Thursday, 13 September 2018

Exploring the migration industry in Ethiopia

By Alemu Tesfaye

The migration of an individual usually involves a range of actors including their social networks, brokers, border control agencies, training and certification institutions and even NGOs and religious organisations. These entities, collectively are known as the “Migration Industry”. We have been exploring this topic in Ethiopia since September 2017.

The research is being conducted in two regional states – Southern Nations and Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) and Amhara Region – and one city state – Addis Ababa – in Ethiopia. It covers three migration origin sites Addis Ababa, Hadiya and Wollo and three major migration transit sites – border towns of Moyale, Metema and Semera.

Legal and policy frameworks and their effect

The 1998 Overseas Employment Proclamation, issued by the Ethiopian government, led into the establishment of more than 400 Private Employment Agencies (PEAs). This Proclamation enabled the PEAs to send thousands of labour migrants, mainly female domestic workers, to the Middle East (de Regt & Tafesse, 2015; Kubai, 2016). Despite the establishment of these agencies, 60-70% of migrants from Ethiopia are irregular and use different land and sea routes with the facilitation of informal brokers (delaloch) (RMMS, 2014, 2015; Belloni, 2015; Ayalew 2017). The importance of irregular migration and the role of informal brokers, regardless of the presence of the legal agencies, is explained by:

  1. The services of the PEAs put the migrants in the Kafala sponsorship system that confines migrants to specific employers with a fixed salary and contract time duration. This limits their freedom to change jobs. 
  2. Gender selectivity of domestic workers: the agencies had mainly specialized in female domestic workers, which means irregular migration remains a major option for men.  
  3. The official labour deployment by the government was only to the Middle Eastern countries. This again makes irregular migration the major alternative for migrants to South Africa, the Sudan and many other countries. 

In 2013, the Ethiopian government passed comprehensive legislation to Prevent and Suppress Trafficking in Person and Smuggling of Migrants. At the same time, the government also banned the deployment of domestic workers oversees. This move was basically triggered by two incidents. The first incident was in June 2012 where forty migrants from Ethiopia were found dead after they were suffocated inside a truck transporting them in central Tanzania, and the second was the deportation of more than 160,000 undocumented Ethiopians by the Saudi government in 2013. These incidents were followed by an organized campaign against brokers. For example, in two districts we visited: one in Wollo and the other in Hadiya zones fifty and sixty-two brokers respectively were convicted and ended up serving long term prison sentences. This in turn led to a number of changes in the business of brokerage such as in migration facilitation at borders, mechanisms of payment, systems of transportation, communication methods, harboring, etc.

Until 2013, brokers used to openly recruit migrants, collect money, transport and host migrants in their own safe houses. They were also treated as “creators of opportunities” by aspiring migrants and the communities that they come from. In most cases, they were respected both by the communities and officials. They used to operate both at origin and transit places publicly but illegally. After the changes, brokers were forced to go underground and are now operating invisibly. Brokering is done now through telephone and local representatives. Most of the negotiations between a potential migrant and a broker are made by phone. Mechanisms of payment have also changed from making payment in cash or payments at bank to making payments at transit locations or from destinations.

Brokerage has an informal structure comprising of wana dalala (a lead broker), a leqami (recruiters, suppliers), who is under the lead broker, in-country transporters, and ashagari (smugglers who are in charge of border crossings). At the borders there is another structure. Most of the lead brokers used to be merchants before they converted themselves to brokers. Some of them used to operate in the transnational contraband business. They reproduce each other, and graduate from assistantship (recruiting, supplying, transporting) to lead broker. Some of the brokers were themselves former migrants, some were former law enforcement officials who knew the “brokerage business” when they were part of the law enforcement.

Systems of transportation and sheltering 

Following the organized campaign against the brokers, systems of transportation have also changed. Except the route from Wollo to Djibouti border where there is no public transport, transporting migrants en masse using a rented car up to the border has been abandoned. In the Wollo-Afar route, where there are multiple check-points, brokers have established networks with the Afar clan leaders. Ethiopian Afar pastoralists and Djibouti Afar pastoralists, who have the tradition of crossing international borders of Ethiopia and Djibouti for social and economic reasons, are key partners of smuggling networks. In the Ethiopia Djibouti border smuggling migrants follow the practices of the informal cross-border trade. In the remaining two routes, brokers usually advise their clients to arrive at the border towns taking public transports by avoiding going in groups.

Systems of sheltering migrants have also changed. Instead of keeping migrants together as it used to be done in the past, brokers now allow migrants to get accommodation/shelter in hotels or other places during their journeys and also at border towns.

Socio-cultural attachments

Brokers are major players in the migration industry in Ethiopia. Brokers have a strong socio-cultural attachment to the community. Most of the brokers at migration source/origin have multiple relations with potential migrants. These relations relate to ethnicity, clan, religion, geography etc.

The brokers are very much aware that they live and operate among the community that entrusts them with their young ones but also the brokers know that their children study with the children of the surrounding community. Hence, they abide by the local rules and norms. For instance, when migrants are deported, they negotiate with the help of elders, religious leaders or traditional authorities on the return of part of the money paid for facilitation. When their clients pass away en route, the brokers visit the family of the deceased and provide financial assistance or some form of support, and usually return the money the deceased migrant paid – that is the quality of good broker.

The success of the brokerage business does not only depend on socio-cultural relations though. Brokerage is a very competitive business. Most brokers believe that if they fail to do their job properly, for instance, if they abuse their clients or even their clients are abused by a third party working for the broker “the source will dry up”. They believe that their success depends on their reputation that has been established as a result of their effectiveness in making sure that the migrant has reached his/her destination. Usually, these success stories are narrated by the community thereby marketing the brokers.

Brokers sometimes do business among themselves. For instance, if a broker has a client but have little knowledge about the routes, borderlands, transportations, payment methods etc. he/she negotiates with another broker. Brokers usually use language of commodity in their daily business. For example, while waiting for an ideal number of migrants, they use phrases like “I have ten sacks of sugar”; “the bag is not full” etc.

Brokers also establish vertical relationships among brokers. This relationship is a loose business relationship. Their networks exist at different places en route all the way sometimes to the destination country. For example, a lead broker in Hadya has a business network with one or several brokers in Moyale, in Nairobi, in Dar es Salaam and in Lilongwe (Malawi) and even in South Africa. The power relations in the network are trust based with no formal responsibility and accountability mechanisms attached to them.

What do the community think?

The brokerage business has a strong backing by the community. We have noticed that there is local support for brokering practices in all the sites of this research. Most of the community does not see brokering and smuggling activities as criminal. Thus, brokering is a socially embedded practice and has become a community economy. Almost all our informants claim that migration has contributed a lot to the boom in the economy of the community in Hadya zone. In small towns in Kombolcha district of Wollo, residents claim that brokers are the economic backbones of the towns. In Metema, it is considered a means of survival for the population of the town, besides contraband. Therefore, it seems that the law enforcement officers, the local administration, the committee making up the taskforce for the prevention of human trafficking and smuggling are all less effective about controlling irregular migration.

Financing systems

Money transfer systems are crucial in the operation of migration industry in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a tight financial system where sending money oversees is very difficult. It is also difficult to access foreign currencies from within the country. Migration facilitators have established dynamic and flexible and adaptable hawala/money transfer systems in all the routes and major places of origin of migration. The differences between the routes depend on the geographical distance and business relations between the source/Ethiopia and the destination countries. For example, money transfer in Wollo is closely integrated into imports from Saudi Arabia and UAE. In the Metema route to Sudan a different migration economy prevails. Several shops engaged in hawala and ‘informal’ money exchange have been established facilitating financial transactions. In Hadya, a complex money transfer system prevails. It involves banks, hawala agents, mobile banking services and the aviation industry. Brokers play a very essential role for money transfer at the border towns and in the sites outside Ethiopia.

The role of information and communication technologies

Migrants, and those who facilitate migration, use various types of technology for communication and other purposes. Mobile phones are the most crucial communication technology in migration. Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber are also are utilized heavily to different degrees. In most cases these technologies are not used while in journey but are extensively used before departure and at transit towns where there is connectivity.

The workings of the migration industry in Ethiopia are very dynamic, complex and interesting. It engages many actors with several enabling and constraining structures. The research is a work in progress.

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