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Why Ethiopian migrants brave illegal crossings again – and again

Ethiopia is one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, but that hasn't stopped the outflow of migrants, underscoring the challenges countries face in trying to stem what were record levels of migration globally in 2014.

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    Migrant domestic workers hold an Ethiopian flag during a march demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, May 3, 2015. More than 200,000 workers mostly women from Asia and Africa work as maids in a country of 4 million people, many also come from places as far as Madagascar and Nepal, but the majority are from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Eritrea. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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Among the young Ethiopian entrepreneurs idly sipping coffee near their shops in Addis Ababa, Tariku Temesgen stands out as the joker.

Wearing scarlet dungarees and aviator shades, he draws laughter by describing his routine as a ​merchant ​who has nothing to sell. “I just stand here all day staring at my empty shop,” he says, leaning against the wall of his would-be electronics repair ​store.

Like many of the shopkeepers in this complex​, Mr. Tariku doesn't pay rent, courtesy of a government program to create jobs for returning migrants. But the nearby construction of a $475 million railway has killed traffic, ​leaving rows of merchandise ​in shops waiting for customers ​who do not come. ​ So even though Tariku has attempted unsuccessfully to migrate through Sudan five times over the past six years, he is thinking – yet again – about heading abroad to look for work.​

The horrors that many migrants confront on their illegal journeys abroad – from sexual assault​ and other abuse to drowning ​or execution ​by militants – ​are well publicized. But Tariku’s determination to repeat the experience speaks to the economic forces that have helped drive an increasing number of Ethiopian migrants abroad, despite a booming  economy that has grown nearly 9 percent annually over the past four years, according to the IMF.

While the growth is dramatic, many say it has largely benefited the business class, says Michael Woldemariam, a political scientist at Boston University in Massachusetts. The "losers" include a mass of jobless graduates and poor city dwellers that struggle beneath skyrocketing living costs.

With these prospects, many young Ethiopians are willing to take their chances rather than settle for an average monthly pay of $60, intensifying pressure on the government to try to increase opportunities more broadly among the population. 

“As long as you are human you always want to improve your life,” Tariku says. “If things don’t start improving here, then I might try again.” ​

Accessing money

His will to leave persists despite the fact that over the past few months, sickening news of migrants' journeys has been arriving from all directions.

Some who went north through Sudan, the same route Tariku took, drowned in the Mediterranean or were executed in April by an Islamic State offshoot in Libya. In the east, thousands have been caught in Yemen’s civil war as they try to reach the wealthy Gulf nations. Ethiopians were also targets of xenophobic attacks in South Africa two months ago.

Still, it is estimated that around 75,000 Ethiopians tried to reach the Gulf in 2014, with tens of thousands more making equally treacherous trips to try and reach Europe and South Africa.

They are fleeing rock-bottom wages and inflation that has averaged 17 percent a year over the past decade. While the economic growth has helped bring 2.5 million people out of poverty since 2005, the number still living under a poverty line of 60 cents (US) a day has remained constant at around 25 million, due to a rapidly increasing population.

Better wages in Sudan

When he lived in Khartoum, the capital of the economically struggling Sudan, Tariku earned $22 a day from welding and washing dishes at a pizza restaurant. In comparison, his welding skills only earn him $7 a day in Addis Ababa, although sometimes he doesn’t get paid for work, he claims. With house rent of $54 a month and a basic meal costing $1.25, he is barely surviving.  

His store, though free, cost him around $430 to partition, despite doing all the work himself. Now he has no cash left to stock it, and officials threaten to evict him and hand his space to someone else in their enterprise program. While there are loan facilities for the micro-entrepreneurs, Tariku can’t find a guarantor and doesn’t possess assets for collateral.

Alem Berhane, another shopkeeper in the enterprise ​plan, is also struggling. She was among 168,000 Ethiopian workers deported from Saudi Arabia in late 2013. Now she is under-employed, selling coffee to a handful of construction workers to make around $1 a day.

According to Mr. Woldemariam, “the out-migration will continue” unless the government can “more concretely addresses the structural problems.” 

Government efforts

Half of those who were deported from Saudi Arabia tried to migrate again, the Ethiopian government says. Such choices are partly due to misconceptions that is easier earning a living abroad, says Solomon Tesfaye of the prime minister’s office, who heads a task force to combat human trafficking. Donor-supported “community conversations” where people discuss the harsh realities of illegal travel, are effective at putting off potential migrants, he adds.

Stiffer sentences for human trafficking are on the way, as is legislation to better regulate employment agencies and improve pre-departure training for workers. Legal routes may re-open once the new legislation is combined with labor agreements with Gulf countries.

Alem praises the government for trying to improve Ethiopians’ lives by doing everything from teaching people about the hazards of illegal migration to creating jobs opportunities. She had flown to Saudi Arabia in 2011 legally to work as a housemaid in Jeddah, where she earned a tax-free salary of around $187 a month. The job went well until her employer wanted her for his “second wife." She declined and wasn’t paid for three months before leaving to work other jobs illegally. Overall, she described her two-year experience as “not bad,” mostly because she wasn’t sexually assaulted like other Ethiopian maids, and her savings allowed her to provide for her relatives.

By opening a bar in the capital and building an extension to her parents’ home in the Tigray region, Alem says the money she earned in Saudi Arabia changed her family’s life.

Unfortunately, a church opened above the bar and her regulars drifted elsewhere. Now she’s not sure what to do, partly hoping the coffee brewing business improves, partly waiting for legal channels to re-open. “There is opportunity for me to improve my life there, much more than here,” she says.

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