Full of promise? Refugees in Ethiopia impatient for right to work

by Emeline Wuilbercq | @EmWuilbercq | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 December 2019 17:13 GMT

Eritrean and Yemeni refugees learn how to sew in Nefas Silk Polytechnic College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emeline Wuilbercq

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Refugees are struggling to get by in Ethiopia under rules that bar them from working

By Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA, Dec 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bethelihem Tesfatsion is a successful businesswoman, who has sold thousands of hand-stitched Eritrean dresses worldwide, but she operates in the shadows, waiting for Ethiopia to make good on its promise to allow refugees to work.

As an Eritrean asylum seeker, Bethelihem, 29, is not eligible for a work permit, so she got an Ethiopian friend to put his name on the business licence in 2017 when she opened her shop in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

"It doesn't feel like the brand is mine," said Bethelihem, who left Eritrea five years ago to get treatment for a kidney problem and never returned - like tens of thousands who flee the tiny Horn of Africa country every year, citing political repression and lengthy military conscription.

"You always fear you do something that you're not supposed to do, that someone from the government is going to come after me."

Home to Africa's third largest refugee population, Ethiopia won praise in January for passing a law giving some 700,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers who have fled conflict, drought and persecution the right to live outside 26 camps where they are currently hosted.

But eleven months after the Refugee Proclamation was announced - allowing refugees and asylum seekers to work, open bank accounts, legally register births and marriages and attend primary school - Bethelihem is frustrated Ethiopia has yet to pass further legislation to bring it to life.

"I am very disappointed," she said, as her sister and aunt busily packed a traditional white cotton dress with colourful edging to send abroad, while passers by glanced in at the elegantly-dressed mannequins in the window.

"We are sick of (waiting) because we have the capacity (to work)."

Politics may be preoccupying Ethiopia's leaders. Deadly clashes and protests have erupted following democratic reforms introduced by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since 2018, which lifted the lid on long-repressed ethnic tensions.

"The government has certainly not backed away from its commitments but it's not a top priority," said one aid worker who declined to be named.

"They have a lot on their plate," he said, adding that allowing refugees to work could add to the strain, amid high unemployment.


As the U.N. readies for the first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva on Dec. 17 - which aims to identify best practices to support refugees and get donors to make pledges - Ethiopia is seen as exemplary for seeking to boost refugees' self-reliance and ease the burden on host nations.

Eritrea, a country of 5 million people, is the world's ninth largest source of refugees, with some 500,000 registered. One in three Eritrean refugees live in Ethiopia, one of Africa's poorest countries despite impressive growth.

Many of the 20,000 Eritreans in Addis Ababa find it hard to survive as they do not have the right to work and rely on informal jobs where they risk being exploited, a study by Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre found.

"Some of them are really struggling," said Bethelihem, who makes half of her sales online, mostly via Facebook and Instagram, to Eritreans in the United States, Europe and Australia who spend up to 9,000 Birr ($299) on outfits for special occasions.

"They engage in child labour to support themselves (and) prostitution."

The U.N. allows Eritreans to live in the capital if they can prove they have financial support from friends or family. But remittances are not a reliable source of income and many Eritreans in Addis Ababa work as poorly-paid waiters, hairdressers or plumbers, Bethelihem said.

"Family members in the diaspora are desperately wanting the refugees to take care of themselves," said Bethelihem, whose sisters work with her in the shop, having also left Eritrea to escape indefinite national service, which Human Rights Watch has said includes hard labour and physical abuse.

Eritrean and Yemeni refugees learn how to sew in Nefas Silk Polytechnic College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emeline Wuilbercq


Refugees can already register births and marriages, open bank accounts and buy mobile phone SIM cards, said Addisu Kebenessa, deputy director general of the government's Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs.

"Most of the Proclamation is already implemented," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that work and residence permits are the two "remaining tasks", with a long-term goal of ending refugee encampment by 2030.

Addis Ababa's Nefas Silk Polytechnic College offers a hopeful vision of a more inclusive world, as donors struggle to provide for record numbers in need of aid and U.S. and European hostility to refugees and migrants grows.

Dozens of refugees and Ethiopians learn cooking, sewing, welding and mechanics side-by-side on the course, run by GIZ, the German development agency, which is the first of its kind in Ethiopia.

"We treat the refugees as regular students," dean Melese Yigzaw said.

One of his students is Ayda Gebremichael who left Eritrea with her husband and three children five months ago. They plan to build a life in Addis Ababa if they can find decent work - with a dream of moving to Canada in future.

"Sometimes, I forget that I am a refugee here," said Ayda, 28, as she took a break from her sewing class, where students concentrated on their machines, the floor littered with scrap fabric.

Bringing the two groups together to study can also reduce tensions that often erupt when large numbers of refugees arrive, overwhelming local services - a problem faced from Germany and Jordan to Brazil and Kenya.

"We have to make sure both refugees and host communities benefit from our interventions," said Moges Tamene, a programme manager with DanChurchAid, which works with refugees throughout Ethiopia.

"So far it has never been the case," he said, highlighting camps in the western Gambella region where South Sudanese refugees outnumber locals and receive clean water, while Ethiopians a few kilometres away drink from a river.

Ethiopia has promised to create 30,000 jobs for refugees as part of its industrialisation drive, but Bethelihem is not interesting in working in a factory where garment workers earn about $26 a month, according to the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

"Nobody will go there," Bethelihem said. "We have the capacity to be self-reliant and even to support the host community." ($1 = 30.1216 birr)

(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

Travel for this story was supported by UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.

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