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Interview: the ILO's Aida Awel on the future of Ethiopia's 160,000 returning migrants

On April 10, 2014

Over 160,000 Ethiopian workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia in December last year after the government carried out a massive crackdown on 'undocumented' migrants. Ethiopia is now swamped with returning migrants, many of whom are women who were employed as domestic workers, and the government has slapped a travel ban on Ethiopian nationals traveling to the Middle East for work. talks to Aida Awel, chief technical adviser on migrant domestic workers at the ILO's Addis Ababa office about what the future holds for returning migrants - and what the government, the ILO and the IOM are doing to help them. How many of the returnees are women? 

Aida Awel: The IOM & government data shows that the total number of returnees have reached 163, 018 of which 100,688 are men, 53,732 are women and 8,598 are children.

MR: What sort of problems have returning migrant workers faced on arrival in Ethiopia?

AA: For the first few days, the main challenge was for returnees to simply find their belongings, as there were no name tags on the luggage. Many spent more than two days at transit centers, traveling back and forth to the airport to look for their luggage.

What was worse is that the morale of these returnees was really low. They had traveled to Saudi Arabia looking for economic opportunities, hoping to send money back to support their families. Most of them have not achieved this goal and they are in a worse situation than they were before leaving Ethiopia. Most returnees do not have even financial resources for transport; some of the women have also had babies while in Saudi, so there is another mouth to feed; some of them have not even managed to re-pay the loan they took from relatives or families to migrate.

Others remitted money to their families, but it is rare to find cases where relatives have saved some of it, so financial problems can cause tensions at home.

There were few mothers who gave birth either shortly before deportation or upon arrival. Most of them were afraid and ashamed to return to their families. There were also a number of cases with physical disability due to experiences encountered in KSA, as well as mental disorders. Regular transit centres don't provide services for people with special needs, so these groups were heavily reliant on NGOs.

MR: And how about finding new jobs in Ethiopia?

AA: There is no certainty that returnees will find jobs in the local market. However, the government, the IOM and the ILO are all working to create livelihood opportunities for them.

MR: Can you give us some examples of how the ILO is helping migrants to reintegrate?

AA: The ILO has contributed US$ 100,000 towards the Ethiopian government's repatriation efforts. Furthermore, resources have been diverted towards reintegration wok under a project funded by EU entitled “Development of Tripartite Framework for the Protection of Ethiopian and Somali Women Migrant Domestic Workers going to the GCC States, Lebanon and Sudan”.

These resources will mainly be for immediate work such as profiling and needs assessment.

MR: What steps has the Ethiopian government taken to help returning migrants to reintegrate?

AA: The Ethiopian government has worked 24/7 to repatriate migrant workers, and has allocated a huge chuck of the budget to helping workers get home - and reintegrate.

For example, Addis Ababa City administration has provided psychosocial training for 2000 returnees from the district followed by vocational skills training. Once the returnees complete the training, they will be linked up with opportunities for starting micr0-enterprises, and will be given seed capital to get their businesses started.

MR:What are the biggest obstacles to successful reintegration into society and the workforce for returning migrants? Are there any obstacles which are specific to women?

AA: The main problem is that they come back without any resources, and are very dependent on the help of the government or NGOs for training, psycho social support, job opportunities, and access to credit.

Finding productive employment sectors will continue to be a major challenge for the government and relevant stakeholders.

One main obstacle in some rural parts of the country is the negative attitude the local communities have towards the returnees.  This is due to Ethiopia being a very traditional society; returnees coming back from KSA with a change in attitude or culture will not be welcomed. As mentioned above some women have returned back with babies or kids born out of wedlock, and Ethiopia being the conservative society that it is, this is a taboo. It is just simply unacceptable and most women will be viewed as commercial sex workers.

Last but not least, most of these returnees were the  breadwinner for their families in Ethiopia, sending monthly remittances. So it's not just the returnees that are suffering, but their families too.

MR: Do you think that some of the migrants who were kicked out of Saudi Arabia last year will attempt migrate to the Gulf again?

AA: Most of the returnees we've spoken to have one thing in common: they say that they would never advise any woman to go to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker. This being said, if these returnees don't find any job opportunities Ethiopia, the likelihood of them re-migrating is very high. As mentioned above not only they need money to survive but also to support their families.

Regardless of what they have been through, they will re-migrate unless the Government and NGOs work together to help them reintegrate.

MR: Does Ethiopia have a problem with unscrupulous labour agencies who charge migrant workers large amounts of money to travel to the Gulf?

AA: Before the ban there were around 406 licensed agencies, most of which operate legally. However, there are instances of agencies illegally charging migrants huge amounts of money to migrate to countries where Ethiopia has banned its citizens from working. The government does try to monitor the labour agencies, but there are not many inspectors available.

In addition, most migrants migrate to the Middle East with funding from loans from family and friends. So returning before paying that loan can be very difficult for most migrants. A lot of migrants would rather stay in exile than come back home without repaying their debts.