Missing Ethiopian migrants

Missing Ethiopian migrants – the tip of an iceberg of commodification and brutality

By Chris Horwood, director of Ravenstone Consult

Eight or nine years ago, multiple reports – especially from male Ethiopian migrants spoke of women and girls being separated from their groups by smugglers and criminal gangs on arrival on Yemeni beaches. Evidence emerged of an alarming discrepancy between the number of Ethiopian irregular migrants arriving on Yemeni shores and those making it to the north of Yemen prior to crossing the border into Saudi Arabia, their target destination for informal employment. The main discrepancies in the numbers of migrants reaching the north of Yemen days or weeks later again concerned women and girls, not boys and men. Sexual abuse including mass rape was already known to be a common violation for female Ethiopian migrants along this ‘Eastern Route,’ but disappearances and missingness were news. The study ‘Abused and Abducted’ (MMC, 2014) tried to estimate how many thousands of girls and women may have been affected and speculated on what may have happened to them. Trafficking into modern slavery was the assumption, but in the intervening years, no detailed exploration of missingness of Ethiopian migrants has been conducted and nor was any action taken in response to the 2014 findings.

Now, based on in-depth discussions with returnee migrants, their families and community leaders in Ethiopia, a new report offers some clues that may explain the dynamics surrounding migrant missingness along the eastern route. The report ‘Captive Commodities: Commodification, exploitation and missingness of Ethiopian irregular migrants on the Eastern Route to Yemen and Saudi Arabia’ was released by Ravenstone Consult with strong support and endorsement from the Mixed Migration Centre.

But the search to explain what happened to Ethiopian migrants to go missing along the Eastern Route also revealed details of extraordinary levels of abuse, violations and deaths of migrants. Levels that are perhaps only eclipsed, globally, by the treatment migrants face in Libya in recent years. The extent of commodification and exploitation that Ethiopian migrants face at every step of the way, already starting in their home country, and all the way up to their stay in Saudi Arabia and during the return process, is shocking. Not least the lasting impact it has on returnees and their families. It has clearly been continuing for years and probably become more systematised and more abusive as the number of Ethiopians willing to run the gauntlet of this route seems to be inexhaustible.

This new report highlights personal testimony by dozens of interviewed Ethiopians and its analysis presents bold claims suggesting the eastern route from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia has not been fully understood or correctly framed in earlier studies. At the very least, this report goes further than other studies in its exploration of the commodification of migrants, their missingness and especially insights into what occurs along the border with, and inside, Saudi Arabia. Ravenstone’s conclusions are that:

  • The Eastern Route is characterised by high levels of migrant commodification – probably unseen in any other multi-country route, globally.
  • For at least 10 years, no other route globally has seen such a consistently high volume of migrants being ‘processed’ by smugglers and others through it.
  • This route is consistently characterised by high levels of brutality, abuse and exploitation, which at times cross the boundaries between smuggling and trafficking compared to other multi-country routes, globally.
  • As such, the criminality of smugglers managing this route is unambiguous and therefore it should be considered as distinct from routes in other parts of the world where those organising the movement (smugglers) may be considered benign facilitators or passeurs performing a service.
  • The reason why commodification and protection violations are so prominent along this route is that extortion is the primary business model for smugglers.[1]
  • Taking a multi-year monthly average of approximately 8,300 migrants using the Eastern Route irregularly (excluding Covid years), the extortion business is estimated to be worth at least USD$9 to USD$13 million per month, or USD$108 million to USD$156 million per These sums accrue to gangs and their associates (and external bosses if they exist), living in the poorest countries in the world and extracted from some of the poorest communities in the world.
  • Deaths and killings are a very real threat to Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia. Apart from the risks of dying of neglect and exhaustion while entering the country or being fired upon by Saudi border forces, they reportedly risk being violated or killed by employers, or can die from neglect while in state prisons awaiting deportation.
  • Based on findings from the sample respondents, the prevailing characteristics of this route locate it closer to trafficking practices, and (without question) it is a route where aggravated smuggling typically occurs. At minimum, therefore, a mix of trafficking and smuggling practices exist, possibly more correctly described as ‘human trafficking for ransom’. It should therefore be regarded as a mis-categorisation to describe the Eastern Route purely as a smuggling route.
  • Inherent in this model of premeditated extortion are periods of detention, abduction, kidnapping and the sale and ‘rental’ of migrants, which are experienced as multiple periods of missingness from the point of view of the migrants’ family and friends.
  • Not only is temporary ‘missingness’ a characteristic of this route, but long-term missingness (disappearance) and death. All returnees interviewed for this research witnessed the death of other migrants and many witnessed direct murder.
  • The impact of missing and returnee migrants on families and communities can be multi-dimensional, inter-generational and debilitating. The impact is little understood and under-researched and warrants deeper analysis leading to greater targeted support.

As the director of MMC writes in his foreword, “none of this should be acceptable. It is nothing short of a collective failure and shame that this situation continues as it is.” The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) — adopted by almost all member states — includes in its guiding principles that member states have an “overarching obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their migration status”. The GCM includes the objectives to “respond to the needs of migrants who face situations of vulnerability, which may arise from the circumstances in which they travel or the conditions they face in countries of origin, transit and destination, by assisting them and protecting their human rights” and to “save lives and prevent migrant deaths and injuries”. We must admit, as a sector and as the international community, we have, to date, failed and continue to fail to achieve these objectives for Ethiopian migrants on the Eastern Route. But perhaps we have also failed to correctly frame and understand this route as a unique expression of exploitation and trafficking that causes extensive and often permanent missingness.

[1] Other routes may have a mix of financing models including extortion (e.g., the route out of Ethiopia along the Central Mediterranean Route, though Libya), but on the Eastern Route, extortion appears to be the sole financing model for migrants from the south and east of Ethiopia.