Sintayehu Beyene left Ethiopia
planning to earn money to begin a carpentry business — he ended
up captive in Yemen where Kalashnikov-wielding traffickers stole
what little he owned.
Grabbed from a boatload of migrant workers as it landed on
a Yemeni shore, he says the armed gang whisked him inland to a
desert camp. Beaten and detained for nine days with about 30
other people, he was forced to hand over the 1,400 Ethiopian
birr ($72) he was carrying before being released. He crossed to
neighboring Saudi Arabia, where wages are sometimes more than
double the rates paid in Ethiopia, only to be deported a month
later when authorities cracked down on illegal migrants.
“They robbed and beat me,” Sintayehu, 31, said in a May
22 interview in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, recalling his
treatment at the camp in northern Yemen five months ago. “They
took all the money I had.”
Sintayehu may have got off lightly, according to Human
Rights Watch. Ethiopians and other migrants arriving in Yemen
have been captured and tortured by human traffickers planning to
extort ransoms that can be more than $1,000 from their families,
the New York-based advocacy group said in a May 25 report. One
witness cited by HRW described captors gouging out a man’s eyes
with a water bottle.
Torture is one of the dangers faced by thousands of
Ethiopians who travel to seek work in the Arabian peninsula,
where maids can earn $200 a month compared to the $90 the
Ethiopian government estimated in 2012 that an average college
graduate made back home.
Numbers traveling across the Gulf of Aden have risen this
year even after Saudi Arabia, the intended destination for many,
began mass deportations of unregistered employees. The number of
African migrants in the northern Yemeni city of Haradh increased
10-fold to 8,000 between January and March, HRW said in the
report titled “Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of Migrants by
Human Traffickers in a Climate of Impunity.”
While Saudi Arabia began expelling 160,000 illegal
Ethiopian workers in November, the number of migrants traveling
by boat to Yemen from Djibouti or Somalia increased to 8,356 in
April, 56 percent more than a year earlier, according to the
Nairobi, Kenya-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, or
RMMS. An estimated 82 percent of arrivals are Ethiopian, it said
on May 16.
The number of people illegally traveling by boat to Yemen
dropped to 65,000 in 2013 from 108,000 in 2012, HRW said, citing
United Nations data. Aid workers say numbers fell during the
second half of last year because Saudi Arabia tightened border
security and threatened to deport illegal workers, according to
“Some of the migrants encountered were actually re-attempting their journeys following deportation from Saudi and
Yemen in the last couple of years,” Noela Barasa, an RMMS
spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed response to questions on May 19
about this year’s increase. “A perceived labor gap following
the massive deportations may be responsible for spurring
Ethiopia has temporarily banned citizens from traveling to
work in Saudi Arabia until conditions improve and is
“sensitizing the public” to the dangers of illegal migration,
Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said. The treatment of
Ethiopians in Yemen wasn’t discussed during a recent meeting
between government officials of the two nations, he said by
phone from Addis Ababa. Yemen’s deputy foreign minister for
political affairs, Hamid Alawadhi, said the government takes the
HRW report “seriously” and has formed a committee including
all authorities accused to discuss its allegations.
“Due to Yemen’s poor and limited resources in dealing with
the flood of refugees and illegal migrants, as well as weak
support from international institutions, there are problems
related to this kind of asylum-seeking,” Alawadhi said. The
government plans to issue a statement responding to the report,
he said, without specifying when.
Yemen’s economy contracted 13 percent in 2011, in the wake
of protests that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the
lost output won’t be recovered until next year, according to the
International Monetary Fund. The nation is also battling an
insurgency in its north and a threat from al-Qaeda militants.
Sintayehu, whose wife died of breast cancer last year,
reckons he needs 50,000 birr to buy tools and begin a business
in Ethiopia as a carpenter and painter, and a monthly income of
5,000 birr to support himself and his four-year-old daughter.
Before he began looking after his ailing father, he says he
earned 80 birr a day on building sites in Ethiopia’s capital,
where offices, hotels and shopping malls are sprouting up. That
wasn’t enough for his needs, he said.
Economic hardship is the main reason Ethiopian arrivals in
Yemen give for their journey, Barasa said. While Ethiopia, home
to about 90 million people, has one of Africa’s fastest-growing
economies, with the IMF projecting expansion of 8 percent this
year after average annual growth of 9.3 percent over the past
four years, almost 40 percent of the population lives on less
than $1.25 a day, according to the U.S. Agency for International
Agriculture accounts for 43 percent of gross domestic
product and 82 percent of Ethiopians rely on subsistence
farming, USAID said in a March 2012 report. Land is state-owned
and the average plot size is less than a hectare (2.5 acres).
Unemployment was 17.5 percent in Ethiopian towns and cities in
2012, according to the IMF.
Ethiopians sent home $3 billion in the last nine months,
outstripping earnings from exports of goods of $2.3 billion,
Addis Ababa-based Capital newspaper reported May 25, citing the
National Bank of Ethiopia.
Wondiya Goshu, 31, says he left school before graduating
and hasn’t been able to find work in his home country. He left
for his fourth trip to sell an illicit alcoholic brew in Saudi
Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, around the time his
compatriots were being deported last year, he said.
Yemenis kidnapped him off the boat and contacted his
friends in Saudi Arabia to extract a ransom of 3,500 Saudi
riyals ($933). Wondiya stayed at a hot, lice-ridden camp for 28
days with about 60 others, surviving on tepid water and small
portions of rice, he said in a May 22 interview in Addis Ababa.
The trafficking camps are near Haradh, where some
government officials assist smugglers in an activity that may be
responsible for about 80 percent of the area’s economy, Human
Rights Watch said.
“Officials have more frequently warned traffickers of
raids, freed them from jail when they are arrested, and in some
cases, have actively helped the traffickers capture and detain
migrants,” according to the report.
Illegally selling alcohol and washing cars, Wondiya says he
earned 12,000 riyals ($3,200) in about two months in the Saudi
city of Jeddah. He says he was later arrested, held at an
immigration camp, stripped of his possessions and flown back to
Such tales aren’t enough to discourage Sintayehu. He said
he’d travel again across the Gulf of Aden — a trip that cost
him a total of 6,000 birr last time — if he could only find the
“I am willing to work here, but the pay is low in
comparison,” he said. “I wanted to take a risk; things are
better in Saudi.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
William Davison in Addis Ababa at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Paul Richardson at
Michael Gunn, Karl Maier