Sintayehu Beyene left Ethiopia planning to earn money to begin a carpentry business -- he ended up captive in Yemen where Kalashnikov-wielding traffickers stole what little he owned.
Grabbed from a boatload of migrant workers as it landed on a Yemeni shore, he says the armed gang whisked him inland to a desert camp. Beaten and detained for nine days with about 30 other people, he was forced to hand over the 1,400 Ethiopian birr ($72) he was carrying before being released. He crossed to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where wages are sometimes more than double the rates paid in Ethiopia, only to be deported a month later when authorities cracked down on illegal migrants.
“They robbed and beat me,” Sintayehu, 31, said in a May 22 interview in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, recalling his treatment at the camp in northern Yemen five months ago. “They took all the money I had.”
Sintayehu may have got off lightly, according to Human Rights Watch. Ethiopians and other migrants arriving in Yemen have been captured and tortured by human traffickers planning to extort ransoms that can be more than $1,000 from their families, the New York-based advocacy group said in a May 25 report. One witness cited by HRW described captors gouging out a man’s eyes with a water bottle.
Torture is one of the dangers faced by thousands of Ethiopians who travel to seek work in the Arabian peninsula, where maids can earn $200 a month compared to the $90 the Ethiopian government estimated in 2012 that an average college graduate made back home.
Numbers traveling across the Gulf of Aden have risen this year even after Saudi Arabia, the intended destination for many, began mass deportations of unregistered employees. The number of African migrants in the northern Yemeni city of Haradh increased 10-fold to 8,000 between January and March, HRW said in the report titled “Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of Migrants by Human Traffickers in a Climate of Impunity.”
While Saudi Arabia began expelling 160,000 illegal Ethiopian workers in November, the number of migrants traveling by boat to Yemen from Djibouti or Somalia increased to 8,356 in April, 56 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Nairobi, Kenya-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, or RMMS. An estimated 82 percent of arrivals are Ethiopian, it said on May 16.
“Some of the migrants encountered were actually re-attempting their journeys following deportation from Saudi and Yemen in the last couple of years,” Noela Barasa, an RMMS spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed response to questions on May 19. “A perceived labor gap following the massive deportations may be responsible for spurring movement.”
Ethiopia has temporarily banned citizens from traveling to work in Saudi Arabia until conditions improve and is “sensitizing the public” to the dangers of illegal migration, Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said. The treatment of Ethiopians in Yemen wasn’t discussed during a recent meeting between government officials of the two nations, he said by phone from Addis Ababa. Yemen’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Hamid Alawadhi, said the government takes the HRW report “seriously” and has formed a committee including all authorities accused to discuss its allegations.
“Due to Yemen’s poor and limited resources in dealing with the flood of refugees and illegal migrants, as well as weak support from international institutions, there are problems related to this kind of asylum-seeking,” Alawadhi said. The government plans to issue a statement responding to the report, he said, without specifying when.
Yemen’s economy contracted 13 percent in 2011, in the wake of protests that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the lost output won’t be recovered until next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The nation is also battling an insurgency in its north and a threat from al-Qaeda militants.
Sintayehu, whose wife died of breast cancer last year, reckons he needs 50,000 birr to buy tools and begin a business in Ethiopia as a carpenter and painter, and a monthly income of 5,000 birr to support himself and his four-year-old daughter.
Before he began looking after his ailing father, he says he earned 80 birr a day on building sites in Ethiopia’s capital, where offices, hotels and shopping malls are sprouting up. That wasn’t enough for his needs, he said.