Beyond Regional Circularity: The Emergence of an Ethiopian Diaspora
In March 2007, Foreign Affairs magazine described the Horn of Africa — the area comprising the east African states of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan — as the "hottest conflict zone in the world."
Over the past half century, the Horn of Africa has played host to some of the world's deadliest conflicts. Caught in the crossfire, the region's population has shifted back and forth across international borders seeking refuge not only from violence, but also from poverty, famine, natural disasters, failed states, and repressive governments. Landlocked Ethiopia, which shares a border with every other state in the Horn, is at the intersection of a complex system of multidirectional regional and international flows of humanity.
The movement of people within the Horn of Africa is hardly a new phenomenon. However, migration from Ethiopia to countries beyond the Horn can be linked to the 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie and installed a Marxist military regime, the Derg. Before 1974, the few Ethiopians who went abroad were elites who did so to study and then returned.
The Derg's brutal tactics induced hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to flee from forced resettlement, ethnic violence, and humanitarian disasters. Proxy conflict erupted between Ethiopia and Somalia, fueled by Cold War rivalries, displacing many more. Refugees who fled the Derg often first went to neighboring countries before being resettled in the West, thereby establishing communities. Soon, they brought their families as well.
It is impossible to distinguish those individuals who left for political reasons from those who left because of poverty and economic stagnation — often there was an element of both — but, overwhelmingly, the international community agreed that the outflow from Ethiopia was a refugee crisis.
Since the fall of the Derg in 1991, some Ethiopians have returned home. Indeed, in 2007, the U.S.-produced World Factbook estimated a net migration rate of zero for Ethiopia, largely due to the influx of returnees. The ethnicization of Ethiopian politics and a drift toward ethnic federalism since 1991 has prompted a new exodus of professionals as well as an increasing number of internal migrants as the country divides along ethnic lines.
With an estimated population of 73 million in 2005, Ethiopia remains a poor country dependent on agriculture, particularly coffee beans. Its Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in 2005 stood at $160 compared to $6,978 on average for the world, $745 for sub-Saharan Africa, and $378 for all least developed countries (LDCs).
Despite the end of authoritarianism and the refugee crises that plagued the country in the 1970s and 1980s, emigration has continued. As Ethiopian migration expert Tassé Abye writes, "In less than 30 years, Ethiopian immigration, born of a conjunctural crisis situation, has become a structural immigration."
Historical Background: The Ethiopian Exception
Ethiopia traces its origins back 3,000 years to the Axumite Empire, and except for five years under Italian occupation (1936 to 1941), it has never relinquished sovereignty to a European power. However, the borders of present-day Ethiopia only vaguely correspond to the Axumite Empire. Rather, contemporary Ethiopia emerged in the late-19th century from military conquests that incorporated numerous ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups into the country. By the late-20th century, the consequences of expansion became apparent as ethnic conflict flared and the country increasingly drifted toward federalism to avoid disintegration.
For much of Ethiopia's history, poverty did not lead large numbers of its citizens to permanently move abroad. During times of stress, agricultural and pastoral communities have long moved between different regions within Ethiopia, and many sought assistance in neighboring countries.
Following the late-19th-century imperial drive, the state encouraged the migration of northern Amhara and Tigre peasant farmers in order to consolidate Ethiopia's control over southern and eastern regions and to "Amharize" those regions' populations. According to historian James C. McCann, the 19th-century conquests "meant little without a ready population of soldier/settlers willing to leave the cycle of subsistence production in the north and settle into the huge tracts of alienated land."
International migration, however, was less common. Sociologist and Ethiopia expert Donald Levine has estimated that only 35 Ethiopians went to live in the West between 1876 and 1922. Between 1922 and 1935, the Ethiopian government attempted to modernize its administration and sent 144 individuals to study abroad in Western universities. Upon their return, these individuals occupied positions of high responsibility in the government.
The trend accelerated, encouraged by the Western-oriented monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie, and between 1941 and 1974, Levine has estimated that 20,000 Ethiopians — of an estimated population of 22 million — left to complete their higher educations and fulfill diplomatic missions. A vast majority returned not because the economic prospects in Ethiopia were so attractive, but because the Western-educated were so few that they were guaranteed positions of power and authority.
Even if Selassie's regime encouraged Westernization, it would be unjust to idealize the pre-1974 period: Western education and capital investment were encouraged, but Selassie banned most political activity and exploited ethnic, religious, regional, and class differences to preserve power. In retrospect, the U.S. State Department concluded by 1983 that under the Imperial regime, "there were few or no guarantees of the integrity of the person," and that "civil and political freedoms were severely limited."
However, the country was stable. U.S. immigration statistics show that for the decade 1951 to 1960, only 61 Ethiopians were granted asylum in the United States. The next decade, 1961 to 1970, only two were granted asylum — most likely the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, Dinké Berhanou, and his wife, who requested asylum in 1965. Overwhelmingly, the few Ethiopians who moved abroad during this period left for political reasons and came from the privileged classes. Most were already fluent in English or French, often both, when they emigrated.
Revolution and Rural Upheaval
On September 12, 1974, a military junta overthrew Selassie, who had reigned since 1930, and a council of soldiers known as the Derg seized power. A famine in 1973-1974 already had internally displaced an estimated 250,000 Ethiopians; however, civil and political violence soon prompted more displacement.
While the Ethiopian royal family fled to the United Kingdom, the Derg slowly drifted toward socialism although militarism characterized its rule. Religious practices, when not explicitly prohibited, were associated with "antirevolutionary activity," and diplomatic ties with Western nations were limited if not severed.
For the vast majority of Ethiopians looking to escape the Derg — mainly the educated elites from the Imperial regime — emigration to the West suddenly required the intermediate step of fleeing to a refugee camp in a neighboring country. However, as the socialist orientation of the Derg placed Ethiopia at the center of Cold War rivalries, the American, Canadian, and Australian governments began resettlement programs for rank-and-file Ethiopians who survived the journey to refugee camps in Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Federal Republic of Germany also resettled Ethiopians.
Factionalism soon tore apart the Derg, and, by 1977, Major Mengistu Haile Miriam had emerged as the leader of the Derg and the sole governing power in Ethiopia. From 1977 to 1982, Mengistu imposed a draconian order in Ethiopia to eliminate opposition to his rule, in what became known as the "Red Terror."
Although Mengistu successfully imposed his rule in the cities, violence was rampant in the countryside, prompting a rural exodus to both urban areas and to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
In 1985, the Mengistu regime began to implement a policy known as "villagization," whereby rural peasants were collectivized, ostensibly to enhance physical security and the delivery of social services as well as to promote the regime's economic objective of agricultural collectivization. According to U.S. government officials Thomas Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, an estimated 12 million Ethiopians had been relocated to villages by 1988 in 12 of the country's 14 administration regions (excluding Tigray and Eritrea).
Urban areas, though relatively secure, did not offer escape from the grinding poverty of rural life. Unemployment was rampant in urban Ethiopia, and World Bank data for 1978 estimates the urban unemployment rate for males was 12 percent and 31 percent for females. Since most families managed to obtain some income, regardless of how meager, some scholars such as development expert Jonathan Baker and sociologist Tade Akin Aina have questioned whether or not the World Bank data accurately reflect the real depth of urban poverty.
Between 1984 and 1986, Ethiopia again experienced a severe drought and famine that claimed the lives of as many as 1 million people. While the international community alleviated the humanitarian crisis through massive food and medical supply airlifts, the regime developed policies promoting the resettlement of rural Ethiopians. Plans called for the relocation of up to 1.5 million people from drought-prone regions in the north to the sparsely populated and fertile south and southwest.
An estimated 200,000 Ethiopians were resettled in 1984, and about 600,000 more were forcibly resettled in subsequent years according to sociologist Markos Ezra. An unpublished report Ezra cites estimates that, between 1980 and 1990, approximately 343,000 households — or 1.7 million individuals — were forcibly resettled.
After the collapse of the Derg in the early 1990s, however, ethnic federalism emerged as the dominant form of governance. The country was divided into autonomous or semi-autonomous, ethnicity-based regions.
According to demographer Blessing Uchenna Mberu, the current government has promoted ethnic federalism as a means to democratize Ethiopian society, an approach that has had the opposite effect. "One notable effect of this policy has been the massive population redistribution, particularly the return migration of settlers from Western Ethiopia back to their region of ethnic origin in the North," he writes.
The national capital, Addis Ababa, has also been a popular destination for internal migrants fleeing ethnic violence, and the city has grown from a population of 1.4 million in 1984 to an estimated population of more than 3.5 million in 2000.
The Horn in the Crossfire: Ethiopia and the Superpowers
A lack of ideological coherence and the strategic shifting of loyalties characterize Cold War allegiances in the Horn, particularly those of regional rivals Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia, which had enjoyed declining support from the United States after the 1974 revolution, looked increasingly to the Soviet Union. Changes in U.S. foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter prompted a full break between Ethiopia and the United States. In response, the Soviet Union abandoned Somalia, its traditional ally in the region. Somalia then shifted toward the United States.
The superpower and regional rivalries erupted in July 1977 in a dispute over the Ogaden, an arid region of eastern Ethiopia inhabited largely by ethnic Somalis. Sensing weakness in the Mengistu regime and encouraged by a separatist, pro-Somali movement in the Ogaden, Somalia invaded Ethiopia.
The so-called Ogaden War, which ended with a Somali retreat in March 1978, left an important humanitarian impact on the region. International relief agencies estimated at the time that more than 1,000 Ethiopian refugees were entering Somalia daily. By 1979, more than 700,000 refugees in 26 camps were living in precarious humanitarian conditions in Somalia. Dehydration, malnutrition, and diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis were all common; chronic food shortages compounded the problem.
Despite the Somali retreat, the Ogaden Somalis continued their resistance under the aegis of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF). In spring 1980, two years after the truce, the WSLF resumed fighting, and refugees once again streamed into Somalia from the Ogaden. By summer 1980, nearly 750,000 Ogaden Somalis were crossing the border.
Multiple other nationality conflicts erupted during the 1970s, including liberation movements among the Tigray people in north Ethiopia, among the Oromo in the south and the west, and in Gambella in the far west. Another regional insurrection with a longer history continued to rage in the province of Eritrea as described below.
Under the Mengistu regime, the automatic response to insurrection was military repression. Political scientist Peter Koehn claims that this unflinching pursuit of military solutions resulted in significant population displacement and "induced neither support nor compliance" among the various revolting ethnicities.
Facing a massive flight of people, in 1981, the Mengistu regime outlawed departure from Ethiopia without government approval. Anyone who fled was labeled a traitor "against the country and the people," and could receive a punishment of five to 25 years in prison, or, in extreme cases, life imprisonment or execution.
The U.S. State Department reported in 1985 that there was "considerable illegal emigration, undertaken either under the subterfuge of travel abroad for business or to visit relatives, or by arduous tracks overland and surreptitious crossing of the border."
The Eritrean Question
Shortly after defeating the Somalis in Ogaden, the Ethiopian armed forces directed their attention toward Eritrean rebels who were seeking independence. The Ottomans, Egyptians, and then the Italians, who seized power in 1885, all had colonized Eritrea. Following the defeat of Italy in World War II, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia until Selassie dissolved the federation in 1961 and declared Eritrea to be Ethiopia's 14th province.
A protracted insurgency followed during the next 30 years, erupting periodically. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the affiliated Eritrean Relief Organization were particularly successful in raising money from expatriates and lobbying governments that hosted Eritrean-born populations. Mengistu hoped to definitively defeat the Eritrean rebels; however, the struggle only became more entrenched.
The conflict displaced hundreds of thousands of Eritreans. Prompted by a combination of external pressures and regional rivalries, Sudan declared its support for the Eritreans in January 1977, and, as early as 1978, over 400,000 Eritreans — some 13 percent of its population — were living in refugee camps in Sudan.
By 1991, EPLF forces had expelled the Ethiopian forces and a referendum was held in 1993 under UN supervision. Over 99 percent of the population voted in favor of independence, which was declared on May 23, 1993.
Independence did not end conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 1998, conflict once again erupted over disputed border regions. In 2000, at the height of the war, an estimated 390,000 people were displaced in Eritrea.
The war ended in December 2000 with a negotiated settlement known as the Algiers Agreement. A final border demarcation was sent to an UN-associated commission, which issued its final ruling in 2003. Ethiopia rejected the ruling, but, despite occasional border clashes, a tentative peace continues.
Since the end of the 1998-2000 war, the political situation in Eritrea has deteriorated, and human rights are increasingly threatened according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Groups that publicly criticize the government or evade military subscription have been targeted, including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Sunni Muslims, ethnic Kunama, opposition groups and politicians, journalists, and students. UNHCR reports that there were 10,700 Eritrean refuges in Ethiopia in 2005, mostly located in camps not far from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.
Complexities Concerning Eritrean-Ethiopian Nationality
Issues surrounding Ethiopian and Eritrean citizenship emerged in the wake of Eritrean independence. At the time of the separation, in 1993, the only applicable Ethiopian law regarding citizenship dated to 1930 and granted both jus solis — those born in Ethiopia were Ethiopian — and jus sanguinis — those born to two Ethiopian parents were Ethiopian.
While Eritrea was under Italian and British control prior to 1952, Ethiopia considered Eritrea a "lost province" and thus granted citizenship to all Eritreans who entered. When Eritrea became a province of Ethiopia in 1962, all Eritreans automatically became Ethiopian citizens.
After Eritrea's independence, the Ethiopian government argued that, since the 1930 law did not permit dual nationality, Ethiopians who acquired Eritrean nationality automatically would lose their Ethiopian nationality. However, this decision was not enforced, and many Eritreans continued to benefit from the rights of Ethiopian nationality, such as the rights to invest and own property in Ethiopia, and to enter the country at will.
According to a 2006 report commissioned by UNHCR, a 1996 agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea concluded that "[o]n the question of nationality it was agreed that Eritreans who had so far been enjoying Ethiopian citizenship should be made to choose and abide by their choice." The resumption of conflict in 1998 polarized the situation, and the Ethiopian government began to adhere to the 1930 law prohibiting dual nationality, particularly with respect to Eritreans.
In June 1998, the Ethiopian government began the expulsion of close to 60,000 individuals with links to Eritrea in the name of national security. The individuals were forced to liquidate their belongings within 24 hours of the order and then received a military escort to the border.
Often, it was difficult to distinguish the real nationality of the expulsed individuals. Historian Fabienne Le Houérou has identified five criteria that the Ethiopian government used: (1) having worked for the Eritrean government, (2) having completed military service in Eritrea, (3) having been a member of the Eritrean liberation movement (EPLF) or any other Eritrean organization, (4) having collected money for Eritrea, or (5) having voted in favor of Eritrean independence in 1993. In response, Eritrea expelled around 38,000 Ethiopian nationals living in the country.
Other Ongoing Nationality Conflicts and Internally Displaced Groups
Migration into Gambella, Ethiopia's westernmost province, over the past three decades has created an ethnic tinderbox in the region. During the Derg's resettlement schemes of the 1970s and 1980s, Gambella was among the most popular destinations for the ethnically heterogeneous resettled highlanders.
At the same time, the protracted civil war in southern Sudan pushed many Sudanese Nuers eastward into neighboring Gambella. Their presence overwhelmed native ethnic groups, notably the Anuak, and ethnic violence has erupted.
According to Human Rights Watch, 104 extra-judicial killings have taken place since 2003, and there have been numerous incidences of rape, beatings, and looting. UNHCR estimates that some 50,000 people are internally displaced due to the violence in Gambella, between 8,000 and 10,000 Anuak have fled to camps in Sudan, and 1,000 more have sought refuge in Kenya.
In Ethiopia's southern province of Oromia — home to the Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, who constitute 32.1 percent of Ethiopia's population — UNHCR estimates from May 2006 tabulate between 10,520 and 21,520 internally displaced people, mostly due to acute drought and food emergencies.
Refugee Flows into Ethiopia
Most countries in the Horn of Africa both send and receive refugees due to overlapping conflicts and precarious environmental conditions. Refugees in Ethiopia mainly come from Sudan and Somalia, and a growing number are from Eritrea (see Table 1).
At least some of the Sudanese refugees, most of whom fled civil wars in southern Sudan, may return home. A comprehensive peace agreement was signed in January 2005, and, in May 2006, UNHCR began voluntary repatriations on a relatively small scale. According to UNHCR, approximately 14,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, some of whom have been refugees since the 1980s, have expressed a desire to return.
Table 1. Refugee and Asylee Population in Ethiopia
Another important group of refugees in Ethiopia are Somalis. Arriving both during the Ogaden War and following the fall of Mohammad Said Barre's government in 1991, approximately 620,000 Somalis settled mainly among co-ethnics in the Ogaden. Political scientist Bezaiet Dessalegn reports that, since 1997, six Somali refugee camps have been closed due to the successful repatriation of 222,033 individuals.
But Somalis are not limited to refugee camps in Ethiopia. According to the Somali Community of Ethiopia, a charity based in Addis Ababa, about 60,000 Somalis live in the capital.
The country also hosts smaller numbers of refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Uganda, South Africa, and Yemen.
The Ethiopian Diaspora
Unlike many other 20th-century migrations from the developing world to the countries that colonized them, Ethiopians could not follow a well-worn path. The brief Italian occupation was characterized by limited mobility and a minimal presence.
As late as 1976, only 2,345 Ethiopians had settled permanently in Italy, which only recently transitioned from being an immigrant-sending country to a receiving country. As sociologists Dylan Riley and Rebecca Jean Emigh observe, for much of the 20th century Italy was inhospitable to migrants.
Ethiopians who live in the West are overwhelmingly concentrated in the United States and Israel, but they are also located in Sweden, Germany, France, Greece, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, and New Zealand (see Table 2).
Ethiopians do not only migrate to developed countries. World Bank economists Dilip Ratha and William Shaw estimate that, in 2005, two in five migrants around the globe were residing in developing countries. Indeed, five of the top-15 destination countries for Ethiopians were in the developing world — mainly in the Middle East and Africa.
Table 2. Table 2. Number of Ethiopian Foreign Born by Country of Residence, circa 2000
If the descendants of Ethiopian-born migrants (the second generation and up) are included, the estimates range upwards of 460,000 in the United States (of which approximately 350,000 are in Washington, DC; 96,000 in Los Angeles; and 10,000 in New York); 90,000 in Saudi Arabia; 30,000 in Italy, and 30,000 in Lebanon. In 2005, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the Ethiopian-origin population was 105,500.
Most Ethiopian immigrants take an indirect path to the West. In one survey of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States and France, Tassé Abye found that the majority spent between one and three years in countries on Ethiopia's periphery, mainly Djibouti, Sudan, and Kenya.
Similarly, in a survey of urban Ethiopians in Cairo, social scientist Dereck Cooper found that most saw their stay in Egypt as a temporary step before further emigration to the West although a majority had already spent time in various other countries, including Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Kenya, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and the former East Germany.
Statistics from the United States Department of Homeland Security show that of all Ethiopian citizens admitted to the United States between 1998 and 2005, on average around one-quarter did not list Ethiopia as their last country of residence. These data suggest high rates of remigration (see Figure 1).
Abye provides a four-part typology of Ethiopian emigration to the West. The first wave (before 1974) was both small and elite whereas the second wave (1974 to 1982) was larger although still relatively privileged. In a survey of Ethiopians in France, Abye finds that 72 percent of those who arrived before 1974 were from the ruling classes, but that the corresponding figure drops to 50 percent for the second wave.
Abye's third wave (1982 to 1991) was composed mostly of individuals who left Ethiopia under the umbrella of family reunification in the West or left the country as tourists and overstayed their visas. Since the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991, a fourth wave of emigration has occurred, composed mainly of professionals fleeing ethnic violence and political repression.
The U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey counted approximately 103,000 individuals born in Ethiopia, about 12 percent of the country's total African-born population. Admissions of Ethiopians to the United States as lawful permanent residents (LPRs) and refugees, as well as under family reunification, has skyrocketed since the 1970s (see Figure 2).
According to the 2000 U.S. census, of legal residents and U.S. citizens born in Ethiopia, 62 percent entered between 1990 and 2000 while 28 percent entered between 1980 and 1990, and just 9 percent entered before 1980. In a 1991 survey of Ethiopians living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, political scientist Peter Kohen found that 95 percent of the respondents referenced political events or political actors in explaining their reasons for emigrating.
Overall, the profile of Ethiopian-born lawful U.S. residents and U.S. citizens suggests a relatively young, moderately educated population. According to the 2000 census, Ethiopian-born males slightly outnumbered females 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent.
Approximately 29.5 percent of U.S. residents born in Ethiopia age 25 or older had at least a bachelor's degree, and 84.1 percent had a high school education or higher. The median age was 33.7 years old, and nearly 60 percent were between 25 and 44 years old (see Figure 3).
Israel also hosts a large number of Ethiopian-born individuals due to the coincidence of several unique historical circumstances. Concentrated in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar and largely sheltered from contact with the outside world, the Ethiopian Jews historically coexisted relatively harmoniously with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They called themselves "Beta Israel," the house of Israel, although their neighbors labeled them "Falashas," or "aliens."
Debates continue as to their origin, but it is widely accepted that their religion was based on many of the same texts and practices as other Jews around the world. In 1769, Scottish explorer James Bruce estimated their population at around 100,000. Nevertheless, they remained largely isolated from the historical events of World War II that dramatically changed the Jewish world. That isolation, however, did not last long.
In 1950, the newly created state of Israel passed the Law of Return, which granted Israeli citizenship to any member of the Jewish nation. By 1955, a small number of Ethiopian Jews began to immigrate to Israel.
In 1974, the Derg made emigration illegal, closed Ethiopia's borders, and banned religious practices. The Beta Israel, along with other religious communities, were subjected to discrimination. Starting in 1977, the Beta Israel began to leave their homes in Ethiopia in what anthropologist Gadi BenEzer has deemed an "illegal and highly traumatic exodus to Israel."
Two routes were possible: via Sudan or via Kenya, although the former was far more popular and ultimately only about 600 Ethiopian Jews escaped through the Kenyan route. An estimated 4,000 perished during the journey due to the severe conditions.
With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ethiopia and the opening of an Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa in 1989, the Sudanese and Kenyan routes became unnecessary, and the Beta Israel who remained in Ethiopia migrated to the capital in hopes of exiting the country legally.
The emigration of Ethiopians to Israel continues but has since slowed, averaging around 300 individuals per month as of January 2007. In 2005, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics counted 72,800 foreign born from Ethiopia and approximately 32,700 Israeli-born individuals of Ethiopian origin. Approximately 60 percent of the Ethiopian foreign born arrived in Israel between 1990 and 2005, while 22 percent arrived in the 1980s or earlier and 18 percent came between 2002 and 2005.
In comparison to the age profile of Ethiopians in the United States, Ethiopians in Israel were much younger (see Figure 4), having a median age of just 20.5. Nearly half (approximately 49 percent) were under 20.
The 2001 Canadian census counted approximately 15,700 individuals of Ethiopian origin in 2001, of which approximately 10,900 were in the province of Ontario. Although a few arrived as students before the 1970s upheavals, most came as refugees during the 1980s. According to the Multicultural Canada Initiative, early arrivals generally were young, single men and although many women later arrived, a gender imbalance is still noticeable. As is largely the pattern among Ethiopians in the West, the majority arrived in Canada after having spent time in other countries, notably Egypt, Kenya, Italy, and Greece.
Europe also hosts a significant population of Ethiopians. Admitted mainly under the aegis of refugee resettlement programs, they are concentrated in Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Approximately 2,000 Ethiopian refugees — 80 percent of whom are formerly displaced peasants — were resettled in New Zealand. Most are ethnic Amharas and Oromos and are concentrated in Auckland with significantly smaller communities in Wellington and Christchurch. A similarly small Ethiopian community lives in Australia.
Despite its size, the Ethiopian community in New Zealand is distinctive because so few were educated elites or even middle class. The impact is important: Whereas a women of Ethiopian origin in the United States have, on average, one child, the fertility rate of Ethiopian women in New Zealand is five children per woman — a rate much closer to the average 5.9 children per woman in Ethiopia.
To encourage successful Ethiopians to return home, the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Return and Reintegration of Qualified African Nationals (RQAN) Program began operating in Ethiopia in 1995 with funding from the European Union. Although the program covered relocation expenses and gave returnees a monthly stipend of U.S. $800 for 12 months, only 66 Ethiopians participated between 1995 and 1999, when the program ended.
Indeed, the brain drain problems seems to have grown since the 1970s. A study of four government organizations, including Addis Ababa University, conducted by Dr. Dejene Aredo found that approximately 35 percent of Ethiopian professionals sent overseas for training between 1982 and 1997 did not return. Medical professionals were least likely to return, and generally, a higher level of education correlated with a greater probability to remain abroad. David H. Shinn, U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia between 1996 and 1999, told the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association in November 2002 that only one Ethiopian-born physician practiced outside of Ethiopia in 1974.
Shinn cited another report that found that only 200 of the 600 Addis Ababa academic staff sent abroad for study between 1980 and 2000 returned. The return rate of Ethiopian students was even lower: Of the 22,700 sent abroad to study during the Derg era, between 1980 and 1991, only 25 percent came home.
The Ethiopian Government's Approach to Its Diaspora
The Ethiopian government has a "very active" approach to diaspora affairs according to the results of a 2004 IOM survey. In January 2002, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs inaugurated a General Directorate in Charge of Expatriate Affairs to (1) serve as a liaison between the government and the diaspora; (2) encourage the active involvement of the diaspora in socioeconomic activities in Ethiopia; (3) safeguard the rights and privileges of Ethiopians abroad; and (4) mobilize the diaspora to improve the public image of Ethiopia.
According to Feisel Abrahim, minister counselor of community affairs at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, DC, an important part of the General Directorate's mission is to encourage investment. The World Bank's 2006 Development Indicators Database indicated that recorded workers' remittances to Ethiopia grew from U.S.$18 million in 2001 to U.S.$174 million in 2005 — an increase of over 300 percent. By comparison, remittances to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole grew around 88 percent over the same period.
In July 2004, the Ethiopian government approved the creation of domestic accounts in foreign currency for Ethiopians abroad although limits were placed on the balance such accounts could maintain. According to Directive No. FXD/25/2004, the balance of foreign currency denominated accounts must be between U.S.$100 and U.S.$5,000 and must be denominated in either U.S. dollars, pounds sterling, euros, or Japanese yen.
While Ethiopia does not grant dual citizenship, since 2002 it has offered Ethiopian Origin Identity cards to Ethiopians who hold foreign citizenship. According to Abrahim, the cards entitle the holder to all Ethiopian-citizen rights except for the right to vote.
A number of new issues surrounding migration out of Ethiopia have emerged in recent years, and among the most troubling is the trafficking of young women to Middle Eastern countries. Frequently, these women are snared unknowingly into the network of illegal migration. The most vulnerable are women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are high school dropouts with poorer families living in the Addis Ababa area.
There have been numerous reports of traffickers taking advantage of these migrants, according to Alem Brook, national program coordinator of the counter-trafficking program for IOM in Addis Ababa: "The most recurrent forms of abuse are overwork, confinement, denial of wages, emotional abuse, beatings, sexual harassment, and rape. The recurrent perpetrators of abuse are employers, agents and the police. Death, physical disability, psychological and health problems as well as imprisonment are the prevalent documented effects of abuse and exploitation."
Complicating the issue is the tendency of many Ethiopian migrants in Middle Eastern countries to change their Christian names to Muslim names in order to facilitate the visa process. Tracing these migrants, who essentially have two identities, poses a great challenge for the Ethiopian government.
According to an IOM survey, approximately 43 percent of Ethiopian emigrants used the services of illegal employment agents, and another 14 percent did not know the status of their agent. The result is a perilous journey to Yemen through Somalia and across the strait of Bab el-Mandeb where overloaded boats risk the waters, occasionally capsizing.
Abebe Biazen, consul general of Ethiopia in Yemen, estimated in December 2006 that 500 Ethiopians try to enter Yemen each week. Many are destined for nearby countries, such as Saudi Arabia, although some remain. According to Biazen, 10,000 Ethiopians were registered as legal residents in Yemen.
In November 2006, IOM organized the voluntary repatriation of Ethiopians stranded in Somalia unable to either continue to the Arabian Peninsula or to return to Ethiopia without assistance. During that month, IOM repatriated 238 of the estimated 4,000 Ethiopians.
Refugee flows between Somalia and Ethiopia are once again threatening to resume as conflict between the two nations escalated in late 2006 and early 2007. Ethiopia invaded Somalia to protect the UN-backed transitional government against a rising Islamist government. By March 2007, UNHCR counted 57,000 people who had fled violence in Somalia between Ethiopian troops and Somali insurgents.
New flows out of Ethiopia may be in store due to an uncertain political outlook after the reelection, in May 2005, of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. According to the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, voting irregularities plagued the elections, and both political oppression and violence have since surged.
Ana Maria Gomes, the European Union's chief election observer in Ethiopia, confirmed both voting irregularities and human rights violations in her October 2006 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation. In his March 2006 statement to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto pressed the Meles government to demonstrate its commitment to democracy.
More recently, the media have reported the growing popularity of Ethiopia as a transit point for South Asian migrants en route to Europe via North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. Comprehensive studies of the phenomenon have yet to be done, but if research confirms the anecdotal evidence, Ethiopia could once again find itself at the intersection of complex and multidirectional flows of humanity.
The author gratefully acknowledges feedback on this article from Blessing Uchenna Mberu of the Population Studies and Training Center and Department of Sociology, Brown University, and from Peter Koehn, Professor of Political Science at the University of Montana.
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