Ethiopia repatriates 70,000 citizens from Saudi Arabia, but what next?

Ethiopia repatriates 70,000 citizens from Saudi Arabia, but what next?
Ethiopian women repatriated from Saudi Arabia react as they disembark from the airplane at Bole Airport on March 30, 2022.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia | By Michael Wandati | Ethiopia has made the decision to repatriate thousands of its citizens who were living in poor conditions in Saudi Arabia. The announcement was made last week in Addis Ababa, with the repatriation set to commence in early April, aimed at approximately 70,000 Ethiopians.

While this move is aimed at rescuing stranded citizens, it presents a humanitarian challenge for a country already grappling with displacement due to local conflicts and influxes from neighboring nations.

State Minister Birtukan Ayano Dadi stated that the repatriation, which marks the third such program since 2018, will prioritize “Ethiopians who are in a difficult situation.”

However, this initiative comes with a considerable financial burden. Although the Addis Ababa government did not formally disclose the exact cost of the program, Birtukan mentioned that preparations including budget allocation, logistics, and shelter arrangements are necessary for the returning citizens.

Tayba Hassan, the director-general of Refugees and Returnees, the Ethiopian agency responsible for managing displacement within the country, stated that regional administrations are tasked with ensuring that the returnees are resettled in their respective native regions. Historically, Ethiopia has relied on donors to assist in the resettlement of nationals rescued from dire conditions abroad.

Julieta Valls Noyes, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, recently visited Ethiopia. It is anticipated that the US, along with other donors, will look to Ethiopia to offer crucial assistance to displaced individuals, particularly those from neighboring Sudan, which has been embroiled in conflict since April of last year.

“It was shared poverty and shared humanity. And I thought that that was an excellent way of describing how both Chad and, for that matter, Ethiopia are responding to their respective refugee situations,” Ms Noyes told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday, visiting Ethiopia and Chad, two of the Sudanese refugees host countries.

The United States stands as the largest donor for humanitarian aid in Ethiopia, exemplified by its allocation of $1 billion to Addis in 2023, primarily through the World Food Programme and UNICEF. This year, it has already disbursed around $89 million to provide vital assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and others affected by conflict, drought, and food insecurity.

Ethiopia currently shelters 50,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled their country over the past 11 months. In total, Ethiopia hosts approximately 917,000 refugees from neighboring nations and four million internally displaced persons, as reported by the Ethiopian Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS). These refugees originate from countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and Eritrea.

However, there have been funding reductions targeted at these vulnerable groups. On March 22, RRS and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) convened stakeholders in Addis Ababa to address the escalating funding cuts for refugee operations in Ethiopia, urging partners and donors to contribute urgently needed funds to meet the pressing needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

With over 4 million internally displaced persons, including those who fled Tigray during the internal conflict and have yet to return, Ethiopia’s repatriation of 70,000 individuals will further strain resources for resettlement. Particularly in Tigray, the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed during the conflict, which ended in November 2022, remains incomplete.

Following the Tigray conflict, new security challenges have emerged in neighboring Amhara and Oromo regions as the government contends with militia groups, resulting in additional displacements.

The repatriation process expenses will encompass flight tickets, temporary accommodation at transition centers in Addis Ababa, transportation costs to return to their native regions, and financial assistance to restart their lives.

Ethiopia previously provided 45 million birr ($180,000) in 2021 to facilitate the relocation of 30,000 returnees from Addis Ababa to their respective homes. The Sustainable Reintegration Support to Ethiopians (SRSERE) project, initiated in 2018, aimed to assist Ethiopians, particularly those returning from Europe, with a budget of $16.18 million funded by the European Union (EU).

In March 2022, Ethiopia reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to repatriate over 100,000 Ethiopians following accusations from rights groups regarding the mistreatment of foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia.

While details regarding the legal status of the returnees from Saudi Arabia in this new program were not clarified by Ethiopia, an earlier assessment by the International Organization for Migration highlighted that most of them were unemployed or engaged in irregular unskilled work.

Also Read: Ugandans lured into oversold jobs in Myanmar, end up as rebel fighters

“Along the Eastern Route, most movements from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia are believed to be irregular, economically driven and highly risky, with the Ethiopian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs suggesting a ratio of around 2:3 between movements through irregular channels and those through regular channels,” an IOM bulletin said of the trends in Ethiopia.

“However, these movements tend to be temporary, meaning that most migrants return to Ethiopia after a few years abroad,” says IOM.

The repatriation process encompasses flights from Saudi Arabia to Addis Ababa, electronic registration, and temporary accommodation while awaiting transfer to their respective villages. Additionally, it includes counseling services, temporary provision of meals, and medical assistance. Despite these provisions, the program has faced shortcomings in the past.

“Given this sudden and unprepared forced repatriation, the reintegration of Ethiopian returnees has been painfully slow and largely unaddressed,” IOM said of the previous programmes.

“Most returnees face severe difficulties in reintegrating, as they return empty-handed because they used their earnings for living expenses and remittances.”

Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) facilitated the return of 42,000 individuals to Ethiopia. This number marks a decrease from the assistance provided in 2022, when over 92,000 individuals were supported in returning to Ethiopia.