Returnees disembark from a plane that ferried them to Addis Abeba Bole International Airport from Saudi Arabia last week. Some 21,000 migrants have made the journey since the latest round of repatriation started in March 2022.

Hawi Teferi, 29, first left Ethiopia 10 years ago.

The life-changing decision to set out to a faraway place was driven mainly by factors out of her hands. She needed to support her family and escape mockery for squandering a shot at a better life. A quiet, curious woman, Hawi was born and raised in Wellega, Oromia Regional State.

Before she went to the Middle East, Hawi was a first-year student at Arba Minch University, studying management. Her mother was able to provide a semblance of financial support back then, selling locally-distilled spirits (areqe). Things took a turn for the worse when her mother fell ill, leaving Hawi to bear the burden of providing for two younger siblings.

“I had no choice but to migrate to support my family,” said Hawi.

Like hundreds of thousands before her, Hawi packed her belongings and left her small, rural province in western Ethiopia for a better income in Saudi Arabia. She came into contact with intermediaries, who arranged her trip. In 2012, a plane took her to the oil-rich country. She was an illegal immigrant.

Hawi's experience in the Gulf state was far from what she had expected. She was subject to the notorious kafala system, where her employers would be in charge of her legal status - almost every aspect of her life. The harsh system has gained a dark reputation among migrants in the Middle East. However, the sordid tales do little to discourage the tens of thousands who make their way there each year. Most have stories similar to that of Hawi's.

Hawi was not paid for the first seven months. Not having work permits made the situation unbearable, leaving her struggling to find a decent job. She eventually landed one as a housemaid in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Hawi earned around 2,000 Saudi riyals a month (equivalent to 27,000 Br at the current exchange rate). It was more than she could have hoped to make here, but it came at a high cost.

Hawi was among hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants taken into custody by Saudi officials as part of a crackdown that gained momentum in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants were afforded a 90-day amnesty, during which they could leave the country without facing harsh consequences. Many were unable to do so, subsequently arrested and packed into dense detention centres. These are places with "conditions so degrading that they amount to ill-treatment," according to a report by Human Rights Watch, released in December 2020.

Hawi was taken to a deportation centre in Riyadh before being transferred to a facility in the port city of Jeddah. She spent nine months in custody.

“My life crumbled before my eyes when I was arrested,” she said.

Two weeks ago, Hawi returned to Ethiopia for the first time in a decade.

She was among the 21,000 Ethiopians who returned beginning March this year following an agreement between the Ethiopian and Saudi governments to repatriate close to 100,000 Ethiopian migrants over 11 months. Over a third of these migrants are women and children. Officials say the repatriations will continue, with nine flights a week to bring migrants like Hawi home.

This is not the first time Saudi officials have resorted to deporting migrants.

Migrants are quickly ferried to one of nine shelters in Addis Abeba, where they are permitted to stay for up to 24 hours before receiving a 1,000 Br transportation stipend and instructed to make their way home.

Following the ratification of a foreign workers' law in 2012, the Saudi government had deported migrants from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Yemen – en masse. They claimed to have aimed at reducing unemployment.

Nearly 165,000 Ethiopian migrants were forcibly repatriated in four months. It was doubled the following year. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that close to half a million Ethiopian migrants were repatriated in 2017.

Despite leaving for the Middle East to earn better wages, most migrants return empty handed. Hawi is one of these migrants left with nothing. Returnees say they are faced with difficulties upon arrival in Addis Abeba, where support from the government and humanitarian agencies is insufficient to meet even essential needs. They are quickly ferried to one of nine shelters in the capital.

According to Fresenay Gebeyaw, communications officer at the Ministry of Women & Social Affairs, the government provides food, medical care, and sanitary items at the shelters. Social workers are also available for counselling. However, returnees can stay for a short 24 hours before receiving a 1,000 Br transportation stipend and being shown the door.

Hawi stayed less than six hours. She left for her hometown in the West Wellega Zone.

Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unwilling to allow reporters to visit one of these shelters. Neither were their counterparts at the National Disaster Risk Management Commission and the Ministry of Labour & Skills cooperative to grant the media access.

Nonetheless, the rehabilitation of returnees remains a significant challenge for the government. Officials admit the reintegration process has been painfully slow. It is left unaddressed due to the sudden and forced repatriation. Programmes supporting returnees in integrating and making a living after making it back home are undeveloped and under financed. Officials say the government has appealed to donors for support.

The IOM estimates that 11 million dollars is needed to support over 100,000 migrants scheduled for return in the coming months. Disappointing responses from donors make it a daunting prospect, leaving the government and its partner humanitarian agencies in limbo. A statement from the IOM released last December says living conditions for returnees are dire. From access to safe water and sanitation to basic health services and critical non-food items, much is in demand, reads the statement.

Worsening security concerns have made it impossible for many of the 70,000 migrants who returned last year to make their way to their hometowns. The civil war in the country's north, and armed conflicts in the south-west, have meant that many ended up stranded in Addis Abeba. It is not any different for the recent wave of migrants returned.

Hawi made her way back to the capital three days after arriving in Wellega, an area where an active insurgency has sprouted. She says safety concerns pushed her to return to Addis Abeba, where her younger sister was willing to take her in.

"I don't know how long I can stay here,” she told Fortune.

Hawi sees many returnees she knows are in a similar predicament.

It is a life impacted by illegal intermediaries who send migrants to countries that do not have bilateral labour agreements with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is among the African countries hosting the highest number of refugees. It is also a major source of migrants, most of whom go to the Middle East for domestic work. Although it has bilateral agreements with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jordan, countries like Saudi Arabia have not signed these deals yet.

“Most illegal migrants use a visitor visa to go to the Middle East," said Adel Misri, a board member of the Ethiopian Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, established two years ago. “They don't even know they can change the status of their visa after their arrival."

Since the migrants use both formal and illegal routes, it is difficult to know their exact numbers. However, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the number of Ethiopians abroad at two million. Approximately 17pc of them are believed to live in Saudi Arabia.

What pushed many to migrate was a lack of employment opportunities at home. The anxiety of failure to provide for her siblings pushed Hawi to make the trip.

Despite boasting blistering economic growth for the past decades, Ethiopia faces rising unemployment rates.

Data on unemployment is hard to come by. It is one of the areas where there is widespread confusion. The Ethiopian Statistics Service is perhaps the most reliable as it surveys several aspects of demography and the economy. A 10-year survey conducted two years ago put the unemployment rate at 18.7pc of the population. For females like Hawi, 26pc were unemployed. The problem is compounded as an estimated three million youth enter the labour market each year.

Exporting labour overseas with better opportunities has been adopted as a pro-development policy by many countries worldwide, such as China, Mexico, India, and Indonesia. Developing countries also gain from unskilled labour export in the form of remittances. The World Bank estimates at least a third of Ethiopia's annual remittances – six billion dollars last year – come from migrants in the Gulf countries.

Tilahun Girma, an independent financial consultant, says the official figures are only a fraction of the money transferred from the Middle East. He observed the majority of migrants use informal channels. Though they send smaller amounts at a time than their counterparts in Europe or North America, migrants in the Middle East transfer funds at shorter intervals.

Hawi used to send 150 riyals every month, almost always through informal channels.

"The exchange rate was higher," she said. "It's extra money for my family."

Tilahun believes there are ways for the government and commercial banks to encourage the use of official channels. They can introduce a financial scheme that facilitates loans for the senders when they return, according to him.

Experts argue that unskilled labour export could be a possible way to battle unemployment in Ethiopia. However, the ill-treatment of citizens overseas has undermined its appeal. Reports of abuse of domestic workers in Middle Eastern countries have severely sullied the notion of exporting labour.

Mesay Aklilu, founder of Tesfa Abyssinia, a non-profit that seeks to provide financial support to female migrants in the Gulf, attributed abuses to weak regulatory and policymaking in battling illegal migration, rather than the inherent consequences of labour export.

“The unfortunate circumstances of domestic workers should be addressed by strengthening legal migration,” he said.

The federal government banned labour migration to the Middle East in 2013, following reports of physical and psychological trauma faced by migrants. Officials reversed the decision five years later. A rise in illegal migration using business and tourist visas spurred the decision.

The preceding law was criticised for failing to address domestic violence, labour exploitation, and human rights abuses. The amended law has changed the eligibility requirement placed on migrants, including the removal of a clause that compelled migrants to prove they had completed eighth-grade education. The requirement pushed many who could not present evidence to travel illegally. Ethiopians without formal education can travel as long as they have completed training and hold a certificate of competency from authorised agencies.

The government has also opened training centres for low-skilled workers heading abroad for domestic work.

Private foreign employment agencies still play a crucial role. Since 2018, around 620 recruitment agencies have been granted permits. Amended in 2020, the law paves the way for foreign nationals and Ethiopian citizens to open overseas employment agencies.

Adel argued the major setback in curbing illegal migration stems from the authorities' failure to enforce the law.

"There're no mechanisms to distinguish between legal and illegal migrants at checkpoints at Bole International Airport,” he said.

Ermias Teklu, director at the Ethiopian Immigration, Nationality & Vital Events Agency, agrees. The control mechanism has been flabby in the past, according to him.

A month ago the Agency began monitoring activities at Bole International Airport using a travellers' list provided by the Ministry of Women & Social Affairs. Fresenay, the communications officer, says the Ministry is establishing a directorate tasked with controlling illegal migration and facilitating reintegration.

However, these efforts perhaps fail to consider how desperate the migrants are and how determined they can be to look for opportunities elsewhere. It was the kind of resolve Hawi had a decade ago.

She believes nothing short of better opportunities at home will convince people not to migrate. One of her friends who returned from Saudi recently is considering finding her way back to the Middle East.

“If there's a safe and legal way to go back to Saudi Arabia, I'd take it without a doubt,” Hawi told Fortune.

PUBLISHED ON May 14,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1150]

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