Addis Ababa, 25 July 2022 – Abi* was only 17 years old when he left Mesala, a small town some 400 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, hoping for a better life in Yemen.

“Three years ago, I left Ethiopia after hearing about a 'broker' who was willing to facilitate my trip to Yemen,” he recalls. “I was told that there are job opportunities waiting for me and others who joined the journey. I sold what I could, borrowed money from people I know, and eventually had ETB 15,000 (around USD 280), enough to pay the broker.”

He packed his bag and set off.

“It was my first time to see the vast ocean. I didn’t know how to swim. When we reached Yemen, I was just happy to survive, but that happiness was short-lived as I was detained immediately by the broker. He asked me to pay more in exchange for my freedom,” Abi shares.

Since he didn’t have anyone to turn to and ask for the additional money, Abi was released and taken to work on a khat farm.

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian men, women, and unaccompanied children like Abi fall victims to “brokers” or human traffickers.

They leave the country for Yemen and the Gulf states in search of work to escape poverty, the effects of climate change, and conflict. They take dangerous journeys through the “Eastern Route”, the main migration route linking the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries, by land and sea.

Unfortunately, many do not make it to their destinations and die along the way.

For those who are lucky enough to survive the journey and find work like Abi, they end up in deplorable working conditions with little pay, far from what was promised to them.

Ethiopia acts both as an origin and transit state, and with of Ethiopians leaving the country annually, the country remains at the centre of irregular migration. At the core of this irregular migration is an organized network of criminal actors working across the region and in destination states.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) encourages Member States and key actors to engage in eliminating trafficking. It does so by contributing to a number of regional and international multilateral processes. In 2020, the government of Ethiopia enacted a law that provides for the prevention and suppression of trafficking and smuggling of migrants. This was the culmination of an extensive process supported by IOM from the initial drafting stage where it provided technical input to the establishment of supportive structures like the National Partnership Coalition for the Prevention of the crimes of trafficking in persons, smuggling of persons and unlawful sending of persons abroad for work, including at the regional level. 

“I spent three years in Yemen. There’s not a day that I didn’t work hard on the farm. That’s when I knew I reached my physical limits,” Abi shares.

Due to the working conditions in Yemen, Abi lost his ability to walk. Photo: IOM/Kaye Viray

Abi heard about IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) Assistance and reached out so he could be on the next flight to Ethiopia.

IOM provides Voluntary Humanitarian Return Assistance to Ethiopians trapped in Yemen and other countries, wishing to go back. So far this year, nearly 1,655 Ethiopians have arrived back in Ethiopia from various countries, with 1,032 coming from Yemen.

“IOM staff receive returnees at the airport before they are transferred to the Organization’s Transit Centre in Addis Ababa. There, the returnees receive medical check-ups, psychosocial support, much-needed humanitarian items, accommodation and food for the duration of their stay,” says Bawele Tchalim, Programme Manager on Migrant Protection for IOM Ethiopia.

“Those in good health condition are also provided with onward transportation to their respective cities and towns, and further in-kind socioeconomic reintegration support is provided to the most vulnerable returnees.”

With support from the local authorities, IOM also helps unaccompanied migrant children returnees like Abi reunite with their families through the Organization’s Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) programme, after their psychosocial and health needs are met, and reunite with their loved ones in safety and dignity.

“I was happy when I found out that IOM contacted my uncle. My parents separated when I was young, and both their new partners did not want to take me in. Being with my uncle will help me a lot,” he excitedly says.

As part of its reintegration assistance, IOM works with government agencies to train returnees in life and basic business skills. IOM also assists returnees to draft business plans based on locally viable livelihoods and supports them to acquire the initial in-kind capital to kickstart new businesses. Common economic activities include starting up a shop or cafeteria, rearing livestock, dairy farming, and a range of other commercial and agricultural activities to improve their livelihoods.

Abi is looking forward to opening a small shop with IOM support.

“I would like to sell basic materials like sugar, cereal, among other basic household items. In the meantime, I would also like to continue looking after my health.”

When asked about his message to those who are thinking of going through the same journey as he did, Abi says, “Please, don’t do it. There is nothing waiting for you there. It is not worth it.”

IOM’s policy on assisted return is grounded in a rights-based approach focusing on the well-being of individual returnees and their communities throughout the entire return and reintegration process. IOM, therefore, puts individuals and the protection of their rights at the centre of all efforts.

IOM’s humanitarian assistance and protection services in response to the needs of the returnees are aligned with the Regional Migrant Response Plan (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, 2022. The MRP aims to address the needs of migrants in vulnerable situations and host communities in countries situated along the Eastern Migratory Route, located between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, with the financial support of several development partners including the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the Governments of France and Norway, as well as the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre.

*Name has been changed to protect the returnee’s identity.

This story is written by Kaye Viray, Media and Communication Officer for IOM Ethiopia.

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