Twenty years ago, my cousin returned from the Middle East totally incapacitated, physically as well as psychologically. I recall that people were talking about her doomsday, that she threw herself down from her employer’s many-storey building. She was paralyzed from her neck all the way down to her feet. Even more, she got a rumbling mind that she kept crying and insulting all day. I recall how her parents were devastated by her condition, as they expected her to win her life and then to be a role model to her siblings. After battling with all sorts of complications and excruciating pains for months, she finally passed away, leaving behind a psychological scar to the family. The scar was the result of their guilt for allowing her to leave for the Middle East while they were and still are the richest persons in their town.
Following her death, I started thinking about questions such as these: why did she left for an Arab country in the first place while having a decent quality of life with her parents? How and why a person of her age threw self from the top of a building? Why did the people who lived with her, including her employer, failed to understand her condition ahead and intervene to save her life? Who should be held responsible for her untimely death? No body answered my questions as I never shared them with anybody until I joined Addis Ababa University for my undergraduate studies. There and then, I discussed the issue with my good-hearted friends. After our discussion, I understood that the issue has personal, familial, societal, economical, and political dimensions.
After more than two decades now, thousands of Ethiopian youngsters leave for that oil-pampered region called the Middle East. There is no credible statistics about their exact number but some estimates put it in hundreds of thousands. Of those who leave Ethiopia, a few appear to lead a successful life, turning themselves in to accomplished traders, investors, and brokers. A limited number of them are able to send some dollars to their family back home. These two groups of immigrants are the ones who attract the ears and the eyes of millions of young Ethiopians back home. The latter hear about the former’s success stories and want to do the same by all means. Their dreamlands are countries of the Middle East. Attracted by the good stories and of course won by the persuasive propaganda’s of irresponsible travel agents, they make all the sacrifices required (such as getting Islamic names and borrowing money for their travels) to head for the Arab world. The root cause is of course poverty and these days starvation back home.
The majority, who are from rural Ethiopia, find themselves at a higher risk. Several are being killed by their employers for a whole number of reasons. Several others are committing suicide just to shorten the incomprehensible earthly suffering. Several others are, due to abuses of all sorts, getting physically and psychologically incapacitated. Since, recently, there are some others who start to kill their employers. By all accounts, the region is the most inhospitable spot on earth to Ethiopian women. Being an immigrant woman and a housemaid is nothing but being a piece of moving object created to serve some Arabs. This is what disturbs my mind. The horrors of our sisters should be heard loud and clear by all freedom-loving people. I am neither belittling the Arabs nor their culture and religion. I am against the incredible cruelty some of them have against our sisters.
I believe in the free movement of people as it is their natural right. What am concerned about is that 1) job opportunities to rural youth are extremely limited, 2) our sisters do not get first-hand genuine information about work conditions, salaries, and modes of life in the Middle East before their departure, and 3) the Ethiopian government and other agencies do not work hard to safeguard the safety and security of youngsters once they start working and living in the Middle East.
Still, the problem is too big to be ignored. I believe that this problem is manmade and can be solved. I identified three mitigating strategies and one permanent solution. These are just few of the many alternative approaches that might exist out there; having some to initiate discussion is helpful.
The rural youth leave Ethiopia mainly for economic reasons. There must be a policy that makes sure rural youngsters have something to make for their living. The government focuses on ‘empowering’ urban youth; equal intervention must be taken to enable rural youth to cope up with the cost of living. Rather than forcing kids to pass through a protracted process of joining university, many of them must be trained in some of the key vocations. The quality of education and training must be significantly improved so that students acquire needed competencies and skills. Be it in agriculture or the service sector, there must be an attractive opportunity for the youth. If there is for the youth something to hang out with, they may not have that burning desire to leave and die in a foreign land. We could then think of banning such unproductive travels entirely.
Rural youngsters are leaving. The educated are leaving. Business people are leaving. Even senior citizens start to ask asylum in the West. Who has the decision to remain back home? Because of this scale of migration, the future potential of the nation seems highly compromised. Banning migration is illegal and is impossible. But when it is done to avert catastrophes such as what happens in the Middle East, it has a moral justification. In a way, a ban of the sort is tantamount to saving thousands of lives every year. Given the current handling of Ethiopian youngsters by the Arabs, and given the absence or lack of regulatory mechanisms from our embassies, it is justified to ban immigration to that region at least until the Arabs enforce laws that protect the rights of employees. Before the ban, we have to create employment opportunities back home.
Information is power
If the aforementioned mechanisms appear impractical for whatever reasons, we could eye on providing timely information to potential travelers so that they could make informed decisions. Urban youth appear at an advantage when it comes to knowing the goods and evils of going to the desert ‘oases’. The rural youth, who are dominating the exodus now, do not have a vivid understanding of urban life. They even are ‘aliens’ to life and living in Addis and in other major cities and towns in Ethiopia. They have no clue when it comes to 1) communicating with foreigners, 2) managing modern house chores, 3) salary and workload, and 4) living conditions and abuses such as rapes and punishments in the Middle East. The media, parents, friends, the government, and other civic organizations must explain these and other issues to those who think of flights. The information should be provided in such a fashion that it discourages illegal and even legal travels. Or, the information should help them to make informed decisions.
Work conditions and pays
If we still believe in the right of Arabs to possess our sisters as slaves, we have to play different. The role of Ethiopian embassies is crucial here. I heard that some sort of contract is being entered between employers/brokers and employees in Addis. But that does not translate into action. Compared to immigrants from other countries, Ethiopian housemaids are paid the least salaries. Are we any cheaper? We are of course one of hard-working and smart workforce in the world, with astounding success and work ethic. The problem is that there is nobody who could fight on behalf of our rural youngsters. They do not have the language and communication/argumentation skill to face their employers. Their embassy is supposed to make deals on their behalf. I am not saying that our embassies in the Middle East are totally idle on this matter; I am saying that their contribution is hardly noticeable. To me, there is no more pressing need for an embassy than to intervene between life and death.
My suggestion to our embassies there is that they should make deals with employers on a whole set of issues related to employees. One, they should make sure Ethiopians are employed at the same salary scale as other immigrants are employed. Two, the embassies must ensure that at least the minimum work conditions are fulfilled. Three, they should come up with a mechanism to ensure the timely payment of salaries. Four, bring to the courts those employers who abuse their employees. Five, create a sort of association for Ethiopian immigrants so that it could be tasked to follow up on the daily conditions of its members. Six, stop advertising that you would bring cheap labor from Ethiopia. This sort of ads makes you appear even cheaper before Arab eyes. If you have to advertise, tell potential employers that you could bring them youngsters for employment on a competitive basis. Seven, do not consider political affiliation while helping immigrants. There are other places and scenarios where and when playing politics does not cost, at least in terms of human life. These sorts of efforts along with international pressure making would bring good results.
Our embassies are too limited in their capacities to deal with this problem alone. The Ethiopian government, the Diaspora, political parties, civic organizations, and religious institutions must create a unified front to pressurize Arabs to respect international conventions related to human rights and employment. Open letters addressed to governments, employment organizations and their embassies must be written. The approach must be as diplomatic as possible. If governments and employers do not listen to our cries, threaten to disclose their worst handling of human rights to international media and organizations. Indeed, it is useful to attract the attention of the ILO, the UN, the EU, the US, and other multinational corporations. If the cry is loud and full of evidence, we might be heard and we could bring some change. Similarly, scholars should be invited to conduct studies that explore the daily horrors of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. Based on empirical evidence, interest and pressure groups could be easily formed and maintained.