beyond is increasing. Lured by the often hollow prospect of earning enough money to support their family, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)[i] estimate around 85,000 men women and children, desperate and naïve, have this year, no matter the severe risks, made their way to Yemen, the hub of migration out of the Horn of Africa. In the last six years around 250,000 Ethiopians have made the dangerous journey into this very poor, deeply divided country besieged with internal problems, which has limited resources, the second highest rate of chronic child malnutrition in the world and where 45% of the population live in poverty.
Into this chaos step the Ethiopian migrants, who, unlike Somali’s have no refugee status, suffer from poor consular support and are seen by most Yemenis as an unwelcome burden. They sit low on the domestic workers hierarchy and, along with other African nationals are discriminated against throughout the Gulf region where xenophobia and racism has found expression in the region’s politics and government policies.
The majority of migrants leave the security of their home, the love and comfort of their families, not because they want to, but because they have, they believe, no alternative. Overwhelmingly young, 18–30 years of age, from rural or semi-rural environments, poorly educated with many lacking basic literacy, driven by poverty the majority go in search of work, whist around 25% are estimated to be from political opposition parties. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) who make up almost 50% of all registered migrants arriving in Yemen, and the Ogoden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Legitimate groups persecuted and branded terrorists, by the EPRDF government that in all but name, rules over a single party state and allows no form of political dissent or opposition, no matter the constitutional content to the contrary.
The influence of smugglers, masquerading under the acceptable guise of ‘broker’ on many vulnerable individuals living in rural areas, with no knowledge of the wider world, is great. Imbedded within the community they paint a picture of migration coloured by wealth and prosperity, opportunity and excitement. Accounts of horrific migration experiences are known, but all too often ignored, ‘smoking kills’ deterring nobody. Arguments of self-persuasion and denial reinforced by brokers who see another victim, another human commodity, to be wrung dry. Migrants and smugglers alike are pushed to extremes, desperately trying to survive in a ‘dog eat dog’ world, dominated by an unjust, corrupt market economy, that persecutes the poor and concentrates unlimited wealth and power in the hands of the few; causing extreme inequality, hardship and unbridled human and environmental destruction. A system In which huge corporations, banks and financial institutions of the developed nations along with their allied governments condition and define developing countries as they try against all odds to haul themselves out of poverty.
Hopeless journeys made in hope
Djibouti city is the first major stage in the harrowing journey to Yemen, here or at sea all possessions, including mobile phones, cash and clothes are stolen, by smugglers, corrupt police or border guards. The journey to Djibouti’s capital is harsh and dangerous, in which many Ethiopian migrants die of starvation, dehydration or are killed by bandits. Trafficking is also a serious danger, Djibouti the US state department[ii] say is “a transit, source, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking… [Migrant] women and girls may fall victim to domestic servitude or forced prostitution after reaching Djibouti City, the Ethiopia-Djibouti trucking corridor, or Obock – the preferred crossing point into Yemen,” and gateway to the Gulf. Here migrants “have no access to food, safe drinking water or shelter from the sun,” the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) report, ‘Desperate Choices’,[iii] states, and wait for days or weeks for favourable conditions to cross the perilous waters of the Gulf of Aden, in flimsy boats manned by vicious criminal gangs. They have usually come from Ethiopia by truck, although occasionally the entire journey is made on foot, over weeks through one of the hottest, most inhospitable areas in the world. Some aren’t lucky enough to get to the port, in September last year, IRIN 15/11/11[iv] report, 60 Ethiopian migrants were found dead about 120 km west of Djibouti’s capital
Abduction murder and rape
More shocking even than the numbers of people is the violent treatment they face. Murder, abduction and ransom demands, torture, rape, sexual abuse and more rape, are the nightmares many are subjected to by criminal gangs and smugglers. And all in the pursuit, not of happiness, which they left behind, but $100 a month, to feed and clothe their families 1000 kilometers or more away.
On arrival in Yemen men and women are separated, wives taken from husbands, daughters from Fathers brothers from sisters. Trafficking and multiple rape of women is widespread, IRIN 12/03/12 state “the majority of the approximately 3,000 women held by smugglers in Haradh [on the border with Saudi Arabia] over the past year were raped, many of them repeatedly.” DRC relate this account from a 15-year-old boy, who “was captured by Abd al-Qawi’s gang. They tied a rope round my legs and hung me upside down and beat me almost to death for three days. I was made to watch an Ethiopian woman being raped and an Ethiopian baby about one year old being killed.” Cases of male rape, punishment for trying to stop the rape of a wife or sister, have also been documented.
On a positive note, deaths at the hands of smugglers have dramatically decreased, only to be replaced by another atrocity – abduction, the terrifying experience of the majority. With $100 – 300 being demanded from family members who can barely feed themselves, let alone pay a ransom. Torture and violence at the hands of hostage takers is brutal; pulling teeth, gouging eyes, driving nails through hands and feet, cigarette burns are all reported, and if ransoms are not paid, migrants, after this hell are often beaten to death. In March this year 70 Ethiopian men and women were discovered in Yemen’s Hajjah Governorate, again near the border with Saudi Arabia, the UN humanitarian news and analysis,[v] reports, “their captors, they said, had beaten them with pipes, burned them with cigarettes and poured liniment in their eyes making them scream in pain.” This horrific incident indicative of many follows close on the heels of the killing of three Ethiopian men in January, shot while trying to escape from smugglers. They had made the arduous journey from rural Ethiopia to Yemen, full of hope, only to be tortured and finally murdered.
The ordeal of women begins in Djibouti, DRC report an Ethiopian man recounting the sea passage when “four Yemeni smugglers were on board the boat. They raped the girls in front of us, we were not able to move or to speak, and those girls were alr eady sold to Yemeni traffickers.” Many are abducted and held captive, sometimes for months on end, their experiences are harrowing in the extreme, DRC tell of a 16 year old girl from Wollo who was imprisoned for six months and repeatedly raped by gang members. Far from being the exception the majority relate incidents of sexual abuse, with “many reporting being raped at almost every stage in their journey and stay within Yemen.” They “are often captured, kidnapped and disappear and it is believed they are trafficked for sexual or domestic slavery”. It is unclear where women are trafficked, it is suggested they are sold to Saudi families as “virtual slaves”, many no doubt end up in some kind of sex trade, those that eventually make it out of Saudi Arabia relate incidents of rape at the hands of brokers or employers. The horrific stories are endless, extreme abuse and brutality by vicious criminals who are destroying lives in the thousands, and it seems, with impunity. In addition to addressing the reasons why their citizens are leaving in such numbers, the Ethiopian government in partnership with international and national NGO’s need to provide therapeutic support to victims of abuse who are lucky enough to make it home, to overcome trauma and gently heal.
The smugglers are organized and well armed, raiding their houses, the Chief of Police for Haradh District that borders Saudi Arabia, where 4,000 Ethiopians currently await repatriation, said, Reuters[vi] report, “we face fierce resistance and shootouts. It’s like fighting an insurgency… As long as these people keep arriving the smugglers will keep taking them. There is nothing we can do.” The Yemeni and Ethiopian governments have been discussing ways to present “all facilities required to return the Ethiopian refugees to their home,” said the Yemeni Interior Minister, with standard political ambiguity, failing to mention the brutal criminality taking place inside his country, the security services corruption and the complete lack of police activity to apprehend the smugglers, protect the migrants and bring the trafficking to an end.
The Yemeni authourities shamefully complicit in the violence are portraying Ethiopian and other migrants as the cause of and reason for the increased level of extreme criminality, and as UNHCR report with internal instability giving rise to “reduced police presence…[that is] giving human traffickers and smugglers more room to operate.” And in a sign that suggests further state collusion with criminal gangs, we are informed that police activity “is also frequently preventing patrols along Yemen’s shores by humanitarian teams as they try to reach new arrivals before the smugglers.” Corruption is endemic, with security officials coordinating with smugglers on the border with Saudi Arabia, “a climate of collusion and low political will to apprehend and prosecute smugglers is allowing the trade and abuse of migrants to flourish” (Reuters). The country is run, a military officer on the payroll of the smugglers to the tune of $2,000 a month says, “by tribes not policemen: these people are my friends.” ‘These people’ are turning a bind eye to the murder, rape and trafficking of innocent migrants seeking work to feed their families.
The right to be free and safe
The realization of freedom for the people is the solemn duty of the Ethiopian government, it is the foundation of democracy without which no true and lasting human development will take place, it is however a duty regarded by the TPLF/EPRDF with contempt and disregarded totally. The quest and heartfelt desire of the people of Ethiopia is for social justice and liberty not migration to the Gulf or beyond. They are deeply proud, dignified and many devoutly religious, who love the land of their birth. Overwhelmingly they risk life and limb not in search of material wealth but to escape economic hardship and political imprisonment at the hands of a highly repressive regime that seeks total control and denies all freedom of speech, acknowledged as a human right in the federal constitution.
The political space, narrow in the extreme must be opened, to allow, indeed encourage political and social participation and responsibility. Participation feared only and always by the dictator, would enrich the society, allowing the free flow of ideas to address the many issues facing the country. Such inclusive measures, in keeping with the time and the aspirations of the people would cultivate an atmosphere of hope and strengthen the community. A nationwide programme to raise awareness of the dangers inherent in migration via Yemen and to Gulf countries more broadly, aimed at deterring the unknowing is an imperative responsibility of the government, designed and delivered perhaps in collaboration with international NGO’s working throughout the country, further facilitating involvement and cooperation.
The non-partisan distribution of development aid, an ignored legal requirement, would be a positive step in bringing relief from extreme economic hardship and curtailing migration. Currently, grain fertilizer and food, are selectively distributed by regime stooges based, not on need, but on political affiliation. Ethiopia’s primary donors, America Britain and the European Union, have a responsibility to ensure this is addressed, in addition to insisting the Ethiopian government observes human rights, adheres to federal and international law and dismantles mechanisms of state repression. All such steps would build confidence in change, reducing the need to migrate. Development that does not address humanitarian needs justly, and denies the observation of basic human rights enshrined in law, pollutes the notion of change, allows state corruption and limits government responsibility to the realization of targets set by international institutions seeking to maximize their return and build political/economic models of conformity and control.
In accordance with the responsibilities of office, the Ethiopian government must take all necessary steps to safeguard its citizens. Appropriate consular support is essential in offering protection, advice and sanctuary to migrants, no matter their political affiliation or ethnicity. Urgent, sustained and coordinated efforts are needed by the affected countries law enforcement agencies and judiciary to close down the criminal networks, route out corruption and safeguard migrants. The innocent men women and children from Ethiopia making an impossible choice, with they see no alternatives, are not the villains in this ongoing human tragedy they are the victims trapped in a terrifying nightmare.