(Reuters) – 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.