Riyadh and Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat—Poverty, unemployment and oppression: the unforgiving trinity of hardships which Ethiopians attempt to escape every year, whether legally or illegally.
Unemployment in Ethiopia currently hovers at around 20 percent for men and 30 percent for women according to the latest estimates. Those harsh facts have driven many young Ethiopians to emigrate from the country, one of the poorest in Africa and now buckling under the strain of a population of 82 million people.
Thousands of Ethiopians emigrate each year, fleeing economic hardship and poverty. But many of their reasons for leaving are also cultural and social in nature and not simply economic: Human rights organizations routinely emphasize the effects of famine, racial persecution, and unfair distribution of wealth as key factors behind the exodus of migrants from Ethiopia.
Many of them will reach countries in the Middle East. Ethiopians represent a large share of illegal immigration to Middle Eastern countries.
In Saudi Arabia, where the government has recently begun to focus on the issue of expatriates in the country illegally, it is estimated there are some 200,000 Ethiopians working illegally.
But as Asharq Al-Awsat has found, this journey can be perilous, the risks huge, and the costs, both human and monetary, significant.
A social problem
Dr. Jamal Mohamed El-Sayed Dila described the tense social situation Ethiopians face at home in a study published by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He notes that while the population of Ethiopia is characterized by ethnic and religious diversity, many values, traditions and experiences are not shared.
“Despite the claims by ruling regimes that they care for the various ethnic groups within Ethiopia,” he says, “it is easy to see that the current regime has not treated each group equally.”
According to Dr. Dila, Ethiopia’s current political instability stems from a lack of both cultural homogeneity and social mobility. “A cultural partition between the elites and the masses is noticeable within Ethiopia’s current political system,” he says. “This represents one large threat to the stability of the regime.”
Dila notes that the current situation is reflective of Ethiopia’s origins during the 20th century. “Ethiopia emerged as a state, and not a nation,” he says. It is “a pluralistic society controlled by an ethnic minority, the Amhara.”
The Amhara, says Dila, have complete control over political power and economic resources in the country, a phenomenon which has led to an unequal distribution of wealth and influence, as well as discrimination and sharp religious, ethnic, national and cultural differences among the various ethnic groups.
“Whether or not the ruling regime recognizes this, the lack of cultural homogeneity and the backlash against initiatives intended to solve this issue form the seeds of conflict. We saw this with the changes that took place in 1974, as well as those that took place in 1991,” Dila added.
The Manfouha riots
On November 9, riots broke out in the Manfouha neighborhood south of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Albeit much smaller in scale, it was a scene resembling the 2005 Paris riots that were largely instigated by disaffected North African immigrants. Saudi Arabia was not accustomed to the type of violent action, and the event drew much media attention.
It all started after a group of unidentified Ethiopian laborers were arrested by the authorities and incarcerated. Rioters brandished sticks and weapons against civilians and policemen. The response of the Saudi security authorities to the riots was swift: only years before, the Saudi government had warned that foreign nationals without documentation, or those who did not fully comply with government regulations, would be deported immediately.
The riots resulted in two dead, one of whom was a Saudi national, and 68 injured, among them 28 Saudis. A total of 104 vehicles were damaged in various ways according to the spokesperson for the Riyadh Regional Police, Brig. Gen. Nasser Bin Saeed Al-Qahtani. He said that a number of unidentified persons had hid in the narrow streets of Manfouha, emerging to throw rocks at residents and to threaten them using knives. This was followed by rioters causing widespread damage to shops and cars. Eventually, the security forces managed to gain control of the situation, arresting 561 unidentified individuals.
Foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia are subject to a stringent fingerprint system, an important source of information that can be used to fight individual or organized crime as well as terrorist activities. The chairman of the Gulf Research Center, Dr. Abdul Aziz Bin Saqr, believes that such measures, as well as the requirement that foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia possess relevant travel documents and formal residency papers, are highly sensible, and also in their best interests. “Most immigrants do not cause a problem, since the impetus behind immigration is often linked to economic need,” he says. “What’s more, government regulations within the country do not heavily limit formal employment for foreign nationals.”
What raises concern for Saqr, however, is the illegal infiltration of Saudi Arabia’s borders. “In this case,” he says, “the intentions of foreign nationals could prove less than honorable.”
The thousand-dollar trip
Asharq Al-Awsat visited a shelter established by the Saudi government in Riyadh. Here, deportees wait to be returned to their home countries. The building is located in the center of the city, which is one of the prime destinations for Ethiopian immigrants to the Kingdom.
Mohammad Taher is being held here. He had made the journey—which he described as “perilous”—from Ethiopia to the Saudi capital through Yemen by way of Djibouti and Somalia. Taher says he first contemplated coming to Saudi Arabia after receiving 800 US dollars from unknown activists in Ethiopia as “an act of charity.” Noting that the trip would cost at least 1,000 dollars—as travelers must take a bus from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa and then a train to Djibouti—he decided to take his chances and see if he could somehow make the extra 200 dollars while on the road.
Taher adds that the only problem facing Ethiopians wishing to make the journey is how to cross the border into Djibouti, as a heavily-manned shared checkpoint is located between the two countries. To get around this, he says, he went to a village close to the checkpoint before the train arrived that day. He was then able to infiltrate the border during the night.
Once inside Djibouti, things get a lot easier. “The authorities there take a relatively lax approach,” he says. “They are largely unconcerned with who crosses their border, even those who have committed crimes. This makes it easier to move about the country.”
In the capital, he met a smuggling broker, someone who introduces migrants to ship captains in exchange for a fee, bringing the migrants to stay at a safe house until the agreed-upon sail date to Yemen. These brokers also have assistants who help make the breach possible before the departure date, as fears associated with coastal security are well placed.
In total, the journey takes about five hours. Once in Yemen, many migrants work various jobs in order to save up the money necessary to make the final leg of the trip to Saudi Arabia. This is the least dangerous part of the journey, he says, as there are hardly any security controls.
Another Ethiopian held at the shelter in Riyadh is Omar Al-Habashi. He also fled the country, this time by way of Somalia and Yemen. Habashi travelled by car on a six-day ride to Somalia, a country that has good relations with Ethiopia. Later he entered Somaliland which, he says, is much safer than Somalia, where violence is rampant.
Because of the fortunate situation in Somaliland, Habashi stayed there for nearly two months while working to earn the fare for his trip to Yemen and then to Saudi Arabia.
He says that crossing between Ethiopia and Somalia was extremely easy thanks to the absence of a strong Somali government presence and the border being adjacent to Ethiopia. Once in Somalia, he traveled east toward Puntland and then to the port of Bosaso. After a 36-hour trip, Habashi reached the shores of Yemen. His relatives, who had already arrived, had amassed a sum of 300 dollars in order for him to infiltrate the Saudi border through the mountains at night. He says this part of the journey was “really difficult.”
Most Ethiopians enter Yemen illegally by sea. The trip is made by on a boat from Somalia, with the most popular crossing beginning from the Obock region of northern Djibouti. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has issued several warnings that migrants may drown at sea or die of thirst once they reach Yemen’s shore trying to cross the desert. These warnings largely go unheeded, though, as migrants continue to violate regulations thanks to the weak security controls.
Somalia and Djibouti: We cannot stop the infiltration
Given the stories recounted by many of the Ethiopians who enter Saudi Arabia illegally, such as Taher and Habashi, much of the blame is placed before the countries they must traverse as part of the trip, Somalia and Djibouti the most prominent among them.
Ali Noor, a teacher and administrator at the Somalian embassy in Riyadh, believes his country cannot shoulder all the blame for the problem. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “My country cannot take responsibility for the infiltration of thousands of Ethiopians who cross the border into Saudi Arabia . . . The majority are crossing through Djibouti and Somaliland and are doing so independently of the government in Mogadishu.”
“We take serious measures to reduce this illegal immigration,” he continues. “But the length of the land border between Somalia and Ethiopia is some 1,243 miles. This makes policing the border extremely difficult. Somalia has its own problems, after all. In any case, the state has broadcast programs to educate immigrants about the risk of death while crossing the seas.”
From the Djibouti side, Ziauddin Saeed Bamajrma, the country’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Asharq Al-Awsat that there must be a concerted effort between all parties concerned in order to reduce smuggling across the borders. He believes that an event like the Manfouha riots actually has the potential to lead to positive solutions to the problem.
Bamajrma explained that Djibouti is also suffering from the effects of illegal immigration, and that the country is actively working to control the border separating it from Addis Ababa. He suggested adopting a “European model,” which seeks to stem the illegal immigration coming into mainland Europe through the Mediterranean by establishing projects in the immigrants’ countries and contributing to their development. These efforts create jobs and help stabilize life for citizens in these countries, reducing the need to leave.
Border guards stop 338,000 intruders per year
Origin and stopover countries are only on side of the coin, however. The destination country also has a role to play in this story.
But for his part, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Al-Ghamdi, a spokesman for the Saudi border guards, denied any claim that illegal immigration into Saudi Arabia was a result of its own border security failures. “Allegations of this kind have been tossed around for a long time,” he says. “They are totally ignorant. Statistics reveal that three soldiers have been killed and 13 injured during our attempts to confront border smuggling.”
Ghamdi pointed out that border security was able to respond to 338,000 intruders across the southern border of the country over the last year, 10 percent of whom had documents confirming their status as Ethiopian nationals. He believes that once inside Yemen, many people there worked to facilitate the entry of these immigrants into Saudi Arabia for financial gain.
“Some of our border guards have even mastered the languages of immigrants thanks to their constant interactions with them,” he says. “These individuals are on the front lines of these investigations. Ghamdi also noted that there exists a continued project to develop infrastructure and human resources systems to monitor and train border guards. He further stressed the need for citizens and residents to help guard Saudi Arabia’s borders against breaches.
Whether the solution to the problem is a European-style program of initiative investment in Ethiopia, or a collaborative approach by all countries involved in the process, or even simply just a question of the Kingdom policing its borders, is hard to say.
But perhaps the solution here is not to view the problem as a problem at all. After a drop in immigration from Asian countries—which constitutes a sizable portion of the foreign workforce in Saudi—demand for Ethiopian workers has actually increased over the last three years. And in addition to the thousands who enter the country illegally, some 500,000 Ethiopians are currently working in the Kingdom legally.