Ethiopia is a major source country of migrants. A lack of economic opportunities, demographic challenges, food insecurity and rising domestic tensions are all contributing to significant numbers of Ethiopians being on the move.
Although the country has been one of Africa’s top-performing economies for the past ten years and a regular recipient of foreign aid and investment, the general population still faces widespread unemployment and a lack of economic opportunities.
Around 20 million Ethiopians live below the poverty line, so economic opportunity abroad continues to be a major driving force for migration. Ethiopia’s rapidly growing population of just over 100 million – of which more than 60% are under the age of 24 – exacerbates the difficulty of securing sustainable livelihoods, leading many to seek opportunity elsewhere.
Compounding these economic and demographic challenges are the current drought and famine devastating parts of the Horn of Africa. The resulting severe food insecurity is forcing many Ethiopians to uproot themselves to find subsistence.
The current domestic tensions and political repression plaguing the country are other key factors driving Ethiopian migration. They stem from the ongoing tensions between the majority Oromo ethnic population and the ruling Tigrayans, which boiled over into major protests in November 2015 over the Oromo’s perceived political and economic marginalisation.
The government responded by cracking down on protesters and anyone believed to be involved. Since the initial clampdown, Human Rights Watch has recorded the killing of hundreds of protesters by security forces and the arbitrary detention of tens of thousands more. The state of emergency imposed by the government in October 2016 has also led to further restrictions on the media and political opposition parties.
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Although major protests seem to have subsided for now, grievances over disputed land and a lack of political freedom persist. The government is unwilling to engage in serious dialogue with opposition groups, so these tensions will likely continue to propel migration from the country.
The ethnicity of these migrants tellingly reflects Ethiopia’s domestic politics: for example, 89% of Ethiopians who migrated to Yemen in January 2017 identified themselves as Oromo. This speaks to the influence of internal tensions on outward migration flows and reflects an ongoing trend, as Oromo comprise a growing proportion of the Ethiopians migrating.
Many Ethiopians, especially younger generations, transit primarily through Yemen but also Djibouti, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya in search of economic opportunities in the Middle East. A recent report published by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat highlights that around 15,000 people a year, mostly Ethiopians, use the so-called ‘southern’ migration route from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, which is regarded as relatively economically prosperous.
The research also notes that migrant smuggling along the southern route is consistently high. Most Ethiopian migrants, particularly those travelling via Kenya and Tanzania, use a smuggler or broker to facilitate parts of their journey. Such smuggling activities are reported to be frequently accompanied by violence, kidnappings and exploitation.
Although Ethiopia is a key participant in the EU’s Migration Partnership Framework – aimed at addressing the challenges of managing migration along the Central Mediterranean Route (via Libya to Europe), as well as supporting returns and better border management – major obstacles remain in terms of improving security, and solving the political and economic crises in the region that are contributing to unprecedented flows of irregular migrants.
As the experience of regional neighbours, Mali and Libya in particular, demonstrates, ‘breaking the business model of smugglers’ – one of the goals of the Migration Partnership Framework – can be especially difficult when state weakness, a near absence of central government and the resulting spaces with limited governance – foment insecurity, making it easier for smuggling, criminal and armed networks to operate with greater power and determination, on a larger scale and to their advantage.
More economic opportunities must be created for the growing youth populations in Ethiopia and beyond. Enabling them to engage more directly in economic life and developing employment opportunities, while also helping to address underlying political tensions, would reduce the incentive to leave and the risk of being lured into illegal networks.
This will be a hugely difficult task, the implementation of which is likely to proceed at a very slow pace. While the government is making efforts to increase employment, through programmes such as its Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II 2015–16 to 2019–20), which injects funding into major infrastructure projects, it must ensure that the fruits of these projects trickle down and are not held by government elites.
Donor aid to increase employment must also be used more effectively. This will require better governance at the national level and the empowerment of local authorities to ensure that robust mechanisms are in place to hold officials accountable.
Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database, and Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies