Ethiopia to repatriate 70,000 nationals from Saudi Arabia

Saturday March 30 2024

A fiber boat with migrants arriving at the port of Arguineguin, on the island of Gran Canaria, Spain on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS


Ethiopia has opted to take back thousands of its nationals who had been living in squalid conditions in Saudi Arabia. The decision was announced last week in Addis Ababa but will actually begin in early April, targeting some 70,000 Ethiopians.

It may be the noblest thing to do in rescuing its stranded citizens, but it poses a humanitarian problem to a country struggling with displacement of populations by local conflicts and from neighbouring countries.

State Minister Birtukan Ayano said the repatriation, the third such programme since 2018, will target “Ethiopians who are in a difficult situation”.

It will not be cheap. Although the government in Addis did not formally announce the actual cost of the programme, Ms Birtukan said “necessary budget, logistics and shelters should be prepared for the returnees”.

Read: Traumatic journeys of Ethiopians seeking a better life

Tayba Hassan, director-general of Refugees and Returnees, the Ethiopian agency charged with managing displacement in the country, said regional administrations are expected to ensure the returnees resettle in their native home areas. Ethiopia has in the past relied on donors to resettle nationals rescued from squalor abroad.


Julieta Valls Noyes, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, visited Ethiopia. Ideally, the US and other donors expect Ethiopia to provide “critical support” to the displaced, especially from neighbouring Sudan, where war has raged since April last year.

“It was shared poverty and shared humanity. And I thought that that was an excellent way of describing how both Chad and, for that matter, Ethiopia are responding to their respective refugee situations,” Ms Noyes told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday, visiting Ethiopia and Chad, two of the Sudanese refugees host countries.

The US has been the biggest donor for humanitarian services in Ethiopia. In 2023, it sent $1 billion to Addis, mostly via the World Food Programme and Unicef. It has sent in some $89 million so far this year “to provide life-saving support for refugees, asylum seekers, the internally displaced people …and others who are affected by conflict, drought, food instability.”

Ethiopia is hosting 50,000 Sudanese refugees who fled their country over the last 11 months.

Ethiopia currently hosts about 917,000 refugees from neighbouring countries and four million internally displaced persons from its own conflicts and environmental hardships, according to the Ethiopian Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS). Its refugees come from Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Eritrea.

Read: Ethiopia praised for helping Sudan evacuees

There have been funding cuts meant for these groups, however. On March 22, RRS and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gathered stakeholders in Addis Ababa “with the intent to reach common understanding on the rising fund cut for the refugee operation in Ethiopia and to stand together to respond to the crises thereon.”

They said they were “urging partners and donors to contribute the much-needed fund to respond to the burning needs of refugees and asylum seekers.”

With over 4 million internally displaced people, including those who fled Tigray during the internal war and haven’t returned, Addis Ababa’s repatriation of 70,000 people will mean they add to the budgetary constraints of resettling them. That resettlement has been delayed, for Tigray, especially since the infrastructure that was destroyed during the war (which ended in November 2022) has yet to be rebuilt.

At the end of that war between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), conservative estimates had showed Ethiopia will need at least $1 billion to repair the damages in Tigray. After Tigray, however, new security challenges have since emerged in neighbouring Amhara and the Oromo regions as the government battles militia. More people were displaced.

According to a dispatch from the Ethiopian government, repatriation expenses will include flight tickets, temporary holding at transition centres in Addis Ababa, fare to travel back to their native regions and some money to restart life.

In 2021, Ethiopia said it was providing 45 million birr ($180,000) to 30,000 returnees to enable them move from Addis Ababa to their homes. When the first such programme began in 2018 to return stranded nationals, Ethiopia spoke of Sustainable Reintegration support to Ethiopians, especially those returning from Europe.

Read: Saudi denounces report on Ethiopian migrant killings

Known as SRSERE, it was a three-year project of worth $16.18 million and funded by the European Union.

In March 2022, Ethiopia had struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to repatriate more than 100,000 Ethiopians. It followed rights groups’ accusations of Saudi Arabia that it was mistreating foreign labourers.

In this new programme, Ethiopia didn’t clarify whether the returnees had been in Saudi Arabia illegally. But an earlier assessment by the International Organisation for Migration, which has been involved in past repatriation, showed most of them unemployed or in irregular unskilled work.

“Along the Eastern Route, most movements from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia are believed to be irregular, economically driven and highly risky, with the Ethiopian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs suggesting a ratio of around 2:3 between movements through irregular channels and those through regular channels,” an IOM bulletin said of the trends in Ethiopia.

“However, these movements tend to be temporary, meaning that most migrants return to Ethiopia after a few years abroad,” says IOM.
The repatriation includes flights to Addis Ababa from Saudi Arabia, electronic registration and temporary holding to await transfer back to their villages. It also includes some kind of counselling, temporary access to meals and medical assistance. The programme has in the past fallen short, however.

“Given this sudden and unprepared forced repatriation, the reintegration of Ethiopian returnees has been painfully slow and largely unaddressed,” IOM said of the previous programmes.

“Most returnees face severe difficulties in reintegrating, as they return empty-handed because they used their earnings for living expenses and remittances.”

Last year, IOM helped 42,000 of them return to Ethiopia. It helped over 92,000 in 2022.