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'I lost my mind': Ethiopian migrants forced home empty-handed by coronavirus

by Emeline Wuilbercq | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 June 2020 16:22 GMT

Ethiopian migrants are pictured on a street in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

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Without support, Ethiopian returnees risk developing severe mental health problems

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By Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Rita Alemu realised the plane she had boarded in Dubai had taken her back home to Ethiopia, she burst into tears as she knew she would never recover more than a year's unpaid wages.

The 23-year-old domestic helper had only been paid for two out the 18 months she had worked in the United Arab Emirates when the new coronavirus pandemic suddenly forced her and thousands of other Ethiopian migrants to go home.

"I went to Dubai hoping I could work and change my life, but I spent all this time there and came back empty-handed," said Rita, whose broker took her to the airport after her employers decided to leave Dubai because of the coronavirus crisis.

"As soon as I arrived at the airport, I lost my mind," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she could not remember what happened after she landed.

More than 14,000 Ethiopians have either been deported or chosen to return home since the beginning of April, mostly from Sudan, Djibouti and Saudi Arabia, according to the U.N. migration agency (IOM).

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Every year, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Ethiopians travel irregularly, mainly to the Gulf, in search of better-paid work. Many end up exploited as maids or on building sites, unable to leave without their employers' consent.

It is easy for brokers to tempt Ethiopians to migrate because they lack opportunities at home and feel compelled to provide for their families in a poor country where droughts regularly leave millions short of food, migration experts say.

But the trauma they endure - often working for more than 20 hours a day, without enough food or sleep and enduring physical and sexual abuse - can leave psychological scars, according to groups working with returnees.


Such problems are so common that returnees from the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa are usually screened by IOM on arrival back in Ethiopia. Those in need of professional help are taken to rehabilitation and reintegration shelters.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the system. Migrants are now sent directly to one of more than 50 coronavirus quarantine centres around the Horn of Africa nation for 14 days. Those who test negative can then go home.

Although the centres provide some psychological and physical support to help the returnees accept and cope with the sudden changes in their lives, 14 days is not enough to deal with serious mental health and trauma-related needs.

"Most of the returnees who need further psychiatric, psychological and physical care returned home before they got the services they required," said Abera Adeba, head of the Agar Ethiopia Charitable Society, which runs rehabilitation shelters.

For many years, the charity has been running several shelters across Ethiopia, which host trafficking survivors and returning migrants with mental health problems for up to six months, providing clothing, therapies and training.

"The counselling service (in quarantine) is not adequate," said Abera. "It is there ... for the case of emergency. It's not enough to fully rehabilitate and send them home."

Meselech Assefa, a director at the ministry of labour and social affairs, said returnees were not abandoned after the 14-day quarantine period.

"Psychosocial support is given at quarantine centres and should continue at their respective regions. There will be a follow-up at the regional, zonal, woreda and kebele levels," she said, referring to different levels of administration.


Agar Ethiopia has set up a temporary shelter in Dukem, 37 km southeast of the capital Addis Ababa, for migrants in need of further support after two weeks in quarantine to recover from trauma experienced abroad.

Rita is one of about 20 women living in the shelter, all of whom were domestic workers in the Middle East. Some were deported by host governments over fears they could spread the coronavirus.

Arriving home empty-handed was never part of the plan, and coming to terms with this has been difficult for many.

Without support, returnees risk developing severe mental health problems, said Daniel Melese, country representative for the Freedom Fund, which has financed the temporary shelter.

"Sending them directly to their communities is dangerous both for them and for the families receiving them because they are coming back unsuccessful," said Daniel, who heads the fund's work in Ethiopia to end modern-day slavery.

"They are going back with frustration, unmet expectations, and low self-esteem. The families also have that feeling. (That could cause) mental stress and depression which is very dangerous."

Families have sometimes taken out loans or sold a house, shop or land to finance the journey of their relatives who usually send money home from abroad when they get paid.

Coming home suddenly, and without money, the migrants risk being seen as failures and they may also face discrimination over fears they could spread the coronavirus, said local charities.

"A lot of things have to be done prior to joining their houses," said Hirut Yibabe, director of the Good Samaritan Association, a local charity providing shelters for returning migrants needing psychological and social support.

Training on life skills and economic empowerment is key for smooth reintegration, she said, but lack of funding is a big impediment.

"I'm recovering little by little. But when I think about my salary and all the time I have lost, depression comes back," Rita said.

"I don't have plans to go back home in the near future unless I receive training, get a job and save money to be able to buy coffee and sugar when I go back."

This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

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(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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