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The ongoing crackdown on undocumented labour migrants in Saudi Arabia has led to the return of an estimated 157,242 Ethiopians to Addis Ababa between mid-November and end of January 2014. The returns follow the expiration of an amnesty granted by King Abdullah on April 3 2013. During the seven month grace period, undocumented workers in the 9 million strong migrant labour force were required to regularize their stay or leave the Kingdom. With its expiry, the Saudi authorities have initiated mass deportations which began in mid-November 2013. Nearly 86% of returning migrants arrive in Addis Ababa destitute and in need of assistance. Over 60% of the returnees are male, 25% female, and approximately 10% children including unaccompanied minors. Returning migrants, depending on the time of arrival, either spend a night at a transit center or are driven to a bus stop where they can access transport to their respective areas of origin. Presently, numerous returnees may require psycho-social and livelihood support long after their return.

Key mixed migration characteristics

Ethiopia is primarily an important country of origin and destination within the region. To a lesser extent it is a country of transit for mixed migration flows.  As at the end of October 2012, 70,659 Ethiopians arrived in Yemen.   Ethiopia hosts the third largest refugee population in the region consisting mainly of Somalis (see below).   Large numbers of Eritrean refugees are also hosted, mainly in the north of the country.

Although there is a lack of verifiable data on the numbers flowing through Ethiopia, there are trends of Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis who either travel the ‘southern route’ to Kenya (and often further south to South Africa) or the ‘western route’ across to Libya and beyond, using Ethiopia as a transit country. Mixed migration cases predominantly include forced migrants and economic migrants – both irregular and regular- the later facilitated by the ‘one way’ organized labour exchange with Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.  The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 classifies Ethiopia as a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to conditions of forced labor and sex trafficking both nationally and transnationally.

 Most recent statistics

 Along with Somalia, Ethiopia generates the largest number of people in the mixed migration flow through the Horn of Africa to Yemen.   However, the proportions of Somalis and Ethiopians arriving in Yemen have reversed over time; previously Somalis made up for two thirds of the migrants but in 2010, 2011 and the first half of 2012, approximately two thirds were Ethiopians and one third Somalis.  This trend has also seen the almost three fold rise in the Ethiopians who are using the Djiboutian port of Obock and its surrounding coastal areas as a point of departure to Yemen.  

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Ethiopia

Total refugee population hosted in Ethiopia = 367,832[2]  of which


62 [1]


60,793 [2]


2,425 [1]

Somalis (total)

By location

Addis Abba

Dollo Ado 









91,282 [2]


12 [1]


17,318 [1]

According to UNHCR (as of 30/11/11 UNHCR) [1]

Total Asylum Seekers in Ethiopia = 1,028

Total Ethiopian refugees worldwide = 70,610

Total Ethiopian Asylum Seekers worldwide = 38,755

Main drivers and motivation for migration

Ethiopia’s total country population according to UNDP (2012 statistics) is 84, 734 300. Widely known for its structural food deficit and endemic poverty in many regions the poverty level index is assessed to have a Multidimensional Poverty Index % = 0.562 ;and a Human Development Index  of .0363 which ranks Ethiopia as 174 out of 187 countries.(UNDP; 2012 Report Human Development Statistical Tables)

Typically the majority of Ethiopians cite economic reasons and lack of livelihood opportunities as the main driver for migration. Insecurity is cited as the second most important driver with a high proportion of ethnic Oromos claiming actual or feared political oppression or persecution, as a central reason for leaving Ethiopia.  ILO has recently suggested that there is a ‘culture of migration’ in Ethiopia where families expect their children to go abroad and provide remittances to assist the family back home.

Somalis who flee to Ethiopia mainly cite insecurity and economic reasons. Somalis are granted prima facie refugee status and are mainly sheltered at the Jijiga and Dollo Ado camps.

 As a country of mixed migration origin

 Ethiopia is a major country of origin for mixed migration in the Horn of Africa and Yemen with approximately 70,000 arriving on Yemeni shores so far in 2012 alone. The majority of Ethiopians arriving in Yemen intend to go north into Saudi Arabia looking for work. Some aim yet further, into the Middle East, Turkey and Europe. There is no reliable data for the number of Ethiopians going west through Sudan, north through Egypt or south through Kenya but estimates indicate that there are many thousands.

Most Ethiopians do not register with UNHCR or government authorities in Yemen as they do not easily gain refugee status and prefer to take their chances with smugglers or independently. There are thousands of Ethiopians also working informally inside Yemen – many in rural areas working as labourers  (mainly on Khat plantations) and herders. Some can also be found in specific areas of large cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Ta’iz.

 As a country of mixed migration destination

The large number of forced migrants, as registered refugees, are hosted by Ethiopia in different camp complexes around the country. Following a large influx of new Somali refugees in 2011 and the first five months of 2012, the total number of refugees in the country is approximately 367,832. Somalis comprise the largest number by far making up 57 % of the population, followed by a significant number of Sudanese who with a population of 91,282 they make up 25 % of migrants and the third largest group is the Eritreans whose 60,793 migrants make up 17 % of the refugee population in Ethiopia.  

As a country of mixed migration transit

 Given the available data, the extent of the role of Ethiopia as a transit country in mixed migration in the region cannot be fully established. However there are reports of Somalis, Eritreans and Sudanese stating that they had travelled through Ethiopia to reach the camps in Kenya and Sudan (mainly Eritreans).

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

 Those crossing into or out of Ethiopia do so by a combination of walking, and private vehicle. There is a wide network of small-scale ‘brokers’ and groups of smugglers who organize transport from different parts of Ethiopia to the country’s borders crossings and beyond.

 For those going to Yemen, smugglers offer to transport the migrants all the way to the Djibouti coastal points of departure and may even include the cost of the sea crossing. Others may offer transport from the Ethiopian interior to Bossaso in Puntland. Typically in these situations the journey is fairly smooth and fast and the smugglers themselves deal with border crossings and any official road blocks encountered (through bribes or clandestine movement). Those who cannot afford the smugglers or who want to travel independently are the most vulnerable and reportedly face numerous hardships along their way.

For those Ethiopians going south to Kenya and further (possibly South Africa) the journey is hazardous as they are handled by multiple groups of smugglers and often face various abuses at the hands of smugglers of officials in the different countries through which they pass  on foot, by vehicle and boat.

 It is relatively easy for Ethiopians to obtain a national passport and it is clear that remittances are a significant income source for the country. Ethiopia also encourages and facilitates labour migration annually for thousands of its citizens, especially into the Gulf States.

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Ethiopia

Ethiopians who favour the Red Sea route to Yemen through Djibouti and who do not use smugglers have to walk through isolated dry hot areas to avoid detection on the way to Obock. During this journey some of them die from heat exhaustion and/or starvation. Once at the Djiboutian coast, they are at risk of being physically and sexually abused by smugglers. The risk of this abuse continues after they arrive in Yemen where reports in recent years (and especially in 2011 and 2012) indicate they may become victims of sexual violence, kidnapping, extortion, beatings and even murder. Ethiopians do not have automatic prima facie status as refugees and consequently keep a low profile making them more vulnerable to such forms of abuse.

 Further vulnerabilities have been reported concerning migrants who succeed in getting work in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf States in the informal sector. Apart from abusive treatment and conditions, women in particular are exposed to being forced into, or fall into, the sex trade for survival.

 National immigration law policies of relevance

Ethiopia regulates the labour migration sector as part of its effort to combat abuse and human trafficking.  Recruitment agencies have to be registered and are officially accountable to those they recruit and send into employment abroad. By the end of 2011 approximately 120 agencies were officially recognized. Those who recruit without official approval are liable to be prosecuted under anti-trafficking legislation.

 According to the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2012, the government in recent years has taken some measures to strengthen its law enforcement agencies to combat trafficking.

 National Laws

Refugee Proclamation No. 409 of 2004

Ratification proclamation for the Convention on Forced or Compulsory Labour. Proclamation No. 336/2003   

Bilateral agreements

Memorandum of Understanding on human trafficking between Djibouti and Ethiopia, November 2009

Kenya and Ethiopia have a bilateral open border policy allowing citizens to cross freely without visas.

International legislation to which Ethiopia is a State Party

1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees & its 1967 Protocol

OAU 1969 Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

International Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial   Discrimination

Convention on the Rights of Children

United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Ethiopia is a signatory but has yet to ratify the Convention)


International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea

Other sites offering general comprehensive country profile information other than mixed migration 




[1] UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Data extracted: 30/11/2011

[2]  Updated 06/06Ethiopia:

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