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Return migration to Ethiopia

Alexandra Ricard-Guay discusses the recent mass return migration to Ethiopia and government and NGO initiatives to support reintegration

The following text has been written by Alexandra Ricard-Guay (European University Institute, Italy). It discussed an example of what Jean-Pierre Cassarino noted at the end of his video interview: a disruptive event that compels migrants to return – in this case en masse – to their countries of origin. Here Ricard-Guay explains how government agencies and NGOs have assisted the reintegration of thousands of Ethiopian migrants who have been recently forced to return to their country.

Labour migration from Ethiopia has increased over the last three decades, notably to the Middle East. Return migration has also increased and the support for the reintegration of returnees has become a new area of concern.

Until recently, however, Ethiopia had no comprehensive migration policy or any reintegration policy or strategy. It was the massive forced repatriation of Ethiopian labour migrants from Saudi Arabia between 2013 and 2014 that prompted the development of a response to support returnees.

Following a decision of the Saudi government to deport irregular migrants from the country’s labour market, 163,018 Ethiopian migrant workers were expelled between November 2013 and March 2014. This unplanned and rapid return of large numbers of Ethiopians created an emergency situation of an unprecedented magnitude. Many returnees were unprepared to return home, given the hasty process, and came back empty handed and without all their belongings. The repatriation was conducted under harsh conditions, including pre-deportation detention in Saudi Arabia. Cases of abuses, violence and mistreatment were widely reported.

Thus, upon arrival, returnees had immediate and humanitarian needs, such as health and psychological care and immediate shelter. This resulted in a major operation of assistance coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in collaboration with government agencies and other international organizations. Assistance was offered at the airport, transit and emergency shelters were opened and transport to local communities was facilitated. In cases of trafficking, referral to rehabilitation shelters was provided. Ninety-four percent of returnees were assisted during the Saudi crisis. The great majority of returnees were between 18 and 30 years old, and women accounted for more than 30%. Indeed, labour migration from Ethiopia to the Middle East has been highly feminized, and concentrated in the domestic work sector.

Besides the post-arrival humanitarian intervention, support for reintegration was scarcely addressed at the time. The Ethiopian response has since developed with the combined efforts of international organizations, NGOs and the government. Also, return migration to Ethiopia is not limited to forced return. Many come back voluntarily, with different levels of preparedness, and also receive support for their reintegration.

Needs of returnees are vast, and the challenges they face are numerous, including low levels of education, a lack of vocational skills and resources to start small businesses, as well as discrimination and stigma when they go back to their home communities.

For those who have suffered violence and trauma, there are a few NGOs that run shelters which provide rehabilitation for female migrants. More generally, psychosocial assistance is provided mainly by non-governmental organizations.

With regard to economic reintegration, a support programme for returnees has been jointly led and implemented by the government of Ethiopia and the International Labour Organization (ILO) (2015-2017). The ILO has played a fundamental role in working with the Government to develop a reintegration strategy in Ethiopia.

The project has assisted returnees in accessing productive employment, including self-employment through the development of small businesses. Training in vocational skills and entrepreneurship to meet local economic opportunities have been designed and delivered to returnees. Awareness-raising activities have been organised regarding the implications of irregular migration and in order to address the issue of stigma and discrimination of returnees.

Numerous government agencies are involved. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for facilitating the return of deportees and for assisting with assistance upon arrival. while the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is the main government actor regarding support for reintegration.

So far, the overall reintegration approach has largely focused on economic reintegration, which is understandable as livelihoods are a critical component to reintegration. Also, there is still a weak institutional framework and no national strategy, a situation that is expected to change in the near future, with the involvement of the ILO, the IOM and the support of external funding, notably from the European Union.

Despite the absence of a national framework on reintegration, the Overseas Employment Proclamation, adopted in 2016, is expected to enhance the protection of Ethiopian workers abroad and will include a compulsory pre-departure and pre-employment orientation, and the deployment of labour attachés to Ethiopian diplomatic missions.

© Alexandra Ricard-Guay
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