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Better days for Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East

Better days for Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East

Bereket Gebru 12-29-17

Even under stable and prosperous states, human rights are a challenging issue to realize. The rule of law creates a favorable condition for states to cater to the social security, health, education, equality, security of person, freedom of thought, etc. demands of citizens. These rights make up part of the thirty articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

Conditions of political, economic and social stability and development help foster suitable conditions for the advancement of the values incorporated in the UDHR. On the contrary, the opposite scenario makes it harder for human rights to be upheld. One of such conditions that work against the protection of human rights is undocumented migration.

Elevating itself as one of the hot topics in the world, undocumented migration has become a worldwide issue confronting both rich and poor states. Ethiopians have seen their share of the hardships faced by undocumented migrants as their relatives and fellow countrymen suffered the brunt of a cruel treatment on their journeys and at the hands of their hosts in their destination. We all regretfully remember the Ethiopians who were slaughtered and shot down by ISIS in Libya. Their burial created a social outcry in Addis Ababa and other cities. Stories of Ethiopian women being killed, burned and handicapped by their employers are too common and have spanned over a decade.

Although some held grudges against the Ethiopian government for not being able to stop such attacks, the fact remains that their undocumented status leaves little room in the fight for justice. The formal structure and route that needs to be taken to acknowledge the residence and employment of someone are harshly left out when one decides to pursue undocumented migration. Accordingly, the Ethiopian embassies in the Middle East have spent a hard time to readily defend the rights of their citizens.

However, the reality has now changed with Ethiopia’s signing of the labor exchange agreement with Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The agreement is said to have enabled Ethiopia protect the rights and benefits of its domestic workers in these countries. The new agreements will make labor hiring governments share the responsibility with agencies and household employers if Ethiopian domestic workers have not got their salaries and other benefits as per contracts.  

Last January, the Ethiopian Parliament endorsed overseas employment recruitment bill that will change the working situation of Ethiopian citizens in the Middle East in terms of fair salary and protection from violent acts. The bill forbids employees from leaving for a country Ethiopia does not have a Labor Exchange Agreement and requires them to meet certain criteria in terms of knowledge, skill and language of the country before allowing them to leave.

Ethiopian embassies and consulate generals are said to be partnering with relevant institutions in the respective countries to provide the required services for Ethiopian communities in the Middle East when problems arise. However, officials close to the negotiations between the countries note that the problems are complex and deep-rooted that needed multi-stakeholder efforts to sufficiently ensure the rights and benefits of citizens.

Data show that at least 2,650 Ethiopians from Hadiya zone alone lost their lives as a result of human trafficking between 2013 and 2016. The data further indicate that thousands more are unaccounted for or have physical damages. Neighboring zones are also thought to have similar conditions regarding human trafficking with the youth largely set on their way to South Africa. To make matters worse, those who made it to South Africa are not immune to the dangers as 1,134 of them died there during the same time.

Although the numbers for Saudi immigrants have not been as easy to access, it is a well known fact that Ethiopians die on their journeys to the rich Arabian country. The journey across the Red Sea over some crammed dinghies via Yemen to Saudi Arabia is known to be one of the most fatal ones. With immigrants expected to face fatal campaigns like the impending one, the journey and the stay is as fatal as any other. 

Undocumented migrants have to risk everything when they set out on their journeys. It would seem irrational for a human to pay a large sum of money for human traffickers just to risk going through harsh circumstances or even lose their lives. However, Ethiopian migrants reportedly pay from 90-120 thousand birr for traffickers to get to South Africa. On their journeys, migrants are often forced to pay additional money or have their relatives send the money at the price of their lives.

Although some of the international migrants end up realizing the better life they hoped for, the fate of the majority is by no means comfortable. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states that 214 million people (3% of the world population) currently live outside their country of origin. An OHCHR document states that the lack of human rights-based systems of migration governance at the global, regional and national level is creating a human rights crisis for migrants at borders and in the territory of countries of transit and destination.  

The International Council On Human Rights Policy stated in a booklet entitled “Irregular Migration, Migrant Smuggling and Human Rights: Towards Coherence” that migrants have numerous reasons to move – and many fall in and out of the irregular status during their journeys or after they settle abroad.

The booklet states that undocumented migrants are under constant fear of law enforcement. The booklet stated above states that Migrants, notably those in an irregular situation, tend to live and work in the shadows, afraid to complain, denied rights and freedoms, and disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and marginalization. It goes on to say that human rights violations against migrants, including denial of access to fundamental rights such as the right to education or the right to health, are often closely linked to discriminatory laws and practice, and to deep-seated attitudes of prejudice and xenophobia against migrants. Once again, the state of human rights for irregular migrants is pitiful in this phase.

Ethiopian undocumented migrants in the Middle East faced some of the atrocious realities of their desperate ordeals. However, the agreement between the Ethiopian government and those of the Middle Eastern countries could help protect their rights and benefits. Accordingly, Ethiopians need to make sure that they follow the formal route to the Middle East as that would incorporate them within the system set up to raise their security and safety.

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