The sudden move by the government to ban overseas travel for those looking to work in unskilled positions, has been met by much frustration. Many argue that it is an unconstitutional move and will increase illegal trafficking - the reverse of what they hope to achieve. It has also left many legal overseas employment agencies concerned about their future, report YOSEPH MEKONNEN, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
In recent years, Ethiopia has seen a surge in the number of its citizens heading to foreign lands in the hope of finding greener pastures. A glaring piece of evidence of this trend for the casual observer are the long winding lines at the Main Department for Immigration & National Affairs, located in Lideta District. Filled by hopeful migrants looking to secure a passport, they seemed to be getting longer by the day before the overwhelmed Office took measures to deal with the ever-increasing crowds, a few months ago.
Meseret Kebede, 28, was one such hopeful who decided to try her luck in one of the countries in the Middle East. Having moved from Assela, a town in Oromia, 175km from the capital, to Addis Abeba, seven years ago, she worked in numerous low-skilled occupations, in order to make ends meet. This included her current waitressing job in a café.
Despite her hardworking personality, however, life is not improving, she explained, hence her decision to migrate.
“Friends who went there [Arab countries] told me that I can make a lot of money within a short period of time,” she said.
An overseas employment agency on Tesema Aba Kemaw Street, in Lideta District, was the first step on her journey. Here, she applied for a job and started her travel preparations. After borrowing money from relatives, three months ago, she passed through many of the processes, such as getting a passport and getting a health check-up, and started waiting for her visa to Kuwait. So far she has spent up to 6,000 Br, she claims.
A week ago, however, the government announced a sudden travel ban for migrant workers, effective on the date of the announcement, and lasting for seven months. It specifically targets workers like Meseret, who travel to Arab countries to work in low-skilled jobs. She greeted the news with shock.
“I heard the government’s travel ban through the radio and called the employment agency to confirm the validity of the information,” she stated, still reeling from the news.
The ban was put in place because of reports citizens are harmed in these countries, the national image is being damaged and the country is losing its labour force, the government claimed.
“Citizens who have migrated have suffered a lot while they travel, and also after they reach their destinations and start working,” said Dina Mufti, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). “Illegal brokers promise heaven to the travellers and make them ill-informed about the reality.”
This ban, however, is proving controversial. Its suddenness has given migrants and employment agencies no time to prepare, and it is unclear how banning legal migration is going to prevent illegal trafficking. In addition, questions have arisen over the compatibility of the decision with article 32 of the country’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of movement, including the right to leave the country at any time.
Data from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) shows that the total number of Ethiopians who travelled to Arab countries legally from 2010 to 2013 reached 450,000. However, those who travel through illegal channels are estimated to have reached 1.5 million.
This migration, however, has not been without pitfalls, and the problems that migrants, both legal and illegal, run into, from abuse at the hands of employers to torture at the hands of smugglers, have been extensively documented by the world’s media. There exists a consensus that this must be resolved.
However, the approach chosen by the government has created frustration. The owners and managers of legal employment agencies contacted by Fortune were no different.
“We have not been consulted and the decision is very sudden, which can cause a lot of mess,” said Mohammed Abdulhamid, an owner of one such agency.
Since their work requires collaboration with other agencies found in the destination countries, they could lose business. Those in other countries may not want to wait for a resolution, he claimed.
“This will make our task of ensuring the safety of workers already sent through these agencies difficult,” he further added.
Overseas employment agencies have sprouted up around the country, in tandem with the growing demand for their services. There are currently more than 400 registered agencies that send people like Meseret abroad.
Mohammed claims to have sent more than 3,000 Ethiopians to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait over the last five years, earning between 50 dollars and 100 dollars commission a person. But the business is taking a toll.
“I am already fed up with the business, because we are forced to compete with illegal traffickers and illegal agencies,” he complained. “They have many advantages because they do not work based on procedures put in place by the government.”
In addition, the agencies that Fortune visited all expressed concerns over the survival of their companies now that their source of income has dried up. They are, after all, still dealing with monthly rent of up to 20,000Br for office space.
The MoLSA, however, argues that the move will actually support legal agencies.
Even workers who travelled through legal means are facing difficulties, it claims, because their passports and other documents are withheld by employers. This leads to the arrest of Ethiopians by police in those countries, when they try to escape from their employers’ house.
Moreover, if something bad happens to them while employed abroad, the agency that processed their case will be held responsible, it adds. After things are corrected within these seven months, the problems faced by the agencies will also be resolved.
“Among the agencies, many of them use the legal license as a cover to involve themselves in illegal human trafficking,” said Girma Shelme, public relation director at the MoLSA. “The ban came to identify the route of human trafficking and to take serious measures against it.”
Unless the legal routes are closed first, the illegal routes cannot be identified, he said. A committee chaired by the Prime Minister, tasked with working on illegal trafficking, will be working on identifying these illegal routes. Girma, however, declined to disclose how this committee is to achieve this, as well as how banning legal routes can lead to illegal traffickers.
The decision to stop legal migration is not sudden, he argues. Prior to enacting this ban, the MoLSA had been trying to get to the source of the illegal trafficking, using measures such as monthly inspections on agencies and warning or taking correctional measures on those that were non-compliant with the law. This could not prevent the woe of human trafficking, however, according to Girma.
A manager at the agency that handles Meseret’s case, however, told Fortune that in her two-year stay at the agency, she has never seen a single inspector from the MoLSA at their office.
Regardless of the suddenness, however, the question of the constitution still remains.
According to Girma Seifu, the sole opposition member of Parliament, there is no question over the compatibility with the constitution.
“This is clearly a breach of the constitution,” he told Fortune.
The main reason for migration is the economic condition of the country, he said, since housemaids are not the only ones to migrate.
“Journalists and other people from different walks of life are also migrating and I do not think that they are doing this because they are deceived by illegal human traffickers,” he said.“The government is trying to transfer this responsibility [economic condition] to others.”
Their breach of the constitution is nothing new, he added, stating that he is sure the ban will be lifted before the parliamentary elections of next year.
For Mushe Semu, former president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), however, the government’s decision to ban came too late.
“The blood of those Ethiopians who lost their lives because of migration is on the hands of the government, because of its failure to take such measures earlier,” he stated.
His views on the constitutionality are drastically different from Girma’s stance as well.
“Rights have limits and sometimes they can be banned temporarily for good reasons,” he stated. “Having a peaceful demonstration is allowed, but one cannot have the demonstration ‘whenever and wherever’.”
Where he disagrees is on the lack of discussion prior to the decision, and believes Parliament should have been consulted prior to taking action.
“If the government is going to solve the problem as usual with its officials behind closed doors, this ban will bring nothing,” he claims.
The MoFA’s Dina Mufti also defended that the ban is not against the country’s constitution, since the decision is a temporary measure by the government “to ensure the safety of its citizens”.
A senior lawyer who talked to Fortune anonymously, however, sided with Girma Seifu’s assertion and did not hesitate to declare that the government’s decision is “totally unconstitutional”. Instead of prohibiting the free movement of citizens, protecting the rights of citizens through the MoFA was what the government should have done, he argued.
“To my knowledge, other countries do not allow citizens to go and work in another country unless they agreed with that country’s government concerning the safety of their citizens,” he said.
Agencies contacted by Fortune also stated that Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Addis Abeba is still giving visas for work travellers, with one agent disclosing that they were informed that already filed cases can be processed until the end of January 2014. Fortune was unable to verify this information at the time of going to press.
The MoLSA also informed that the cases of those who have already started the process will be handled differently. It declined, however, to disclose details.
While debate continues on the constitutional merits of the ban, its effectiveness in stopping illegal trafficking is still in question.
People who work in the overseas recruitment agencies, on their part, believe that the ban will likely increase illegal trafficking, since demand is still there from determined youths.
Meseret, who was dumbfounded by the ban, has no plans to give up her dream to go abroad.
“If the government will not change its decision in the short-term, I will still go,” she said.
She plans to walk to Djibouti and then make her way to Saudi Arabia from there.
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