The recent killings of Ethiopian migrants by Saudi border officials bring to light a gruesome practice and highlight the regular clashes between the smugglers and local authorities. Despite this, Saudi Arabia remains one of the top destinations for Ethiopians migrating to the Middle East.
Many migrants are aware of the life-threatening challenges and travel regardless, believing that it is better to take the chance and search for a better life than to live in a state of destitution and hopelessness in Ethiopia. Environmental challenges, such as drought and famine in some parts of the country, and recent armed conflict and widespread instability, are significant push factors. These factors, together with a lack of investigation and prosecution of criminal networks involved in irregular migration, drive consistent migration.
The primary route for migrant smuggling and human trafficking from East Africa to the Middle East is from Ethiopia via Obock in Djibouti and Bosaso in Somalia to Yemen and then to Saudi Arabia. According to a 2022 report by the International Organization on Migration (IOM), of the approximately 750 000 Ethiopians residing in Saudi Arabia, 450 000 entered the country unlawfully.
Many Ethiopians who migrate illegally to Saudi Arabia are assisted by fellow Ethiopians involved in human smuggling. This smuggling can lead to acts of human trafficking, with migrants subjected to abuse and exploitation, including rape and torture. According to Deputy Commissioner Birhanu Abebe of the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission, the police are in possession of videos that show abuse deemed too horrifying for public consumption. The abuse sometimes starts in Ethiopia and is perpetrated by Ethiopian traffickers while the illegal migrants are en route to Saudi Arabia.
An anonymous source told ENACT that Ethiopian traffickers sometimes work with Saudi Arabian law enforcement agents who look the other way, or, if they are planning an action, tip off the traffickers so that they escape arrest.
The route to Saudi Arabia through Yemen is considered the most dangerous in the world. While armed militias in Yemen sometimes facilitate this journey for illegal migrants, they are also known to detain migrants or kidnap them for ransom. Armed groups and smugglers on the Yemeni-Saudi border beat and abuse migrants, often compelling them to ask relatives at home for ransom payments.
Immigrants arrested by Saudi authorities while illegally crossing the border face imprisonment in appalling conditions where they are subjected to beatings and other degrading treatment. These dire prison conditions, which can lead to the migrants’ deaths, have prompted international organisations to call on Saudi Arabia to improve the state of its detention centres.
These organisations also requested that Ethiopia voluntarily repatriate its citizens from Saudi Arabia. The two countries eventually reached an agreement in March 2022 to repatriate over 100 000 Ethiopians residing irregularly in Saudi Arabia, most in detention centres.
A year later, on 4 April 2023, Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that about 131 000 Ethiopian nationals had been repatriated. The repatriation was carried out through the engagement of a number of organisations, including international organisations such as IOM and other partners.
But the repatriation campaigns are not as effective as they appear. There is no evidence that repatriation is a deterrent to illegal migration. In fact, repatriation campaigns have failed to deter the remigration of the same individuals to Saudi Arabia, let alone first-time migration.
During the most recent campaigns, between April 2022 and April 2023, many migrants repatriated to Ethiopia found their way back to Saudi Arabia. According to Deputy Commissioner Tesfaye Ashine of the Federal Police Commission, in May, only a month after the repatriation was announced as complete, the number of Ethiopians detained in Saudi prisons increased from 1 500 to about 25 000.
Tesfaye was part of the multisectoral task force that travelled to Saudi Arabia to coordinate the immigrants’ repatriation. He says that he encountered an Ethiopian who re-migrated to Saudi Arabia about 38 times. According to Deputy Commissioner Birhanu, it is common to come across people who have been smuggled into Saudi Arabia as many as 15 times.
Birhanu says repatriated migrants are taken to rehabilitation centres in Addis Ababa and then immediately released to their home or host community. There are insufficient resources to keep them in centres and there is no system to trace their whereabouts once they leave. This is a missed opportunity and undermines any investigation into the criminal value chain of illegal transactions, actors, corruption and extortion en route to Saudi Arabia.
A police officer who requested anonymity told ENACT that Ethiopia did not have the resources or time to follow up on repatriated migrants, including those flagged as potential security threats. Nor were there sufficient resources to investigate the transnational networks that facilitate the smuggling and trafficking of people from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia. The country, therefore, loses information on smugglers’ identities and their modus operandi, which is critical to address the issue.
The problem requires changing the approach seemingly adopted by Ethiopia’s criminal justice system. The investigation and prosecution of migrant smuggling and human trafficking – as forms of transnational organised crime – are too reactive, only responding to the problem when a victim lays a formal complaint.
This is partly because law enforcement members believe that combatting human smuggling should be more about addressing the push factors than about investigating and prosecuting smugglers and traffickers. In fact, it should be both. Ethiopia should adopt an approach that addresses the push factors while proactively investigating and prosecuting criminal actors in migrant smuggling and human trafficking operations as transnational organised crimes.
Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, ENACT Project, Addis Ababa