By Paul Schemm
ADDIS ABABA, March 31, 2016 – As Ahmad* was being chased through the Yemeni desert by the motorcycle-riding human traffickers that had tortured and beat him in their camp for months, he thought he would never see his home village in southern Ethiopia again.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it home,” recalled the young 17-year-old with an expressive face and wide eyes as he described his five months of attempted migration to Saudi Arabia that resulted in him getting ransomed by traffickers twice and ended in a harrowing midnight escape when he rolled off the truck containing bodies of fellow migrants he had been sent to help bury.
Ahmad is now safe in a transit centre in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, just a few short days away from the trip back home and being reunited with his family as part of a collaboration between UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration and the Ethiopian Government.
The lure of migration
Thousands of Ethiopians leave the country searching for opportunities, with many heading for oil-rich Saudi Arabia via the Red Sea port of Djibouti and through Yemen, which is currently deeply embroiled in a civil war.
Many are preyed upon by human traffickers who often leave them stranded, or worse hold them for ransom. Many who make the trip are minors left stranded far from home.
UNICEF and the IOM have begun bringing these children back to Ethiopia and housing them for a week in the Addis Ababa transit centre while their families are contacted.
“Most of them have travelled through very harsh circumstances, some were robbed and they all went long days without food,” said centre director Mohammed Farah who just last week sent almost hundred children back to their homes. “Most of them are traumatized.”
The children are given new clothes, showers and counselling to try to overcome some of the experiences they have been through.
Many are at first uncommunicative but with time and group therapy they begin to interact with their peers, said Farah.
The centre helped bring home 598 children in 2015 and already in the first few months of 2016 it has sent another 157 to their families, including 10 girls. Families receive a 1,000 birr (US$50) resettling aid as well.
Most of the children helped by the programme are between 15 and 17 years-old but there are cases of even younger children caught up in the lure to immigrate.
The IOM-UNICEF partnership to bring these children back to their families has been singled out by the UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional office as a success story.
Coping with the trauma
Sitting in the clean, white-washed activities room, Zerihun*, 17, talked about being ransomed by traffickers in Yemen and beaten repeatedly when his family couldn’t provide the money.
“They beat me until I became really sick and then they thought I would die so they left me outside,” he recalled, admitting that he still has trouble sleeping from the trauma. In the end, he survived the terrible experience and was able to run off into the desert and find a Yemeni village. There, he received assistance that eventually put him in contact with the IOM, enabling him to return home.
Some migrant children at the centre said they left for Saudi Arabia because they had seen many others go and thought it was a chance to make something of their lives and return with money.
Kabir*, just 16-year-old, thought he could use his skills as a herder and help manage the massive herds of sheep and goats imported into Saudi Arabia annually for the Muslim feasts, but he too just ended up ransomed by traffickers who had hired Ethiopians to communicate – and beat – their prisoners.
He said when he returned home, he would be sure to warn others about the perils of migration.
“I want to restart my education and help my family,” said Kabir. “It is death if you go there – it is better to transform oneself and thrive inside your own country, that’s what I would tell them.”
*Names changed to protect the children’s identities.