Sunday, 27 January 2019

Critical issues for the new Refugee Compact in Ethiopia

By Fekadu Adugna and Priya Deshingkar

“Imagine more than ten years without a job, moving nowhere. When we first arrived, we were young and energetic. Look at me now (displaying his arms and looking at his body in dismay). There (in Eritrea) the government took more than ten years off my life for military service. If I am given the opportunity to resettle they would take five more years for education and the like. When I am supposed to work, I am wasting my time. Does not it mean wasting my life? It is a taboo in our culture for a man to sit idle and eat. One has to work even if it is small. What you work and earn gives mental satisfaction…” An Eritrean refugee, interviewed by Mulu Getachew at Mai Aini refugee camp, September 2018.

On 17 January 2019 Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives approved a Revised Refugee Proclamation, which is believed to pave the road for the implementation of the “Ethiopia Compact”, part of the Global Compact for Refugees. Ethiopia has shown its readiness to respond to the UN Declaration on Refugees, which is regarded as a milestone for global solidarity on the protection of refugees. Indeed, the country’s investment commissioner announced that the new legislation was part of the Ethiopia’s “Jobs Compact”, which “allows refugees to work legally” - a $500 million programme which aims to create 100,000 jobs – 30% of which will be allocated to refugees. 

The proclamation provides refugees the right to engage in wage-earning employment, in the areas of agriculture, industrial parks (special economic zones), small and micro enterprises, handicrafts and commerce. It is a timely response to the global crisis of refugees, and is correctly welcomed by development partners as a paradigm shift in refugee policy. This is a welcome development given the fact that Ethiopia is the second most important refugee hosting country in Africa, after Uganda, with close to one million refugees accommodated in its 26 refugee camps.

However, policy makers and development partners need to consider critical socio-economic and political ramifications of the compact first.

Land scarcity and the politics of land

One of the Ethiopia’s nine pledges for refugees in the Job Compact, also included in the just enacted refugee proclamation, is access to land. This is expected to allow refugees to participate in agriculture which will give them a source of livelihood and add to the country’s GDP. Ethiopia is a country where the livelihoods of 85% of the more than one hundred million people depend on land. There is already irrefutable evidence that population growth coupled with sluggish rural economic transformation and climate change have resulted in unviable farm holdings and functional landlessness. Currently, more than one third of rural households dependent on agriculture are landless and the average landholding is around 0.5 hectares.
Simultaneously there are emergent multiple interests in land that exacerbate the pressure on farm land but also politicize issues related to land. These include large-scale agro-investments, intensive agri-businesses such as flori-cultures, aggressively expanding cities and towns and land grabbing. Thus, unless carefully managed and clearly communicated, giving land to refugees can easily become a political issue and endanger the initiative.

One way of diffusing these tensions is by using local socio-cultural networks and being sensitive to local inter-ethnic competition over land. Most of the refugees in Ethiopia are from neighboring countries with cross-border kinship (ethnic, clan) relations. While this could help local integration it could also easily be politicized unless the implementing bodies are sensitive to inter-group relations. This is particularly important in Gambella, where South Sudanese refugees are hosted and the Somali Region, where we find protracted refugee situations. 

Challenges of poverty and unemployment

Ethiopia is the hub of international migration in the Horn of Africa. Besides hosting refugees, Ethiopia is also a very important source and transit zone for international migrants. Annual emigration from Ethiopia is estimated to be around half a million, and two-thirds of these are irregular migrants who use different land and sea routes and networks. Much of this migration is driven by the lack of resources and employment opportunities at home.

Due to the dangerous journeys that poorer Ethiopian migrants undertake, it is common to hear worrisome news about their abuse and mistreatment en route to South Africa, Yemen and Libya. In the face of challenging socioeconomic factors such as rampant youth unemployment and poverty driven youth emigration, the new Job Compact has to be properly and clearly communicated to the citizens of Ethiopia. The fact that it is designed to benefit the citizens much more than refugees should be emphasized as its success depends on a positive reception by the Ethiopian people. Refugees should not be perceived as “grabbers” of opportunities when citizens are suffering from unemployment and landlessness. In other words, the balance between addressing the refugee problem and the problems that Ethiopia is already struggling with should be given due consideration.

Protracted IDP situation

Furthermore, there are more than two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia, which ranks among the countries with the largest IDP populations in the world. Nearly 1.4 million of these are classed as “new” displacements caused by conflict and drought by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Regions such as Oromia have built temporary camps in peri-urban areas, some of them in the vicinity of the industrial parks.  There is widespread unemployment among IDPs and lasting solutions to their situation have not been found. It would be important that both these issues i.e., refugees and IDPs are considered together otherwise there is a danger of conflict over resources and employment.  

Viability of industrial parks

Industrial Parks in Ethiopia have failed to thrive. A study of Hawassa Industrial Park shows that the turnover of workers is high because of low wages, poor transport networks and insecure living and working conditions for women who form the bulk of the workforce. The obvious question is how these parks, which have failed to attract local workers, would attract refugees? Allocating 30,000 refugees to industrial parks should not be only a matter of quotas. The parks need to be attractive for foreign investors, local workers and refugees and be profitable and sustainable.   

Prescribed employment options

Finally, as the experience in other countries has shown, tying refugees to jobs that have been pre-specified runs the risk of defection. Refugees may reject such jobs in favour of more flexible options in the informal labour market. They may also reject them and opt for jobs that are better suited to their personal goals and qualifications.

All these potential difficulties suggest that it may make sense for the government of Ethiopia to undertake rapid pilots of the initiative, gather lessons on performance and adapt for a more effective programme.

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