Country Profiles Ethiopia

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A. Executive Summary

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country on the African continent. Except for a brief period under Mussolini’s Italy, the country has always maintained its independence. Ethiopia is a landlocked country largely dependent on its neighbour Djibouti for port access. It is a majority Christian country and is home to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, has made impressive strides in fostering a freer and more open political and media environment. In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the conflict with Eritrea. Currently, Ethiopia’s greatest challenges are continuing to lift the population out of poverty through sustained economic growth, establishing political stability, and expanding the private sector, as well as making it more competitive.

Ethiopia has experienced migration flows throughout history as a destination, departure, and transit country and is a primary destination in East Africa. As a landlocked country bordering every other country in the Horn of Africa, it is a logical transit and destination location for migrants. Historically, international migration out of Ethiopia has not been very common. This started to change slightly in the 20th century when Ethiopians started moving abroad to study at Western universities and complete higher education. In 1974, a military junta overthrew the Imperial Rule, which led to many Ethiopians becoming internally displaced or moving to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Many Western countries offered resettlement to the Ethiopian refugees. The national capital, Addis Ababa, has also been a popular destination for internal migrants fleeing ethnic violence. The city grew from a population of 1.42M in 1984 to 2.75M in 2007, and reached an estimated 4.8M inhabitants in 2020.

While Ethiopia has one of the lowest income inequalities in the world, it struggles with widespread poverty, with an annual per capita income of 790 USD. Ethiopia’s economy experienced strong, broad-based growth averaging 9.9% a year from 2007/08 to 2017/18, compared to a regional average of 5.4%. The country is aiming to achieve lower-middle-income status by 2025.

While immigration in Ethiopia is positively impacted by the attraction of the country’s fast and steady economic growth, there are also spikes in internal displacement related to inter-communal violence (primarily in the southern and western parts of the country), political protests, and environmental disasters. In 2018, “there was a dramatic increase in the internally displaced population, which more than doubled from 1,078,400 at the beginning of 2018 to 2,615,800 at the end.” Ethiopia is a major destination of refugees from neighbouring countries. The contributing factors include poverty, conflict, and environmental crises (particularly droughts and floods), as well as conflict in South Sudan, open-ended military service in Eritrea, and conflict and conflict-induced food insecurity in Somalia. A spike in forced displacement from Eritrea followed the 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia.

B. Country Profile 

I. Basic Information

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, with a population of 112,078,730 people. It shares a border with 6 countries: Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti. It is the largest country in the Horn of Africa, covering 1,063,652 km2. The capital city of Addis Ababa is by far the most populous, with a metropolitan area of roughly 4.8M inhabitants. The population of Ethiopia can be divided into the following groups: Oromo 34.9%, Amhara (Amara) 27.9%, Tigray (Tigrinya) 7.3%, Sidama 4.1%, Wolayta 3%, Gurage 2.8%, Somali (Somalie) 2.7%, Hadiya 2.2%, Afar (Affar) 1.6%, and other 12.6% (2016 estimates). The majority of the population is Ethiopian Orthodox (43.5%), followed by Muslim (33.9%), Protestant (18.5%), traditional (2.7%), and Catholic (0.7%). Internal displacement and interethnic conflicts remain an issue, especially along the border with Somalia.

II. International and internal migration

In 2017, Ethiopia was the 5th destination country for migrants in Africa, receiving 5% of total immigrants in Africa. In 2019, 49% of international migrants in Ethiopia were women, while 48.5% were aged 0-19 years. Child migrants are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Unaccompanied minors, especially if returning from abroad or having survived exploitation, often require shelter, psychosocial support, family tracing and reunification, and reintegration into their communities of origin. In a 2018 study, it was found that African children’s primary reason for leaving home was violence and general insecurity, followed by personal or family reasons, economic reasons, a lack of freedom and/or discrimination, and a lack of social services. Children reported that they chose destinations where they thought they would have better chances of getting a job and sending remittances home, as well as where they would enjoy security and opportunities to access better education, reunite with family, and access better medical care.

Internal displacement is rapidly increasing across Africa, with more than half of all Africans expected to live in urban settings by 2050. In the Horn of Africa, and in Ethiopia specifically, government attention to facilitating safe internal displacement, predominantly from rural to urban areas, is crucial to building inclusive and resilient cities. Factors driving internal displacement include: climate change, job and education opportunities, and the evolving desires of young people. Additional factors include overpopulation, famine, poverty, land scarcity, governmental agricultural policies, and lack of agricultural resources. However, the two most important factors are age and education.

The majority of migrants are young and relatively educated. Research published in 2017 based in southern Ethiopia revealed that 76.2% of internal migrants left home between the ages of 16 and 25, while 48% were attending junior education level at the time of departure, and 80% were unmarried. Statistically, the primary reasons for rural-urban migration were found to be: better job opportunities (44%), rural poverty (26%), further education (10%), start a business (8%), freedom from cultural restrictions (8%), and better urban services (4%). 

The same study on internal displacement in southern Ethiopia revealed that females move shorter distances (63.08 km on average) while men are more likely to venture farther from their place of birth (an average of 80.50 km). While internal migrants comprise a greater proportion of the total population in smaller cities, the largest volume of rural-urban migrants move to Addis Ababa (39% of all rural-urban migrants). Research published in 2009 found that youth from 10 to 19 years of age primarily left home for educational opportunities (44.9% of boys and 51.4% of girls), followed by work opportunities (28.6% of boys and 32.4% of girls), and escaping an early marriage (22.7% of girls). Children often embark on their journey with a relative or family friend, and head towards family or friends in the city who are supposed to provide housing and education for the children. After reaching the city, however, 13% of girls and 21% of boys did not attend school, and 19% of females who migrated for work were not employed. The work opportunities for minors in the city are limited to informal work, primarily domestic labour. Jobs as a bar girl are a common entry point into the commercial sexual exploitation of females.

III. Emigration and qualified migration

Migration out of Ethiopia was minimal – only for the political elite – until the revolution of 1974 that installed the Derg, a Marxist military regime. After 1974, a refugee crisis emerged as outflows spiked due to political persecution and economic desperation, only falling after the end of the Derg in 1991. There are four key emigration routes from Ethiopia. The Eastern Route goes from the East and Horn of Africa through Yemen to the Gulf Countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and it is mainly used by Muslim migrants (87%). The Northern Route (or ‘Central Mediterranean Route’) takes migrants from the East and Horn of Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, mainly departing from Libya and heading for Italy. The Southern Route (through Kenya) connects the East and Horn of Africa to South Africa. The Sinai Route, currently the least common, runs from the East and Horn of Africa through Sudan and Egypt into Israel. The Eastern and Southern routes are most common. From January to March 2020, data from the IOM reveals that 43.4% of Ethiopian emigrants were headed for the Eastern Route, 33.7% for the Horn of Africa, 21.4% for the Northern Route, 0.4% the Southern Route and 1.1% other routes. IOM data from August 2020 reveals that migrants from Ethiopia mainly intend to travel to Saudi Arabia (49%). A total of 61.7% emigrants leave Ethiopia for economic reasons. Most emigrants are men (68%) and 6% are children. 

Ethiopia suffers greatly from “brain drain,” as opportunities for highly skilled and educated Ethiopians remain limited at home. For example, the out-migration of Ethiopian medical staff in 2009 was estimated at 25.6%. High rates of poverty and low levels of education make it difficult for the country to build and retain a sizable skilled workforce or even to create sufficiently attractive opportunities to entice diaspora to return. Saudi Arabia remains the primary destination for irregular migrants, representing 80-90% of Ethiopian labour migration. Illegal border crossings into Kenya have increased, with victims heading to South Africa to take onward flights to Ecuador with a final destination of the United States or Canada. The least common route is through Sudan and Libya with the hope of crossing the Mediterranean and ultimately reaching Europe. Of Ethiopian migrants emigrating out of the country, 2017 ILO research reports that a majority of regular migrants (86%) are women looking for employment opportunities, primarily as domestic workers in the Middle East.

Remittances comprised 1-1.1% of the country’s GDP in 2014-2017, with the total value increasing proportionally alongside the GDP from 470M euros in 2014 to 721.9M in 2017. Since Ethiopia lacks a robust bank infrastructure and formal remittance service providers, informal remittances are estimated to be extremely high. Ethiopian returnees from Africa’s Eastern migratory route are coming back to their country at a rate of about 1,000 migrants per month, according to the IOM report in October 2019. Since April 2020, the number of returnees is increasing following job losses abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

IV. Forced Migration (Internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees)

According to 2018 figures, Ethiopia has one of the largest newly displaced populations in the world, which more than doubled from 1,078,400 at the beginning of 2018 to a total of 2.6M by the end of the year. Victims of forced displacement include IDPs (98%), refugees, and asylum seekers. This sudden spike in displacement is due to inter-communal violence in southern and western Ethiopia, specifically the West Guji and Gedeo zones along the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) as well as the border between the Oromia and Somali Regions. Conflict accounts for 68% of internal displacement. While displacement due to local conflict over pasture and water rights is not new, the scale of conflict and resulting displacement has grown dramatically since 2019. In September 2020, the IOM reported 1.8M IDPs. There are 3.19M IDPs and IDP returnees in need of assistance, out of which 30% are in acute need. Almost half of IDPs are female (49.8%). Most of the IDPs and IDP returnees are in the Oromia (47%), Somali (32%), and SNNP (13%) Regions. Many residents of Ethiopia also remain at risk of climate-induced displacement. Extreme weather in 2019 affected more than 570,000 people, leaving over 200,000 displaced.

Ethiopia maintains an open-door policy for refugees, especially those fleeing from neighbouring countries. As of August 2020, the country was hosting 776,261 refugees, the majority in the West of the country near South Sudan. Ethiopia is also the largest host of Somali refugees and Eritrean refugees with 200,342 (25.7% of refugees in Ethiopia) and 178,152 (22.9%) respectively as well as a major host for Sudanese refugees, totalling 43,683 (5.6%). After Sudan, Ethiopia is the second most popular destination for South Sudanese refugees, hosting a total of 348,579 (44.7% of refugees). Most of them are living in camps across the country, though the government has been exploring an “Out-of-Camp” policy since 2010. As of 2018, there were 26 camps spread across the country. The majority of refugees in Ethiopia are located in Gambella Regional State (41.2%), the Somali Regional State (25.6%), the Tigray Regional State (12.3%), the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State (8.5%), the Afar Regional State (6.9%), and Addis Ababa (4.3%).

The greatest challenges for displaced persons in Ethiopia are education (60% of refugees are under 18), employment, and access to water, which are the top priorities of the UNHCR.

At the end of 2017, there were 87,400 Ethiopian refugees (0.1% of the population). Refugees from Ethiopia headed primarily for Kenya (17,873), South Africa (17,562), the United States (9,987), Yemen (6,205), and South Sudan (4,555) in 2017. In total, there are an estimated 6,000 Ethiopian refugees living in Sudan and 40,200 in South Sudan.

V. Victims of Human Trafficking

Due to the difficulty of migration routes from the Horn of Africa, many emigrants turn to smugglers to facilitate the journey. Introductions are often made through local brokers, returnees, relatives, and/or friends. Working with a smuggler puts migrants at high risk of exploitation, as brokers and agents can make false promises and give limited information or, even worse, exploit or traffic migrants. According to the Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC), there were 303 identified Ethiopian victims of trafficking in 2020. Traffickers operate most commonly in two contexts: a) by targeting parents of children in rural areas to provide them with housing and education in urban centres in exchange for domestic work; and b) by targeting migrants heading to Gulf States for labour, often domestic work. In both situations, victims are vulnerable to labour, sexual, and other forms of exploitation. Girls from impoverished rural areas are exploited in domestic servitude and commercial sex within the country, while boys are subjected to forced labour in traditional weaving, construction, agriculture, and street vending. Child sex tourism is still a problem in major cities (Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Hawassa, and Bishoftu). 

Many Ethiopian women working in domestic service in the Middle East face severe abuses, including physical and sexual assault, denial of salary, sleep deprivation, passport confiscation, and confinement. They are often portrayed as the scapegoats in local media. Ethiopian women who migrate for work or flee abusive employers in the Middle East are also vulnerable to sex trafficking. Ethiopian men and boys migrate to the Gulf States and other African nations, where some are subjected to forced labour by traffickers. Local NGOs assess that the number of internal trafficking victims exceeds that of external trafficking, particularly children exploited in commercial sex and domestic servitude. Most traffickers are small local operators, often from the victims’ own communities. However, well-structured, hierarchical, organized crime groups are also responsible. The primary challenges that migrants reported facing on their journey were hunger and thirst, followed by sickness and financial issues. In 2013, the government banned migration to Saudi Arabia to protect against labour exploitation. The ban was lifted in 2018.

Ethiopia is considered a Tier 2 country, meaning that “the Government of Ethiopia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” Ethiopia has made significant efforts to intercept traffickers and their victims. However, the country has still not achieved minimum standards in the protection of trafficking victims and the prevention of exploitation.

VI. National Legal Framework

Ethiopia is a signatory to the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the 1951 Geneva Convention (ratified in 1969), the 1967 New York Protocol (ratified in 1969), the UN Human Trafficking Protocol of 2000 (ratified in 2012), and the UN Migrant Smuggling Protocol of 2000 (ratified in 2012).

Ethiopia is also one of the first countries to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) that came out of the Summit on Refugees and Migrants hosted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016. The country is now widely considered a leading example for comprehensive and robust refugee protection policies. In September 2016, Ethiopia committed to nine pledges at the Summit on Refugees and Migrants hosted by the United Nations General Assembly. This includes the provision of work permits to qualifying refugees, the facilitation of local integration, and reserving a small percentage of jobs within the industrial sector for refugees. Ethiopia has followed through on these commitments through its Refugee Proclamation, which was amended in 2019. To date, implementation includes the initiation of civil registration for refugees in October 2017, including birth, marriage, divorce, and death for new refugees; as well as retroactive registration access for approximately 70,000 refugee children born in the country in the past 10 years. Moreover, a countrywide refugee registration infrastructure was launched in 2017 to consolidate information on refugees’ level of education, professional skills, and family profiles. This Biometric Information Management System will enable refugees to more easily access CRRF opportunities, such as jobs created through Ethiopia’s 500M USD investment in new industrial parks funded through the European Union. A total of 30% of these jobs are open to refugees. 

Ethiopia has numerous policies and proclamations that directly address migrants and refugees. The Immigration Proclamation No. 354/2003 of 2003 outlines requirements for entry into and departure from Ethiopia, including travel documents, visas, registration, and residence permits. The Security, Immigration, and Refugee Affair Authority Establishment Proclamation No 6/1995 established an authority to “execute policies and laws on state and public security, immigration nationality and refugees.” In 2019, Ethiopia passed The Refugees Proclamation No. 1110/2019, which repeals the Refugee Proclamation No. 409 of 2004, and provides a more comprehensive outline of protection and assistance provided to refugees in Ethiopia. The Proclamation stipulates freedom of movement, the right to work, access to social services, and local integration. This new law allows refugees to obtain work permits, access primary education, obtain drivers’ licenses, and legally register life events such as births and marriages. It also opens up access to national financial services, such as banking. The UNHCR calls it “one of the most progressive refugee policies in Africa.” Ethiopia’s refugee policy requires refugees to live in camps, with the exception of a small number of people who are allowed to stay in urban centres due to special considerations. Since 2010, a considerable number of refugees have been given the option of living outside of the refugee camps as part of the government’s “Out-of-Camp” policy.

In 2018, Ethiopia lifted a five-year ban on Ethiopian migrants seeking work abroad in the Gulf region. Instituted to protect against exploitation, the ban put Ethiopian migrants at greater risk of trafficking and exploitation as economic desperation pushed people to ignore the restrictions and travel overseas anyway. More recent legislation establishes regulations for recruitment agencies, including minimum age and education requirements as well as training for migrant workers before departure. Other State documents dealing with refugees are: the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; the Proclamation to Regulate the Issuance of Travel Documents and Visas, and Registration of Foreigners in Ethiopia (1969); the Issuance of Travel Documents and Visas Regulations (1971); the Security, Immigration, and Refugee Affairs Authority Establishment Proclamation (1995); the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Proclamation (2015); and the Overseas Proclamation (2016).

VII. Main actors

The State

The primary body responsible for handling migration issues is the Department for Immigration and Nationality Affairs. The Agency for Refugees & Returnees Affairs (ARRA) “hosts asylum-seekers seeking a safe-haven in Ethiopia as a result of man-made or natural disasters. The agency creates platforms that enable and assist refugees in escaping poverty by finding durable solutions and strengthening people-to-people relations.” The agency is also responsible for dealing with Ethiopian returnees. The Security Immigration and Refugee Affairs Authority (SIRAA) executes policies and laws on state and public security, immigration nationality, and refugees. The lead coordinator for referring trafficking victims to services is the National Anti-Trafficking Council and Task Force, in coordination with other government agencies. The Diaspora Engagement Affairs General Directorate is charged with coordinating diaspora issues at the national and regional level. The Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia is designated to provide all surveys and censuses for the country, which are used to monitor economic and social growth, including data collection and reports on refugees in Ethiopia.

The Catholic Church

The Ethiopian Catholic Church is composed of four eparchies: the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa, the Eparchy of Adigrat, the Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie, and the Eparchy of Emdember. The eparchies are involved in peace and reconciliation efforts in Ethiopia to help resolve the inter-communal conflicts. Young people in Ethiopia often emigrate in search of better opportunities. The Church runs training programs to help these young people, including returnees and people who failed to migrate abroad. These training programs include tailoring, haircutting, small entrepreneurships, etc.

To facilitate the coordination of the Social Justice and Peace programs of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, the Bishops of Ethiopia started a National Justice and Peace Commission in 1995, and the Eparchy of Emdember established a Justice and Peace Desk in 2007. The Justice and Peace Commission raises awareness through programs based on Catholic social teaching and universal human rights. The work of the Commission aims at promoting spirituality and implementing a culture of peace that fosters human development for everyone. 

According to the General Assembly of the Ethiopian Catholic Church Social and Development Commission, the Church implemented 189 different projects in different parts of the country in 2020, benefiting over six million people in Ethiopia.  

The Ethiopian Catholic Church Social and Development Commission (ECC SDCO) – or Caritas Ethiopia – is mandated to “to initiate, promote and coordinate the social and development ministries of the Universal Church in Ethiopia.” The activities of Caritas Ethiopia include providing assistance to migrants and refugees at the community and national level. Its long-term programmes to improve economic opportunities also indirectly contribute to lowering the number of migrants. Caritas Ethiopia coordinates offices throughout the country and works within the Caritas Internationalis network.

The Jesuit Refugee Service Ethiopia has established projects to welcome refugees in camps, as well as in urban settings. They provide education, language classes, recreational initiatives, income-generating activities, emergency aid, and psychosocial services. One of JRS Ethiopia’s projects are Refugee Community Centres (RCC) where refugees can receive educational and psychosocial support, gain new vocational skills, socialise, and build relationships with members of the refugee and host communities.

Talitha Kum Tinsay Ethiopia also helps to prevent human trafficking in Ethiopia and assist victims. Talitha Kum, also known as the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, is an international organisation of Catholic women and religious sisters who fight against human trafficking around the world. It is part of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), a canonically approved organization of Superiors General of Institutes of Catholic Women Religious. Talitha Kum’s Ethiopian branch – Talitha Kum Tinsay Ethiopia – was created in 2020 to promote and develop networking efforts, actions, campaigns, and educational programs to raise awareness and condemn the exploitation of persons.

Other organisations also provide help to the most vulnerable, including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. These include the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which is a leader in responding to natural and man-made disasters in Ethiopia. 

International Organisations

Organisations working on migrant-related projects in Ethiopia include IOM Ethiopia, the UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, GOAL Ethiopia, Save the Children, and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The International Office for Migration and its Special Liaison Office (SLO) in Addis Ababa run a broad variety of programs, including emergency response, refugee resettlement, repatriation and family reunification, migration and development, and counter-trafficking. 

The UNHCR works within an inter-agency Refugee Coordination Group and supports the Government of Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). The UNHCR is also leading the 2020-2021 Ethiopia Country Refugee Response Plan and has over 500 staff on the ground working with displaced persons. 

VIII. Other Issues

Human rights violations have decreased under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came into power in April 2018. Protests against government policies, security forces, and violence were largely quelled when the government released thousands of political prisoners from detention, lifted internet restrictions, committed to legal reforms, and reopened diplomatic relations with neighbouring Eritrea. However, unrest has continued in late 2019 due to inter-communal attacks primarily in the southern and western parts of the country, protests against Prime Minister Abiy, and tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River.