Ethiopian Migrants Expelled by Saudis Remain in Limbo Back Home By BENNO MUCHLER
LEGUAMA, Ethiopia — Mohammed Jemal left Ethiopia two years ago. He wanted to be independent, to support his family — and to escape the mockery of having squandered a big chance for a better life.
“I went to college and dropped out. I somehow failed,” he said. If he had gone back home and started a simple life with a poorly paid job, he said, “people would have called my family names.”
So, like many Ethiopians, Mr. Mohammed left his small, rural hometown in central Ethiopia to seek his fortune in Saudi Arabia. He entered the country illegally, he said, having walked most of the way through Djibouti and Yemen. Once he got there, he said, he worked as a guard and receptionist.
Despite the many challenges, the money was worth it, he recalled thinking, until he was tossed out of the country in a mass deportation in which nearly a million people who had entered the country illegally from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia were pushed out of Saudi Arabia last year, according to the International Labor Organization.
For decades, rich Arab countries in the Middle East have been a major destination for migrant workers from developing nations. Deportations had happened before, but the scale of the recent expulsions from Saudi Arabia is virtually unheard-of, the labor organization said.
About 150,000 Ethiopians have been forced out of the country. Their expulsion puts the Ethiopian government under strain because the remittances they sent had greatly contributed to the country, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but is still very poor.
Now, as Mr. Mohammed rode a bus past the mountains of his native country, old worries returned to his mind. On the bus with him were about 50 other Ethiopians who had also recently been deported from Saudi Arabia, most of them silent as they crossed the Ethiopian highlands into an uncertain future.
When Mr. Mohammed got off the rickety blue bus and took his luggage down from the roof, a group of friends and family gathered around, hugging him. Many of them had also returned from Saudi Arabia. In fact, one resident said, almost all the youths of Leguama, a town of 5,000, had left because of poverty and had now come back.
Mr. Mohammed’s father, Jemal Endris, waited in front of his house and kissed his son on the cheeks and said softly, “Alhamdulillah,” Arabic for “Praise be to God.” Ethiopia is a largely Christian country, but Leguama, which is about 100 miles north of the nearest big city, is Muslim, as is the rest of the area.
The family’s sparsely furnished mud house was no bigger than 322 square feet. The family had built it with the money Mr. Mohammed had sent from Saudi Arabia. Some mattresses lay in the living room. A bulb gave off a dim light at night. There was a bed in the next room. In the front, the father had created a small sewing room. The river behind the house served for washing and doing laundry.
“Obviously, all this is a big problem,” said the father, a farmer like most people here, where there are not many other options. “The remittances were the pillar of our living.”
Without jobs, factories and better infrastructure, he said, people would continue to leave. His second son, Endris, had already thought about it but remained torn about the decision.
Many things in Leguama had been built with money from the sons and daughters in Saudi Arabia: houses, shops, four mosques, a school. The community had collected money for an ambulance, but it did not know if the project would still be realized.
Mr. Mohammed’s mother, Zemzem Oumer, was not as worried about the future as his father.
“Even if you have money, you always worry,” she said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
She said she had been to Saudi Arabia before Mr. Mohammed traveled there. She went as a pilgrim to Mecca, stayed illegally, worked as a maid and returned only when her husband told her that he could not raise the children by himself any longer.
She lived through some of the horror stories many Ethiopians tell. Sometimes she did not get food, and sometimes she was locked away. Mr. Mohammed said he had been insulted. Other migrants said they had been beaten and often not paid. Reports of rapes of young Ethiopian women set off protests against the mass deportation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, in early November. Three Ethiopians died in clashes with the police.
The Ethiopian government has stated that diplomatic and trade relations with Saudi Arabia will remain unchanged. It is one of the biggest foreign investors in Ethiopia apart from China, Turkey and India. According to the Ethiopian government, Saudi businesspeople have $369 million involved in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s image will be damaged, said Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, the capital.
“They could show some sort of solidarity, some sort of sympathy to what has happened to these migrant workers,” he said. “These people were not living for free in Saudi Arabia. They were just working. They were actually doing the dirty jobs for the Saudis.”
Mr. Mulugeta hoped his countrymen would stop trying to leave Ethiopia for supposedly better horizons. After paying for higher costs of living in Saudi Arabia, some migrants do not earn much more than in Ethiopia, he said. The transit is dangerous and costly, too. And life away from family and friends is hard.
Still, the desire to leave remains high for many. Mr. Mohammed said he had earned $780 a month in Saudi Arabia. The annual per capita income in Ethiopia is about $390, according to the World Bank.
Saudi Arabia also expelled 400,000 Yemenis, as well as people from India, Sudan, Somalia and Egypt. They worked in construction and as maids, shepherds and cleaners. Their mass deportation was part of a nationalization program of the Saudi labor sector. Azfar Khan, a senior migration specialist for the Arab states at the International Labor Organization, said the program was a product of the Saudi government’s fear of an Arab Spring. Nine million people, a third of Saudi Arabia’s population, are foreign workers.
The Ethiopian government has allocated $2.6 million to help migrants reintegrate. The fund supports those who have some savings left and want to start a small business. But the government expected only about 30,000 returnees. Their number increased fivefold.
“We believe there won’t be any social disaster,” said Dina Mufti, spokesman of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Because this is a vibrant economy which is growing.”
Mr. Khan, however, saw a risk of social upheaval if reintegration of the returnees failed. “It has happened in a latter kind of situation in Tunisia, for example, when the fellow burned himself and set himself on fire,” Mr. Khan said, referring to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire in December 2010 and started the Arab Spring. “I mean, what was he complaining about? It was essentially that they don’t have any jobs, they couldn’t generate an income.”
Many of the returnees are frustrated. Urban unemployment in Ethiopia, a country of almost 90 million, is at 17.5 percent.
Mr. Mohammed said he wanted to go back to college. He did not see a future in Leguama. It was his mother’s savings from Saudi Arabia that had allowed him to study physical education; the savings were used up when she became sick with kidney and gastric problems and needed treatment. He blamed himself and left to earn money.
“If there is a safe way to go back to Saudi Arabia in the legal system, this is an option,” he said.