July 2014

Ethiopia, the so-called “Maid Trade”, and why we need to protect our women and girls

On a recent visit to a rehabilitation centre for returned survivors of human trafficking on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, I saw a young girl peering through the window at me during a partners meeting. When I looked more closely at her I could see that she was a child. She looked no older than 15 years old, and I couldn’t begin to imagine what she must have been through.

The rehabilitation centre, AGAR, only accept the most serious psychological cases of returned human trafficking survivors – administering medical treatment by expert medical officers and counsellors, and offering ongoing psycho-social support to individuals and their families. They are also a shelter, and provide food and hygiene services.

One of the counsellors translated my questions to the young girl. She is 15 years old and was only 14 when illegal trafficking brokers brought her to Addis Ababa from Wello in Amhara Province – one of the hotspot areas for irregular and risky migration.  

In late 2013, more than 160,000 Ethiopian nationals were forcibly returned home. They had been expelled from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after a nine month amnesty expired and all undocumented migrant workers were forced to leave. These women, men and children came back to Ethiopia unemployed, and in many cases, having experienced severe physical and psychological abuses at the hands of their employers.

Many had gone to Saudi Arabia years before through irregular means – they were transported from their home villages by illegal trafficking agents, known in Ethiopian as illegal Private Employment Agents. After arriving in the capital Addis Ababa they stayed until the brokers could transport them to the Middle East. Some flew from Bole International Airport directly to their destination. Others went on the extraordinarily arduous journey through Djibouti, where they were then smuggled across the Gulf of Aden and trafficked through Yemen into the Kingdom.

The stories of so many are truly horrifying. Vulnerability, abuse, exploitation.

What is commonplace when discussing the plight of Ethiopian domestic workers and the so-called “Maid Trade” is the limited understanding and knowledge of these women about what to expect. So many times I have heard stories about these rural Ethiopian women, unable to use an aeroplane seatbelt or a modern-day flush toilet - let alone operate a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher in the cosmopolitan, advanced societies of the Gulf region.

HFC is now running the Women & Child Livelihood initiative. Our strategies focus on a combination of psycho-social support and livelihood enhancement for returnee women in Addis Ketema – one of the hotspots for human trafficking.

I believe our pilot program is a small step in the right direction to the provision of quality services for returnee and potential at-risk migrant women.

Over the past year, we have learnt a few lessons. Firstly, we need to focus our energies on rehabilitation and community-based reintegration. Institutional rehabilitation is vital – but we also need to be developing community strategies to better integrate women and children with ongoing mental health challenges as a result of their bad migration experiences, back into the community.

Secondly, we need to focus our efforts on coordinated prevention. There are numerous activities we can engage in here from livelihood enhancement and economic empowerment to reduce poverty, to education on the risks of irregular migration and vocational skills training, among others. We need to work better with our partner organisations, potential donors, businesses, and governments to come up with quality and targeted strategies to prevent and protect young women, girls, and boys in danger of “risky” migration.

The young girl at the rehab compound tells me she will return back to Wello, to be reunified with her family, and is looking forward to going back to school – where she belongs.