A young girl, no more than 15, clutches her passport and stands in line at the immigration counter. Her boarding pass says Jeddah. As soon as she clears immigration, an older male and female companions snatch the documents away from her. She doesn’t look surprised. Her shoulders stoop under the weight of the airbag that holds all her worldly possessions. The three then join a slightly larger group of women in the waiting area of the departure terminal.
It’s a narrative without borders. Migration is a means to an economic end. It is also seen as a protection, to escape domestic violence, poverty and prostitution. It’s symptomatic of what happens to girls in patriarchal societies.
Time and time again, across countries, this echoes. Women go abroad to support their families, return with little to their name. This slip of a girl boards a flight, irregularly, to Saudi, even as tens of thousands of others are being deported from the Kingdom for the same reason.
Irregularity not only puts the workers at risk of criminalisation and imprisonment in countries of destination; on their deportation, they also carry with them the stigma of a failed migration.
Daniel Melese, who works on safe migration in Addis and Dessie, says “failed migration is the worst possible outcome. If you’ve endured hardships and abuse and managed to save and come back on your own terms, then it’s still considered a success story.”
They go after much struggle, either having gone up against family resistance or by incurring huge debts, so even when they are forcibly returned to Ethiopia, they hide and don’t go back to their families, he says.
“You can’t even judge the family, as their burden is heavy too.”
Much of the psychosocial problems faced by migrant workers is due to unmet expectations, says Aida Awel, Chief Technical Advisor of an ILO project on migrant domestic workers to the GCC.
“They have no idea what they might face, what to do in a challenging situation, and many of them don’t even speak Amharic, let alone English or Arabic. Most of them speak other Ethiopian languages, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage.”
Before 2013, pre-departure orientation was a three-hour session at the federal level when they were ready to exit, Awel points out. “Ideally there should be pre-employment training so that one is still in a position to change their mind or take the right decision.”
The new Overseas Employment Proclamation, which will lift the ban on citizens migrating for domestic work, emphasises pre-departure training but does not improve the timing and effectiveness of the intervention. The table at the end of this article elaborates further on the proclamation's contents.
Agar Ethiopia is a centre which was set up for the elderly 12 years ago, and which now serves as a rehabilitation centre for victims of trafficking who return to Ethiopia.
The large bungalow situated in the more affluent part of Addis can accommodate up to 100 people, but as of late September, had only about 35 returnees including children.
They expect more as the Saudi amnesty comes to an end. “The first phase of amnesty is when those with resources and support return. The mass deportation will happen at the end, and that’s what we are preparing for,” says Abera Adeba.
Adeba has seen the entire spectrum of abuse that migrants to the Gulf suffer – rape, physical and emotional abuse, and the consequent mental health breakdown.
Agar is home to those who cannot be immediately or easily rehabilitated. A pet dog, a handful of children – toddlers and preschoolers – and their toys provide marginal relief in the otherwise bleak environment.
The staff at the centre are almost all men, with one female nurse on duty. A reminder of the rather strong patriarchal structure of the society.
Many of the residents at the centre are those with extreme mental health issues.
“The causes are not well known. There might be pre-disposing, perpetuating and aggravating factors. Then there’s the provoking factor they face in Gulf states,” Adeba says.
He feels the lack of life skills, communication and vocational skills amongst people from rural areas may contribute to this as well.
Not to mention, the close-knit community from which they are displaced, to work and live in severe isolation, suffering extreme workload.
Adeba says many of them also undergo a severe identity crisis. “They feel they should pretend to be Muslims if they are not, so change their names to reflect a new persona.”
“There is a tendency to migrate among Muslim communities in the region. Probably because of more affiliation. Christians also go. And many change their names and try to pass off as Muslims. Because they feel they will be treated differently. Even wearing the hijab, while getting their passports, even if there is no formal conversion,” says Dr Daniel Keftasse of HEFDA.
Though a Christian, Salam (link Part 1) had to pretend to be a Muslim. “I don’t think they minded, but my relative who found me the job told them I was, so I had to act.” Her friend Saba says she had no problems being open about her religion. “They were ok with it, that I was a Christian.”
Halewya, on the other hand, felt her religion gave her some protection from the otherwise negative narrative that plagues Ethiopian migrants in the Gulf.
“You learn much from the victims themselves when they come here. Most of the women who come to the shelter live there for three to six months on an average. Some are treated as ‘project for life’. The family has invested in them, and when they come back empty-handed, with a child in tow, the taboo doubles and triples,” Adeba says (see part 3).
“When families don’t accept them, their mental health takes a further blow. We do counsel the families too. But they think she is a criminal or ‘prostitute’ or having affairs, and they ostracise them.”
Feyise is 25, and her Agar admission papers show she has been there since January of this year. Her recollections are disoriented, and she believes she has been back only for three months. She is from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, the scene of years of conflict.
For the nine months she worked in Beirut, she received no money. She was ‘returned to the broker’ when she fell very ill, having been denied proper food and overworked.
She could well become ‘project for life’ that Adeba mentions.
Aziza Abdul is more lucid in her retelling of the horrible experiences she suffered in Yemen, but her voice is devoid of emotion.
She moved to Yemen 15 years ago and worked as a domestic worker. After five years, she married a Yemeni who physically and mentally abused her. “Then I gave birth to twins. He forced us all to become beggars. I saved money, paid a smuggler and managed to escape. I went to my family, as I wanted to bring my children too. But they left me here (in Agar).”
Aziza doesn’t know what became of her children and has lost hope of going back to her family. Every day she is haunted by the memories of what she went through, and of the children she abandoned. She states this as a matter of fact, as if she were speaking of the food she had for breakfast.
There is a pressing need to expand the community conversation because in the coming months, Ethiopia has to deal with thousands of returnees and prepare for regular migration as well.
In Dessie, mothers come together over the traditional coffee ceremony – The Bunna Tetu – to talk about migration. It’s a strategy used during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to teach and engage communities. Now it's being used for safe migration.
Like coffee ceremonies, other traditional groups are co-opted to help with social issues.
The Iddirs for instance. They're informal community insurance groups, and every person or family belongs and donates to their Iddir. These pre-existing structures, also once used to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, are now speaking about safe migration through pilot projects in select woredas in Addis.
The campaigners of these initiatives hope that the message the government is unable to disseminate effectively, due to a lack of trust, will cascade to the community through these groups. That message? To not only accept into their fold those who return in distress, but also to ensure those who migrate don’t do so under duress or false promises.