Ethiopian women regularly sold for $2,000 in Yemen

Human trafficking or human slavery?

By Neftalem Fikre Hailemeskel |

January 10, 2015



Bodies of Ethiopian refugees strewn on the Yemeni cost of Khor Omariah

Bodies of Ethiopian refugees strewn on the Yemeni cost of Khor Omariah


Right now as I am writing this article any person can buy an Ethiopian woman as property for as little as USD 2000 in Yemen.

Once they purchase the women and her children, she will be a property and as such; she can be traded and exchanged; and if/when she dies, she will be cut opened and her kidney sold to the highest bidder. If she was purchased with her children, they will be raised, so they can work on the field and used; once of age, they will share their mother’s fate.

Every day we hear about the “migrants” who returned from Saudi Arabia; ranging from, 100,000, 150,000, 250,000, 270,00 etc… and every day is the same story of how people were shocked they were so many “illegal” Ethiopian migrants in the Middle East. As they have returned, with so many stories of horror and injustices inflected upon them, everyone is running around to get rid of the blame off themselves; while shamelessly trying to be humble about the mistakes that took place. We hear statements of “we could have acted earlier but things are okay now” or “mistakes were made but we have learned from them”. These same comments are made by our government, opposition parties, civil society and the international community; yet few are held accountable. The issue at hand seems to be if this is simply an issue of labor migration gone wrong or if it is more sinister; the unresolved issue of human slavery in modern day Ethiopia contributing to human trafficking.

The Government of Ethiopia

On October 31, 2014; a lively radio program was held discussing the issue of returnees from Saudi Arabia. Government officials gave their account of the programs setup to support the returnees; ranging from reintegrating them back home with livelihood projects to awareness programs about the danger of illegal or/and irregular migrants. Callers spoke about the limitation of these programs and the need to do more about information on lifting the ban to the Middle East, reintegrating livelihood programs and illegal brokers.

However, the magnitude of the problem was not dealt with sufficiently. Questions of how many persons returned, why they were so many deaths and what can be learned from establishing better services in the host countries in the Middle East by the Ethiopian government (such as safe houses) was not discussed suitably. Moreover, the progress in the bi-lateral agreements between Ethiopia and the host countries was not discussed: how many are in the committee, issues of the anti- human trafficking force were not discussed. Additionally areas of what should people do if they suspect human trafficking taking place in their neighborhood (such as anonymous phone calls), what is the rate of corruption within government and private businessmen dealing with illegal migration were not properly addressed. Why there has not been faster closures of illegal brokers and why there has not been successful in doing so was not elaborated. Issues of lack of funding to the police force were not addressed.

Areas such as curbing illegal migration by looking at family pressure, push and pull factors, employment, women rights (in areas of employment rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, sexuality and early marriage) was not addressed. The laws in place now are reactionary in nature rather than preemptive. Blaming the victim has become a norm.  Statements such as, “The burden of responsibility lies with the migrant, the migrant doesn’t understand the hardship that awaits them when they reach Middle East, they are greedy for more money for easy work, and they have unrealistic expectation when work is available in Ethiopia” has become a norm. However, these presumptions are yet to be substantiated by facts. One example where misreading the situation of domestic workers in the Middle East, has been the training program initiated by the government.

The so-called training consisted of teaching women how to iron, using washing machine, usage of modern kitchen equipment’s etc. However, there is very little qualitative or quantitative data that showcases a correlation between domestic workers ability to perform their contractual agreement and violence towards them. The only data available concerning training domestic workers in such a fashion is that such workers could be paid more (such as Philippine workers being paid more than Ethiopian workers).

Therefore, when these programs are implemented; there have been cases where some women are taught to apply perfumes on their clothes so as to seem more adaptable or in teaching them that they should not complain too much to their employers. Thus, the end result occurs whereby when they do arrive in the Middle East they are prone to their rights being violated because they blame themselves for not “adopting” to the work culture and the training given to them at home in Ethiopia. These trainings become counterproductive because it empowers the abusive employer and blames to victim for the abuse. Therefore because the presumptions have been that these domestic workers both who had traveled (legally and illegally) are attracting violation to their rights due to their lack of labor experience or their lack of discipline; the training programs only  embodies these stereotypes that undermining their human rights in the first place.

Opposition parties

The stands of the opposition parties on the issue of migration could be divided in two areas. There are those who are advocating for the wellbeing of migrants in light of policies and then they are those who want to exploit the tragedy of Ethiopian migrants to score some political points. This is nothing new in the game of politics, as political parties globally act in such manners. However, what is worrying in this case is that the opposition groups both internally and externally have not been vocal about what they would do differently than the stands of the government is taking. For example, when controversy occurred when the Blue (Semayawi) party organized a rally after the returnees came back to Ethiopia, there was very little from the opposition party as to what they hoped to achieve. It begs the question if the rally was really about migrants’ rights in the first place or media attention for the party.

This question is even more troubling by the fact that after the rally was canceled, it seems the interest of opposition groups subsided in the area of migrants. Different avenues to address the issue of migrants’ rights such as the media both local and international were not utilized. As the general elections were approaching, too busy with funds and mobilization, again the rights of migrants are sidelined by the opposition. Some in the opposition blame what they call government repression for the lack of action, yet very few explain exactly what repression was in place to hinder them to help shape polices that they think would help returnees. Again we see how because migrants are within the fringe of society (the poor, the uneducated, and the vulnerable) most opposition parties only use the plight of migrants when it fits their agenda of criticizing the government.

IOM, ILO and civil societies

On April 10, 2014, Migrant-Right ( Middle East based NGO) spoke to chief technical adviser on migrant domestic workers at the International Labour Organization (ILO’s) head office in Addis Ababa. The conversation ranged from livelihood projects for returnees to the challenges ILO and IOM encountered such as stigmatization of returnees due to children born out of wedlock and debt returnees owed to brokers. However, very little information as to ongoing projects conducted by IOM and ILO was informative. Again there seems to ambiguity as to the responsibility shouldered by organizations such as International organization of Migrants (IOM) or International labour organization (ILO). For example, ILO did not state if they were working with host countries about improving domestic workers rights or if they are working with the active civil societies within the Middle East who are working on migrants rights. However, what is more disheartening is lack of accountability in dealing with the failure or lack of action by IOM and ILO before the forced deportation of Ethiopian migrants from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took place.

Looking at the backdrop before the outbreak of the crises; contrary to many media outlets both local and international, about the sudden violence that engulfed Ethiopian migrants in Saudi, the six month temporary extension for migrants to apply f

or work permit was for those who changed jobs (which at that time were illegal) and not for those who entered Saudi nation illegally. Thus, this limbo existed for Ethiopian migrants as many entered the country illegally and thus can be prosecuted by law.

In poorer neighborhoods of major cities in Saudi where the majority of Ethiopian migrants lived, there existed uneasy atmosphere between the Ethiopian migrants and poor Saudis and other migrants from Asia. Accusations and counter accusation existed about rape, murder and theft committed by Ethiopians on other nationalities and vice versa before the six month extension of deportation order. At this time, it was the responsibility of IOM and ILO to step in to try to meditate between the local council and the migrants; this was not done sufficiently even though local civil societies, local businessmen and some religious leaders have warned of an upcoming conflict between these communities.

Moreover, even after the deadline passed and conflict intensified, ILO and IOM did not deploy enough people on the ground even to guide the Ethiopian migrants to where to go, which police station was safe, help local police to be deployed, coordinate with different actors etc. Thus, their absence added to the confusion, which allowed a vacuum for corrupt policemen and locals to take the law into their own hands and “teach” the Ethiopian migrants a “lesson” by rape and murder.

Arab society and Ethiopian domestic workers

To understand the violence that encountered Ethiopian migrants in the Middle East; we have to understand the history of labor migrants from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East. In ancient times, slavery between the Horn and the Middle East approximately had 2 million black slaves transported to the Middle East. Most of those who were traded and sold to the Middle East disproportionally had been women compared to those sold by European and American slave traders in the Western part of Africa (which were mostly men for labor on plantations). These women were used as concubines to serve their masters’ sexual needs (mostly by force) and can be traded and exchanged (or shared) without their will. It was common place for the concubines to act as domestic laborers in their masters’ household. These services of course went on without any salary or compensation.

It is from this background, we can better understand why there is a disproportionate level of violence towards domestic workers at present time in the Middle East. Both the Kafala system of work sponsorship and domestic laws pertaining domestic laborers rights (which in most cases does not apply to foreign domestic workers); can be better understood by the lack of will both in the population and the government of the host nations to implement laws protecting domestic workers such as Ethiopian domestic workers. As with the past, most Middle Eastern governments wish for the employers and the employment agency to meditate the fate of domestic workers; for little value has and is given to domestic workers from Africa and Asia, due to a history of enslavement of women from Africa that has not been dealt with sufficiently by the society at present time.

This is not to say that many in the Middle East still hold the same view as the past. The new generation especially has been an advocate for humane treatment of domestic workers from Africa and Asia. It is actually their brave and hard work that has highlighted the plight of domestic workers in the Middle East. It is these individuals and some religious leaders who have protected the rights of Migrants, quoting the holy Quran to show mercy and compassion. However, the institutions in Middle Eastern countries, especially those dealing with domestic workers have not met the bare minimum international standards and still resonate the dark age of female slavery and servitude practiced in the Middle East in recent past.

Trafficking or slavery

Most would argue that human trafficking is a means by which human slavery would occur. However, within the context of Ethiopia, I would argue that the main misguided policy practiced  by our government, civil societies and the international organizations in relations to Ethiopian migrants is because of the belief that human trafficking can be tackled with policy changes, awareness camping and livelihood alternatives. Yet, when we look at the facts on the ground more and more people are going even after the ban by the government, as illustrated by the recent tragedy of 70 Ethiopians drowning going to Yemen; a war torn country which already has 2 million illegal migrants and human rights violations that takes place daily on migrants.

From our government to our society at large, we have been using the prism of economic or political situation in our country to understand the migration flow; thus focusing or trajectories and economic incentives at home as solutions; yet what we have failed to understand for so long has been that, the same society government is encouraging to protect the vulnerable individuals (such as women) is the same society that is selling their own people for their own greed. Blaming poverty as an excuse for example on Monday July 21, 2014, an article written by David Smith (a reporter for The Guardian  newspaper) looked at how some regions in Ethiopia would tell their own daughters to marry so they will lose their virginity then divorce and migrate to Middle East to earn more money. They marry off their daughters knowing that these daughters will more likely be raped in their host countries; which is okay with the family, for they can still keep their “honor” as their raped daughter is no more a virgin when she gets raped. As she endures the torture of daily rape and sends whatever she has saved from her 20 hour workday; her family will get a new TV, Radio and can brag about their rise of income; while getting her younger sister ready to fill in her footsteps.

Our government is in denial about the magnitude of the problem, when on the other hand, the international community is not. For example, Ethiopia is named one of the 15 countries in the world with over 300,000 people living in slave-like conditions according to Global Slavery Index of 2013, These are not migrants but Ethiopians living in Ethiopia; and it is mostly from this same group that end up being coerced (by bullying and intimidation) even by their family members to migrate (feminization of migration) to the Middle East and Southern Africa.

Ethiopia has a dark history of slavery, in which time; it sold its own people for profit before slavery was officially banned in 1942. However, we have to face the fact that Ethiopia is again selling its own people for profit; using poverty as an excuse for mothers and fathers sending off their daughters to the Middle East as a cash cow.

The way forward…

There is no easy solution to the problem of human trafficking, for there can never be a lasting solution to the problem. However, what would be the best solution to tackle the issue of human trafficking is setting up multiple mechanisms to address the issue at hand. If our society is not the solution to human trafficking, then we must accept the fact that we are part of the problem. Behind the rhetoric of Ethiopian solidarity, we first have to accept the fact that our treatment of those who are vulnerable to bondage and trafficking can only be protected by the law of the land; which in this case is our constitution.

It is, therefore, a must that we take away the power given to the masses (for example community elders) and empower institutions that deal with human trafficking such as training and funding police force how to handle human trafficking cases and how to collect intelligence (not to depend exclusively on  informants from the public “tikoma”).

We should also empower the courts and prosecutors with better laws to tackle this epidemic. For example, the US Department of State on June 14, 2010 produced a report on trafficking and the report said that “…Though the Ethiopian government has increased its efforts to prosecute and punish transnational trafficking offenders, prosecution of internal trafficking cases remains nonexistent. Article 635 of Ethiopia’s Criminal Code (Trafficking in Women and Minors) criminalizes sex trafficking and prescribes punishments not exceeding five years’ imprisonment. Articles 596 (Enslavement) and 597 (Trafficking in Women and Children) outlaw slavery and labor trafficking and prescribe punishments of five to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment. These articles, however, have rarely been used to prosecute trafficking offenses; instead, Articles 598 (Unlawful Sending of Ethiopians to Work Abroad) and 571 (Endangering the Life of Another) are more often used to prosecute cases of transnational labor trafficking.”

We must also widen the scope of what qualifies traffickers to include guardians of underage children, to make sure that parents do not sell their kids to human traffickers, such as the case in Cambodia and Philippines. We have to setup a system where by parents understand that children are first and foremost citizens of this nation, protected by law; even from their parents if they bring harm to their child, regardless of the parents economic situation. We not only have to educate but be firm that breaking the law be manipulating their children to travel abroad illegally, will also hold them responsible. We have to show that breaking these laws will have consequences, having them be prosecuted just like the traffickers, including jail time.

We also have to work with the government, media, religious leaders, civil society in the Middle East, so that once migrants (both legal and illegal) end up in the Middle East, they are protected by all actors involve. For example, ILO and IOM have to do a better job in coordinating with local civil society groups in setting up safe houses (as some Ethiopian migrants do not wish to go to future Ethiopian government run safe houses). Moreover, the ILO and IOM have to reorganize and modify their mechanism of collecting funds for projects pertaining migrants, making sure to setup funds on the side for emergencies; so that there would not be lack of funds to help Ethiopian migrants in the future  in areas of emergency evacuation to safe houses, hiring lawyers etc.

In conclusion, even though fighting poverty is logically key in fighting human trafficking and many other issues, not only in Ethiopia but globally; we have to narrow down and focus on protecting and empowering those vulnerable within our society, without forgetting it is us the majority in this society, who have made these young women to become vulnerable in the place. If not for the tolerance by us of  FGM, lack of education of our young women, early marriage, domestic violence, lack of employment for rural women and the list goes on; then most of these women and girls would not had been force or coerced into making this journey in the first place. Simplifying the issue of female migration within the context of better livelihood and lack of awareness has only helped create more problems than solutions.

It is not a coincidence that most of the domestic workers who have faced the most violence in the Middle East, have come from countries which have appalling women rights records (Nepal, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Pakistan, India). Therefore in Ethiopia, it is not human trafficking which is a means by which human slavery is occurring aboard but it is human bondage and slave like conditions our women are facing in Ethiopia that has created the vacuum for these same women to be treated as slaves abroad. If our society of more than 90 million people cannot for any reason let it be cultural or religious norms have become indifferent to human slavery of their own children, using poverty as justification for slavery; then our society doesn’t have the ability to function in a modern world.

We have started to become a nation that is turning its back on its own people who have given so much, even their lives, so that their parents can live a better life, their sisters can go to school and their brothers can start their own business. But when they were in hardship; we shunned them away, blaming them for greed and naivety; only dealing with them when the suffering was televised globally; shaming our country’s pride and economic growth; suddenly we grew a consciousness. Our society has become at best indifferent and at worst ignorant about the suffering and sacrifices made by Ethiopian migrants for more than a decade.

Ed.s Note: Neftalem Fikre Hailemeskel studies Global Refuge and International Development at Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark. Conducted case studies on livelihood – migration nexus concerning labor migrants. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].