14 February 2014 , By Mark Anderson in Addis Ababa
On a hot afternoon in January, hundreds of young Ethiopians filed out of a parked Saudia airplane and streamed into the international terminal of Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, many clutching young children and oversized luggage.
We are also happy to take our citizens, who should be treated with dignity while they are there
They are but a handful of the estimated 150,000 Ethiopians who are being repatriated from Saudi Arabia after the government announced a crackdown on undocumented foreign workers in early 2013, which is part of an attempt to ease the country’s 12% unemployment rate.
When a seven-month grace period for undocumented workers to leave the country expired, Saudi security forces began carrying out visa raids in Manfouha, a low-income neighbourhood known to house many foreign workers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, with some Ethiopians reportedly killed in the offensives.
The Saudi government launched the Nitaqat programme to increase the participation of Saudis in the workforce, leading to regularisations throughout 2013 and the expulsions of late 2013 into January 2014.
Ethiopia’s foreign affairs minister Tedros Adhanom told Reuters that the raids were unacceptable.
“We call on the Saudi government to investigate this issue seriously,” he said. “We are also happy to take our citizens, who should be treated with dignity while they are there.”
In the first week of the crackdown, more than 20,000 Ethiopians surrendered to Saudi authorities as anti-African sentiment, fuelled by months of media campaigns, reached a fervour, and armed gangs comprised of security forces and ordinary citizens intimidated migrants.
“Saudi authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals in the media and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the labour crack-down,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director.
No work for returnees
Two weeks after the crackdown began in November 2013, Tedros said that Ethiopia was doing “everything possible to repatriate citizens from Saudi Arabia within 14 to 25 days”.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) assumed responsibility for repatriating Ethiopians and appealed for emergency transportation funding, but it faces a $12m shortfall.
Addis Ababa initially expected to receive 30,000 citizens and allocated just $5m in funding for the repatriation process, but the number soon swelled to nearly 150,000.
Ethiopia is already grappling with a 17.5% urban unemployment rate, according to the United Nations Development Programme, so returnees are likely to face trouble finding work.
A recent crackdown on migrants in Israel – a popular destination for Ethiopians – means that Ethiopia’s masses of unemployed youth have fewer options. ●
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