Ethiopian maid Zenit Ali has post-traumatic stress disorder after being mistreated by her Saudi Arabian employer and deported in a government crackdown, but she still hopes to return to the Middle East.
The 27-year-old is among some 70,000 illegal Ethiopian migrants expelled from the Gulf kingdom since March, as it seeks to reduce its reliance on millions of migrant laborers.
“I‘m not happy,” she anxiously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, while staying in a shelter for trafficked women run by a local charity Agar Ethiopia.
“I have no job here in Ethiopia. I want to build my home but I can’t because my family has used all the money. I need to go back.”
The number of Ethiopians being smuggled and trafficked to the Middle East has surged in recent years, as brokers lure the poor and unemployed with promises of a better life.
Most women work as maids, often for more than 20 hours a day, with few legal rights. Many do not have enough food or sleep, have their phones and passports confiscated and endure physical and sexual abuse, rights groups say.
The controversial “kafala” sponsorship system, used across the Gulf, requires foreign workers to get their employer’s consent to change jobs or leave the country.
Saudi Arabia has publicly said it will deport or jail an additional 400,000 or so Ethiopians it believes live there illegally, following the August expiry of an amnesty allowing them to leave without punishment.
During a 2013 crackdown, many of 160,000 Ethiopians who were expelled were first detained, beaten and held in squalid conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Others were dumped in the desert near the Yemeni border, it said.
Despite these risks, most migrants choose not to leave.
“People may prefer to stay there even with the threat of imprisonment,” Abebaw Minyaw, a psychology professor at Addis Ababa University, said in an interview in his office.
“The original factors that pushed them there in the first place — poverty, above all — have not changed.”
An Ethiopian government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
In interviews with more than 1,000 returnees in 2014, the professor found the majority had been abused – yet they still wanted to return to the Gulf.
Most said they were not given any time off work or allowed to meet friends outside their employers’ homes.
More than a quarter had mental health problems, he found, attributing this to violations, like rape, beating, overwork and being called a dog and a slave.
Experts say Ethiopians are likely to keep risking their lives as migrants because they lack opportunities at home.
“(They) are imbued with a very strong sense of responsibility for the economic welfare of their families, which propels them to seek opportunities outside Ethiopia,” said Bina Fernandez, a migration expert at the University of Melbourne.
Back-to-back droughts have left 8.5 million people in Africa’s second most populous country in need of food aid.
Most migrants use illegal channels because it is cheaper and faster, according to Kenya-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) think tank. A record 117,000 Ethiopians arrived in Yemen last year, it said.
Organized criminal networks traffic people between Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen, which is the gateway to the Middle East, the United Nations migration agency says.
Already this year 55,000 migrants, mostly young Ethiopian men, have taken the hazardous route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and on to the Gulf, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
The route is popular because it is cheaper than others, but migrants often fall victim to abuse.
Hundreds of Ethiopian and Somali migrants were forced from boats into rough seas off Yemen in August by smugglers trying to avoid authorities or armed groups on shore in war-torn Yemen, IOM said. At least 60 migrants drowned.
One of the main challenges in avoiding such tragedies is that most Ethiopian migrants to the Gulf chose to be smuggled across borders, often in deals arranged by brokers and employment agents from their own communities.
“The brokers give them false promises,” said Niguse Mekonen, a spokesman for the charity Agar Ethiopia.
“They don’t know what they’ll face.”
It is easy for smugglers to become traffickers, subjecting the migrants they are transporting to forced labor or sexual exploitation.
The line between the two can be hazy, the professor said.
The U.N. defines trafficking as the recruitment, transport or transfer of people through the use of force, coercion and fraud for the purpose of exploitation.
The number of traffickers convicted in Ethiopia surged 10-fold to 640 in 2016, up from 69 in 2015, the U.S. State Department said in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.