Prime Minister Hailemariam’s visit to New York last week was unusually rewarding for his administration, judging by what he bagged from a summit called to discuss the global refugee issue. He secured a substantial commitment from the United Kingdom, European Union and the World Bank to finance the construction of at least two industrial parks, with the hope of absorbing refugees from Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea.
Hailemariam was in New York early last week, attending the first ever summit the UN has called to discuss the plight of no less than 65.3 million displaced people around the world. He also took part in the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, organised on September 21, 2016, by the US Department of State.
It was at this meeting where Ethiopia was recognised by President Barack Obama as one of the six countries that host the largest number of refugees in the world. There are an estimated 750,000 refugees, largely from the three aforementioned countries, temporarily sheltered in Ethiopia. In just the first two weeks of this month, 17,000 refugees came from South Sudan, including 1,410 unaccompanied minors.
Many of these refugees, uprooted from their home countries due to conflict and political insecurity, stay in the host countries for an indefinite period of time, prompting them to take risky journeys to Europe. Policymakers in Europe have, in recent years, been contemplating addressing the issue at its roots. This is with the belief that the creation of opportunities in host countries could halt the influx to their shores, with gruesome pictures of humans rammed into packed rubber boats and overloaded dinghies.
The largest numbers of refugees originating from Africa and arriving on European shores comprises Eritreans and Somalis, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Many of these are reported to have begun their deadly journeys not from the countries of their births, but from camps in Ethiopia, where conditions are poor and opportunities rare.
“The refugees might be safe from conflict and persecution,” wrote Aryn Baker, in Time magazine last week. “But few see the camps as a viable alternative to living in war, famine or under an oppressive dictatorship like Eritrea’s. So they leave in desperate search of something better in Europe.”
Europe itself is desperate to stop this.
Not more than two months ago, George Turkington, country director for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), paid a visit to Prime Minister Hailmariam’s office. He carried a document in hand entitled “the job pact”, according to individuals familiar with the development.
It was a proposition held in tight circles, largely for fear of spoilers, which incorporates a deal for the West to fund projects in Ethiopia in order to keep refugees content here.
“It’s a very straight forward affair,” said an international aid worker involved in the process.
A half-billion-dollar project to finance the construction of two industrial parks in Ethiopia was agreed, while the UK has committed to providing 80 million dollars as a grant. Although the EU and the World Bank have been announced that they will be party to the deal, details on the extent of their commitment remains undisclosed.
“They have to go through their approval procedures,” said a person familiar with the process.
Representatives from both agencies in Addis Abeba were not available for comment last week.
However, Hailemariam’s administration has agreed with its Western backers to incorporate the fund into the existing five-year Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP-II). This envisages building seven industrial parks – from Meqelle to Dire Dawa and from Jimma to Semera. It has agreed to make 30pc of jobs at these parks available for refugees, with the balance going to locals, sources disclosed to Fortune.
It is considered an innovative initiative never tried before; if succeeded, the West hopes to replicate it in other major host nations of refugees across the world: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Kenya are countries with refugee populations of no less than five million.
If successful, the “Jobs Pact” projects initiated and designed in Addis Abeba would become a global story, which others are more than likely to emulate. British Prime Minister Theresa May foresees the projects in Ethiopia as a model for other countries with large refugee populations.
However, this would require Hailemariam’s administration to revise its policy to change the status of refugees, allowing them to work and pay taxes instead of sitting idle until they move to their next destinations or return to their home country.
Operations issues in the selection of refugees eligible to work in the Parks, where the Parks will be constructed and their sizes, and which companies will be contracted to build them are all issues yet to be thrashed out, sources disclosed to Fortune. However, both DFID and the World Bank hope to have as much control and supervision as possible in the procurement and bidding processes of the Parks’ construction, according to a person with knowledge of the project.
“They will most certainly follow the World Bank’s procurement rules,” this person said.
But both the UN summit and the deal with Ethiopia has been the recipient of criticism for failing to address the root causes of migration. Critics voice that pouring money into Africa cannot address issues of insecurity and violence in the source countries. One such voice comes from Human Rights Watch, describing the summit held where it is headquartered, in New York, as a “failure of vision”.
“The New York Declaration is a missed opportunity to align the international response to the realities that force people from their homes in the 21st Century,” the organisation said, in a report released last week.
Ethiopia too is known to be not only a host country for hundreds of thousands of refugees, but also the source of many thousands. There are no less than 15,000 Ethiopian refugees registered and housed in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.
“The political insecurity that drives many Ethiopians to take as much risk as trekking through the deserts of Sudan, Chad and Libya, as well as taking on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, cannot be addressed with the Industrial Parks set up here,” said a foreign aid worker, whose organisation is active in issues of migration.
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