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Two Years On: The revolving door of expulsion and re-migration of Ethiopians through Yemen

Two years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) carried out mass expulsion of undocumented workers in an effort to nationalise its labour force. Of the affected populations, Ethiopian migrants were a significant group. The manner in which the migrants were deported sparked public outcry, to which the Ethiopian government responded with a blanket ban on labour migration, while government and non-governmental organisations scrambled to offer reintegration support. Two years on, regular routes of migration to the Gulf are still closed, and having received little to no long-term reintegration support, returnees have reportedly started remigrating. Returning from the Gulf to a life of hardship and destitution, with their hopes of a better life still tied to migration, returnees enter a revolving door of irregular migration, eventual expulsion and failure to reintegrate, leading to remigration along familiar routes.

In April 2013, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) made an amendment to its labour law tightening regulations against undocumented workers, enabling police and labour authorities to locate, detain and deport irregular migrants. Later, in September 2013, Saudi authorities began conducting raids, and ID checks on migrant populations resulting in the detention of 20,000 migrants in the first two days alone. What followed were mass deportations of irregular migrants. Of the estimated 370,000 migrants deported over six months, about 170,000 were Ethiopians with the rest originating mostly from Egypt and Yemen. A 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report “Detained, Beaten, Deported: Saudi Abuses against Migrants during Mass Expulsions” reveals that in the process of expulsion, migrants experienced serious abuses, beatings, detention in poor conditions, and arbitrary confiscation of their belongings by Saudi authorities before being deported. Internal agency reports viewed by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) indicated there were multiple cases of sexual violence and abuse against Ethiopian women as they were detained and deported. Many arrived in their countries of origin empty handed and traumatised, physically as well as mentally. With hindsight, the event can be seen as the greatest experiment in return and reintegration undertaken by the country.

Migration drivers

Migration from Ethiopia to countries in the Middle East is well documented, as Ethiopians constitute the largest group in mixed migration flows from the Horn of Africa. Every year thousands of Ethiopian irregular migrants, mainly from poor and rural areas, embark on dangerous journeys across land and sea to reach Yemen and eventually Saudi Arabia or other rich Gulf states. In 2012 the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) reported that an estimated 200, 000 regular migrants had travelled to the Gulf and that these migrants were only 30-40 per cent of migrants estimated to have headed to the Gulf. There exists a strong positive perception towards irregular migration among Ethiopians; many travel through networks of illegal brokers and smugglers, often through dangerous situations in transit countries. According to a study conducted by RMMS, economic factors are the primary drivers of migration from Ethiopia. Despite strong economic growth, Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest countries. With an existing population of over 94 million

[1] growing at a rate of nearly 3 percent, there are and will be more people than the economy can gainfully and productively employ. Most Ethiopians find it difficult to earn a living, and thus migration is seen as the only viable option for escaping poverty. Migration also occurs in a context of what is called a ‘culture of migration’ in the country, expressed by peer and family pressure that many young people feel to migrate.

The response

In the initial weeks and months of arrival, the returnees were welcomed with support from the public, and government and non-government organisations. However, the Ethiopian government was largely unprepared for the response – only USD 2.6 million had been set aside for repatriation of an estimated 30,000 returnees – but saw the situation as an opportunity to educate the public about the risks of irregular migration. There was little in the way of comprehensive plans for reintegration; the Ethiopian government had no plans to help returnees in the longer term, expecting that they, like other citizens, would benefit from the nation’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP).

Relevant stakeholders, along with government mobilised resources in an attempt to meet the migrants’ immediate needs but the response fell short of expectations, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facing criticism from the United States of America for using a lack of funding as an excuse for ‘shirking their responsibility to offer assistance’. What went largely undiscussed at the time was that the government’s blanket ban on labour migration to the Middle East, in place since October 2013, may have worked against efforts to curb irregular migration by giving migrants no option but to travel through irregular routes.

Participants in a study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2014[2], reported lack of financial resources, inadequate workspaces, lack of infrastructure, and lack of access to credit services to make their new lives economically sustainable. Those returning to rural settings had adapted to their conditions in KSA, and were not willing to accept the living conditions that awaited them in rural Ethiopia. Others were in poor mental health, affected by social isolation and discrimination by community members and their families. The returnees’ children, who were well over 8,000 in number, were more prone to physical illness, and were socially excluded, as they were unable to speak their local language.

Recent studies and perspectives on reintegration point out that it is a process that takes time, and in some cases may never be achieved – resulting in remigration[3]Research in other contexts has also shown that unless return is followed by reintegration, large numbers of returnees – typically between half and two-thirds – think about leaving again. This is the case with Ethiopian returnees, with half reporting that they believe there are inadequate opportunities in their respective settlements to allow them to economically sustain themselves. In an earlier RMMS study undertaken in 2014, one respondent said, “parents of recently returned migrants from Saudi are assessing where to send their children again, whether the situation in Qatar, Bahrain and other Gulf/Arab countries is good enough for them to re-send their returned children and those who haven’t yet reached their homeland.”

Data on the number of returnees who have remigrated is not available. But, several local Community and Service Organisations (CSOS) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) report of their beneficiaries going ‘missing’, having remigrated. Reports in the media also point to returned migrants, once again trying their luck at getting to KSA through Djibouti and Somalia. Given Ethiopia’s ban on labour migration, remigration implies irregular migration. And if figures of mostly Ethiopian migrants landing in war-torn Yemen are anything to go by – a conservative estimate of over 10,000 since the start of the conflict in early 2015 – movement of migrants towards Saudi has not slowed down[4].

Questioning return and reintegration

Encouraging return migration is an option for countries with significant irregular migrant populations, but not effective if it promotes remigration. The best instances of return migration are those that occur on an individual basis, where the migrant makes the choice to return to their homeland. The question of who makes the decision for the migrants’ return, is an important one, with research on Ethiopian female returnees, and migrants in other contexts pointing out that migrants not engaged in the decision to return, were unprepared and more vulnerable upon return[5]. And, it is such vulnerability and lack of alternatives upon return that propel remigration. The situation that emerges if countries of origin and destination do not take responsibility − as evident in KSA’s reliance on deportation to manage migration, and the Ethiopian government’s blanket ban on labour migration − is one of worsening conditions for returned migrants in Ethiopia, propelling irregular migration towards a hostile but still appealing KSA.


[1] World Bank (2013), World Development Indicators: Ethiopia, Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/country/ethiopia

[2] ILO (2014), Situation and Needs Assessment of Ethiopian Returnees from The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

[3] IOM’s ‘Comparative Research on the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration of Migrants’ was conducted in 2014 with over 250 participants across eight origin countries, including Ethiopia, three transit countries and four destination countries. This study indicated that there was strong correlation between lack of integration and desire to re-migrate.

[4] RMMS (2014), Mixed Migration in volatile contexts: why don’t migrants and refugees avoid Libya and Yemen? Available at: http://www.regionalmms.org/index.php?id=44&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=322&cHash=a84493dace244058e4c4be66cdde983a

[5] see Kuschminder (2014) and IPPR (2013)

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.