Youth flees Amid Robust Economic Growth Featured

People waiting to board a boat to take them across the Gulf of Aden. People waiting to board a boat to take them across the Gulf of Aden. Photo Alixandra Fazzina

Addisu Menegesha, 29, posed for a photo infront of a white board at Esmile Internet Café in Autobis Tera district of the capital, Addis Ababa.

Addisu was having his picture taken for an electronic form to enter a United States Government run visa lottery program. In this lottery program, commonly known as Diversity Visas (DV), people worldwide enter their applications online. US officials say a computer-generated, random lottery drawing picks the winners.

In 2013 the State Department received more than 12 million entries for the lottery program. Though details are sketchy, entries from Ethiopia are among leading countries.

Some 100,000 entrants first won the lottery worldwide last year, and at the end 55,000 received visas.

“For DV 2013, approximately 3,500 visas were issued to qualified Ethiopians through the DV Program, the maximum number [seven percent] allowed worldwide,” said the American Embassy in Addis Ababa.

Addisu hopes to be among those lucky ones for 2014.

“It has been better when it was in a paper format, I could have filled many…15 or 20; some people did it like that a while back. But, Now I can only file in once, it’s in a computer so they will probably catch me if I apply more than ones,” Addisu who seems unhappy of his very small chance to go to the US, said. But every year for the last seven years he has been trying his luck. He is not alone. So many Ethiopians even with good fortunes at home do the same.

During this year’s application season between October 2 and November 3, internet cafes have been crowded. Even the state run Ethiopian Postal Service offered clients to fill the electronic form on their behalf, customers providing photos and personal information.

While DV’s ever growing popularity is not seriously concerning anyone, Three out of four people making the crossing to Yemen are Ethiopian nationals. Four years ago, Somali refugees constituted three quarters of all arrivals in Yemen. it shows the broader trend of the youth desperately looking outside the country for job opportunities.

More disturbing is that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are illegally heading to countries with fragile economic opportunities and high security risks.

A joint report by the Danish Refugee Council regional office and an NGO called Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat recently estimated that about 230,000 undocumented Ethiopians have arrived Yemeni coast in the last six and half years. The number has been steadily growing in the last few years; 2011’s number seeing double of the 2010 figures and 2012 indicating upward trend.

Some want to reach Saudi Arabia via Yemen, while others are aspiring reaching South Africa, Israel and European nations, often placing their fate with human traffickers. The irony is after the hard journey and reaching the ‘dream destinations’, immigrants would not often find a welcoming society. More than few countries, such as Israel and Norway, to where a large number of immigrants are fleeing, are deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants as they take a swifter and harsher stance against the embattled asylum seekers.

The legal channel to migrate is also expanding rapidly.

In the last fiscal year alone more than 100,000 Ethiopians, mainly young girls who come from rural areas, left to work in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Kuwait, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

In an effort to prepare the girls to a demanding life abroad, the ministry is freely offering a three hour pre-departing orientation.

“It is to prepare them for a life there… how to keep their health, how to have their legal rights respected and how to better save their money and make money transfer they need. We show them a documentary film as well so that they can get a sense of how life looks there,” said Yared Alemayehu, one of the trainers.

There are plans to make the training, which is mandatory, a three month program.

The girls have their work contracts certified by the ministry, guarantying 180 dollars monthly pay for a 25-month contract.

Studies however show that more people are leaving the country through brokers, most exposed to forced labour.

“Recent and alarming accounts from migrants and those that work to assist them, indicate that many Ethiopian migrants face severe human right abuses that have not been systematically investigated,” says the report released by the Danish regional office and its partner NGO.

Kidnap, torture, sexual violence, abduction and extortion are becoming widespread and frequent hazards, sometimes lethal, for migrants in the Gulf States, adds the report.

But this is not only a danger facing illegal migrants. Even those with proper documentations are not safe.

Ethiopian authorities has recently suspended giving permits to workers traveling to Dubai after multiple cases of abuses and pay denials were reported by migrant workers.

But with a huge interest from the youth and a multi-million business operated by some 290 local recruiting agencies, authorities say they cannot stop the flow. They are soon to add Jordan as another destination while a new labour agreement is being discussed concerning United Arab Emirates.

“What we do first is attempt aspiring migrants be aware of the opportunities here, they have plenty opportunities to work and live well here in their own home. But at the end, it is their constitutional right, they can leave. At that point we only tell them to do it legally so that they can avoid troubles,” says Emebet Mulu, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Labour and Social affairs.

The government’s narration of a double digit economic boost in the last nine years and a booming construction and small scale enterprise sectors are hardly holding off the youth from fleeing abroad.

The federal government as well as the Addis Ababa City Administration has annual award programs for youths who make millions through micro and small scale enterprises and elevate themselves from the quagmire of absolute poverty. Most of the award programs are televised. The country is also reported to have been in double digit economic growth over the past nine years. The construction boom in the urban areas is also creating thousands of jobs at home. Yet, these opportunities are hardly holding off the youth from fleeing abroad. Still a large number of youths seek brighter hopes in chaotic countries such as Yemen while not fully exploiting opportunities at home. The paradox continues to mesmerize many.

The government seems to share the perplexity at it has established a national taskforce last June under the leadership of Demeke Mekonnen, then Education Minister, to seek solution to the ever increasing illicit trafficking of youths. The task force had its second meeting this January 2013 and highlighted the need to increase public awareness about opportunities at home before youths leave the country to face the unknown.

Reports issued by the United Nations indicate that since 2009 Ethiopian migrants have constituted the largest group among those crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. From 2006 to 2011 their number has increased six fold – from some 11,000 in 2006 to 61,000 between January and October 2011.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) report in May 2012, the striking increase in the overall number of the new arrivals in Yemen reflects the growing Ethiopian population on the move. Three out of four people making the crossing to Yemen are Ethiopian nationals. Four years ago, Somali refugees constituted three quarters of all arrivals in Yemen.

The other tragedy is that, as witnessed by the UNHCR, “All Somali arrivals are automatically recognized as refugees in Yemen and thus have access to documentation and enjoy relatively unhindered freedom of movement … The situation is profoundly different and more difficult for Ethiopian nationals.”

“Most Ethiopians say they left home because of a lack of economic and livelihood opportunities...”Melissa Fleming, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Geneva was quoted as having said a year before by the UN News Centre.

Young girls, who were signing work contracts at the Ministry at one afternoon, said whatever they may face abroad, they are better off there. A significant number of them were putting their thumbprints on the contracts, showing the fact they did not get a chance to go to school.

“If it is the will of Alah that I would die there, I will. But I have to try my luck, there is nothing for me to do and live by here,” Kemilat Hussien, 24, told Ethiopian Business Review.

But authors of the report who spoke to Ethiopian migrants in Yemen say many often change their minds aboard when they face dire conditions which are not that rare.

Kirubel Tadesse

EBR Special Contributor, Kirubel Tadesse is a freelance journalist and Associated Press writer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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