From ONE Magazine

The High Stakes of Leaving

With its modern steel-and-glass facade and sleek jetways, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa symbolizes Ethiopia’s coming of age in today’s fast-paced, globalized world. Businessmen wearing crisp suits and holding carry-on luggage whiz through customs. Members of the country’s well-heeled diaspora collect their bags, stuffed with gifts from overseas. And foreigners — tourists and the many expatriates who call Addis Ababa home — appear as comfortable navigating Bole as they might New York’s John F. Kennedy or London’s Heathrow international airports.

However, not everyone takes in stride his or her transit through Bole International; Ethiopian migrant workers also pass through the airport — either boarding for or returning from countries in the Middle East, where the demand for cheap labor is high.

Fifteen minutes from the airport, in a compound hidden behind a high, unmarked metal gate, a woman in her early 20’s sits on a white plastic chair in an empty room. Deported by authorities in Saudi Arabia, she arrived in the airport days earlier.

“This girl spent three years in Saudi Arabia and all she came back with was her passport and the clothes on her back,” says Sasu Nina, executive director of Agar, a charitable organization in Addis Ababa that supports vulnerable adults and one of the few that works with migrant workers returning from the Middle East.

Ms. Sasu has spent the past 24 hours in the young woman’s company. Yet, she still knows nothing about her background, apart from her name and, thanks to a sticker on the back of her passport, that of the employment agency that secured her visa abroad.

“Thank God she went through a legal agency,” says Ms. Sasu. “Very few come to us that way. It’s usually only women from Addis Ababa who have access to a legal agency. And most of the women we get here aren’t from Addis. They’re from rural villages where illegal brokers control this human trafficking.”

Too traumatized to talk, the woman hunches over her knees, staring at the floor. Ms. Sasu, however, has seen enough women in similar circumstances to fill in the rest of the picture.

“Maybe she had an abusive male employer. Maybe she lived with a family that suspected her of wrongdoing or a woman in the house that felt threatened by her. Somehow, she fell out of favor and was abused,” Ms. Sasu speculates. “Most of the time, she’s denied payment. One day she says, ‘Where’s my pay?’ And they say, ‘Leave,’ and call the police, telling them she stole something. Accused, she’s put in jail and before you know it, she’s walking the streets looking for a ticket to bring her back home. And she doesn’t want to return empty handed. Those things keep her on the street.”

Whatever the woman encountered as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Sasu will wait patiently until she is ready to talk about it.

Ms. Sasu already has summoned an interpreter, who speaks Oromiffa, the woman’s native language. She also contacted the country’s visa agency for more information about her case and asked members of the local Ethiopian Orthodox Church to locate her family.

“The church is great at tracking down families in the deepest villages,” adds Ms. Sasu.

Ms. Sasu, however, knows better than to rush her to her relatives. While a beautiful thing to behold, a premature family reunion can create even more problems for a traumatized worker.

“This girl needs time for a spiritual awakening,” says Ms. Sasu. “We can help her get better, give her a place to stay and get her some skills to earn a living once she returns home. We can support her and say ‘Don’t worry, everything will be O.K.’ But if we don’t give her that chance to know she’s well, she’ll head right back into more problems and most likely head right back to the Middle East. She needs to take time to reflect on things.”

Agar’s program for former migrants in the Middle East has helped 128 women reintegrate into Ethiopian society and reconnect with their families. Recently, though, the program lost funding from one of its major donors, the European Union, and now struggles financially.

“How can I close this shelter?” says Ms. Sasu, who remains as committed as ever. Posters with “before” and “after” photographs of the program’s beneficiaries hang behind her. She and her skeletal staff continue to assist former migrants, even as they seek out new sources of funding.

In 2009, the Agar program partnered with three other organizations in an 18-monthlong initiative, led by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Refugee and Returnee Affairs Department (R.R.A.D.), to address the root causes of migration to the Middle East and help victims of abuse.

The impetus behind the initiative came after a series of shocking news headlines involving the abuse of Ethiopian migrants in the Middle East. In 2008, Human Rights Watch published an article on the subject, in which it found migrant workers in Lebanon — most of them of Ethiopian nationality — to be dying from unnatural causes at a rate of one per week. Soon after, the Ethiopian government enacted a ban on economic migration to Lebanon.

“We knew that illegal trafficking of Ethiopian women to the Middle East had been going on for more than ten years. And with technological advancement in media, we saw a lot of stories of what Ethiopians were going through in the Middle East,” explains Yilikal Shiferaw Mesellu, head of R.R.A.D. “They were healthy when they left here. But many came back traumatized, mentally ill, sexually abused and having been denied pay. Some were thrown from the third or fourth floor. Some were victims of disease, or hospitalized and deported. We knew there was a big gap both in our knowledge of the situation and the follow-up care needed for these returnees. So we started this project.”

Each partner fulfilled a unique role. R.R.A.D. offered psychological services to migrants and helped facilitate their social and economic reintegration. Agar provided shelter. Association for Forced Migrants coordinated job skills training. And the Dutch organization Stichting Dir conducted research on the root causes of this migration, the migrants’ experiences in the Middle East and the challenges they faced upon returning to Ethiopia.

The results of their findings were published in a March 2011 report, which substantiated what many already suspected — female Ethiopian migrants in the Middle East often endure exploitative labor practices and other human rights abuses. Forty-six percent of the Ethiopian domestic workers interviewed worked 17 to 19 hours a day and 47 percent worked 14 to 16 hours a day. Forty-five percent experienced physical abuse and 22 percent experienced physical abuse repeatedly. Data also revealed sexual harassment and abuse to be widespread, but likely underreported given Ethiopian society’s reluctance to discuss sexuality openly.

“In general, migration has its own pros and cons. But the story that we’ve observed in Middle East countries is not as such exaggerated,” says Mr. Yilikal. “That’s not to make the generalization that all Ethiopians will endure such sufferings in the Middle East. Some still are going and working successfully. But it’s not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that Ethiopians are also suffering severely.”

It is difficult to determine the total number of Ethiopian migrant workers in the Middle East. From 2008 to 2010, the Ethiopian government recorded some 37,000 Ethiopian women who left the country to work in the region — namely in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. All these women secured work visas through regular channels — government-licensed employment agencies or other recruitment processes approved by the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

However, an untold number of Ethiopian migrants find work in the Middle East via “irregular” channels, unlicensed recruiters who often charge job seekers anywhere from $230 to $460 for their services, an exorbitant amount in a country where the annual average per capita income hovers around $180. Many require the entire fee upfront; others accept a debt bondage agreement by which the job seeker surrenders the first two or three months of his or her earnings on the job.

The majority of job seekers who use these channels come from Ethiopia’s impoverished countryside. Possessing little education and often living in desperate circumstances, rural Ethiopians are especially vulnerable to illegal brokers, who offer them a wealth of misleading information and empty promises. Observers believe the number of migrants who pass through irregular channels increases each year.

The profile of a typical Ethiopian migrant worker in the Middle East reflects the harsh realities they face back home.

A migrant is generally young — between the ages of 21 and 26. This should come as little surprise to Ethiopians and those familiar with today’s Ethiopian society. Half of Ethiopia’s 85 million people are under the age of 20. Most work on their families’ small farms. In urban areas, youth employment is high.

A migrant is probably single, has little education and comes from a poor family in which few members are educated. The average migrant’s family earns less than $17 a month. With few other prospects, a family may pull together to send a daughter to the Middle East.

“Families borrow money from neighbors or sell their cows and jewelry to send their daughters to the Middle East,” explains Mr. Yilikal. “And they expect remittances in return.” According to the World Bank, 14 percent of Ethiopian adults regularly receive remittances, which total $3.2 billion per year.

However, many experts do not believe poverty and lack of economic opportunity, alone, fully explain the root causes of migration to the Middle East.

“The main reason is economic, but I don’t think the economic need is greater now than before,” says Lettegebriel Hailu, executive director of the Family Service Association, which assists victims of domestic violence in Addis Ababa. “However, the information now is more accessible than before. I think they hear more about immigration.

“And the competition is not the same. When I was growing up, it was ‘go to church, serve your family, go to school, be good and disciplined, respect your neighbor.’ Today, youngsters want to become rich first of all. They want to dress up. They want a beautiful house. They want to earn a good salary and enjoy the good life. There’s no patience like before. They just want to be independent.”

Ms. Lettegebriel is currently designing a program that will help prepare migrants before they leave. It will provide information about life in the Middle East and the perils migrants may encounter. It will also offer training in basic skills required of domestic workers.

“They have to know what they will face there,” explains Ms. Lettegebriel. “Some don’t know how to wash a glass, make a bed, operate modern kitchen appliances, cook or speak English, let alone Arabic. They have no idea. For those who are sensible, they might change their mind. For those who still want to go, at least they’ll have skills and a sense of the consequences, and know how to seek help if they find trouble.”

Ms. Lettegebriel’s professional work with migrants does not insulate her own family from the economic and social pressures underpinning migration. At the moment, a 16-year-old relative has made up her mind to move to Israel, with or without her family’s blessing.

“Her mother and father, eight brothers and sisters, myself, her extended family — all of us — are disturbed by what she is doing,” says Ms. Lettegebriel.

She sits in the F.S.A.’s lobby across from the girl who just arrived in the capital by bus from her hometown, Irob, a dusty agricultural village in the north near the Eritrean border.

“Irob is a farming area where the land is eroded,” explains Ms. Lettegebriel. “No fertility means no jobs and no young people. Only elderly people remain there.”

The teenager has come to say goodbye to her sister and brother, both professionals in Addis Ababa, and Ms. Lettegebriel before leaving for Israel.

“If her friends leave for the Middle East and one or two give her information — ‘I’m getting a good salary. This is a good life. You should come.’ — then, she feels she has to go, that she has to change her life,” says Ms. Lettegebriel. Though she glances at the girl, she is speaking for thousands of other young migrants.

In contrast to a typical migrant, the girl has other options. Everyone in her family has an education. “In Ethiopia, if someone is educated, then we support our extended family,” says Ms. Lettegebriel.

“Her older sister brought her to Adigrat [the largest city near Irob], where she could work and get an education. But her mind is made up,” says Ms. Lettegebriel.

“She doesn’t want to settle at all. For her, Israel is heaven. I tell her it might be better than Lebanon, but it’s no heaven. But all these young girls, they’re ready to go, holding their bags like this and their ears like this.” With her left hand, Ms. Lettegebriel grabs an imaginary suitcase. With the other hand, she pinches her right ear, pulls it forward and opens her eyes wide.

As she talks about her relative’s decision, the girl reads text messages on her cell phone, apparently disengaged from the conversation. The teenager sports the latest urban fashion — ripped jeans, designer sneakers and a baby blue velour tracksuit top.

“I might face trouble, I might get lucky,” says the teenager. “But one way or the other, I want to try my luck. I’m ready for anything.” Her explanation is what you might expect from a teenager ready to risk life, limb and any remaining childhood innocence in pursuit of her dreams.

“Whatever my family might give me — transport, allowance or food to eat — I don’t own that. It’s not mine. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. Do you think the small handouts they’ll give me will change my life? Their money is not enough. I want to build my house. I want big money and I want to help my parents before they die. I have to go.”

Suddenly, the girl’s phone rings, blaring the refrain of a popular song. Full of smiles, she jumps up, excuses herself and walks out onto the outdoor courtyard for privacy.

“I don’t blindly close the road for her,” continues Ms. Lettegebriel. “My argument is: ‘You’re still young. Just wait some time. Stay with your brother. Get educated. Finish school. Then, you will know what the advantages and disadvantages of staying and going are.’ That’s the message we’re trying to get across,” she says as she helplessly watches the girl through the window. “But she doesn’t want to listen.”