Sintayehu Beyene left Ethiopia planning to earn money to begin a carpentry business -- he ended up captive in Yemen where Kalashnikov-wielding traffickers stole what little he owned.
Grabbed from a boatload of migrant workers as it landed on a Yemeni shore, he says the armed gang whisked him inland to a desert camp. Beaten and detained for nine days with about 30 other people, he was forced to hand over the 1,400 Ethiopian birr ($72) he was carrying before being released. He crossed to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where wages are sometimes more than double the rates paid in Ethiopia, only to be deported a month later when authorities cracked down on illegal migrants.
“They robbed and beat me,” Sintayehu, 31, said in a May 22 interview in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, recalling his treatment at the camp in northern Yemen five months ago. “They took all the money I had.”
Sintayehu may have got off lightly, according to Human Rights Watch. Ethiopians and other migrants arriving in Yemen have been captured and tortured by human traffickers planning to extort ransoms that can be more than $1,000 from their families, the New York-based advocacy group said in a May 25 report. One witness cited by HRW described captors gouging out a man’s eyes with a water bottle.
Torture is one of the dangers faced by thousands of Ethiopians who travel to seek work in the Arabian peninsula, where maids can earn $200 a month compared to the $90 the Ethiopian government estimated in 2012 that an average college graduate made back home.
Numbers traveling across the Gulf of Aden have risen this year even after Saudi Arabia, the intended destination for many, began mass deportations of unregistered employees. The number of African migrants in the northern Yemeni city of Haradh increased 10-fold to 8,000 between January and March, HRW said in the report titled “Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of Migrants by Human Traffickers in a Climate of Impunity.”
While Saudi Arabia began expelling 160,000 illegal Ethiopian workers in November, the number of migrants traveling by boat to Yemen from Djibouti or Somalia increased to 8,356 in April, 56 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Nairobi, Kenya-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, or RMMS. An estimated 82 percent of arrivals are Ethiopian, it said on May 16.
The number of people illegally traveling by boat to Yemen dropped to 65,000 in 2013 from 108,000 in 2012, HRW said, citing United Nations data. Aid workers say numbers fell during the second half of last year because Saudi Arabia tightened border security and threatened to deport illegal workers, according to the report.
“Some of the migrants encountered were actually re-attempting their journeys following deportation from Saudi and Yemen in the last couple of years,” Noela Barasa, an RMMS spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed response to questions on May 19 about this year’s increase. “A perceived labor gap following the massive deportations may be responsible for spurring movement.”
Ethiopia has temporarily banned citizens from traveling to work in Saudi Arabia until conditions improve and is “sensitizing the public” to the dangers of illegal migration, Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said. The treatment of Ethiopians in Yemen wasn’t discussed during a recent meeting between government officials of the two nations, he said by phone from Addis Ababa. Yemen’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Hamid Alawadhi, said the government takes the HRW report “seriously” and has formed a committee including all authorities accused to discuss its allegations.
“Due to Yemen’s poor and limited resources in dealing with the flood of refugees and illegal migrants, as well as weak support from international institutions, there are problems related to this kind of asylum-seeking,” Alawadhi said. The government plans to issue a statement responding to the report, he said, without specifying when.
Yemen’s economy contracted 13 percent in 2011, in the wake of protests that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the lost output won’t be recovered until next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The nation is also battling an insurgency in its north and a threat from al-Qaeda militants.
Sintayehu, whose wife died of breast cancer last year, reckons he needs 50,000 birr to buy tools and begin a business in Ethiopia as a carpenter and painter, and a monthly income of 5,000 birr to support himself and his four-year-old daughter.
Before he began looking after his ailing father, he says he earned 80 birr a day on building sites in Ethiopia’s capital, where offices, hotels and shopping malls are sprouting up. That wasn’t enough for his needs, he said.
Economic hardship is the main reason Ethiopian arrivals in Yemen give for their journey, Barasa said. While Ethiopia, home to about 90 million people, has one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, with the IMF projecting expansion of 8 percent this year after average annual growth of 9.3 percent over the past four years, almost 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Agriculture accounts for 43 percent of gross domestic product and 82 percent of Ethiopians rely on subsistence farming, USAID said in a March 2012 report. Land is state-owned and the average plot size is less than a hectare (2.5 acres). Unemployment was 17.5 percent in Ethiopian towns and cities in 2012, according to the IMF.
Ethiopians sent home $3 billion in the last nine months, outstripping earnings from exports of goods of $2.3 billion, Addis Ababa-based Capital newspaper reported May 25, citing the National Bank of Ethiopia.
Wondiya Goshu, 31, says he left school before graduating and hasn’t been able to find work in his home country. He left for his fourth trip to sell an illicit alcoholic brew in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, around the time his compatriots were being deported last year, he said.
Yemenis kidnapped him off the boat and contacted his friends in Saudi Arabia to extract a ransom of 3,500 Saudi riyals ($933). Wondiya stayed at a hot, lice-ridden camp for 28 days with about 60 others, surviving on tepid water and small portions of rice, he said in a May 22 interview in Addis Ababa.
The trafficking camps are near Haradh, where some government officials assist smugglers in an activity that may be responsible for about 80 percent of the area’s economy, Human Rights Watch said.
“Officials have more frequently warned traffickers of raids, freed them from jail when they are arrested, and in some cases, have actively helped the traffickers capture and detain migrants,” according to the report.
Illegally selling alcohol and washing cars, Wondiya says he earned 12,000 riyals ($3,200) in about two months in the Saudi city of Jeddah. He says he was later arrested, held at an immigration camp, stripped of his possessions and flown back to Ethiopia.
Such tales aren’t enough to discourage Sintayehu. He said he’d travel again across the Gulf of Aden -- a trip that cost him a total of 6,000 birr last time -- if he could only find the money.
“I am willing to work here, but the pay is low in comparison,” he said. “I wanted to take a risk; things are better in Saudi.”