In early March, Hirut* was playing with her toddler at her home in Addis Ababa’s Mekanisa district, when she got a call from an unknown number asking if she wanted to work in the Middle East.
It came as a shock for the 27-year-old, who spent six years as a domestic worker in Kuwait before returning to Ethiopia in 2020.
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“I was afraid because I thought they might be human traffickers and wondered how they found my name and number,” she told Al Jazeera.
The callers told Hirut that they were state employees, who had obtained her file from a government database for returnee migrants from the Middle East.
Since the ‘80s, Ethiopians have been flocking to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait in search of blue-collar jobs, mostly arranged by local Ethiopian recruitment agencies or human traffickers.
This time, the Ethiopian government is overseeing the entire process, including recruitment and advertising.
Administrative documents seen by Al Jazeera reveal plans to recruit as many as half a million women between the ages of 18-40, to send to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic workers.
In early March, notices first began appearing on Facebook and on billboards in Ethiopian towns and cities, urging women to register for employment in Saudi Arabia, at government offices.
Returnees like Hirut who are familiar with the culture and the language are being actively solicited alongside new recruits. In remote areas, public officials, including deputy mayors, are intervening to personally oversee orientation sessions.
“We’re being told that this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” says one recruit attending a session in the northern Amhara region. “I was told that this was a quicker path to success in life than school.”
In a communique, the Amhara region’s East Gojjam district administration said it intended to recruit 13,000 women there.
A state-sponsored recruitment programme
In early 2020, Saudi Arabia temporarily banned labour migration from Ethiopia to curb the spread of COVID-19. The ban was lifted in February and Ethiopian authorities launched their recruitment drive.
“Due to our country’s strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, job opportunities for 500,000 Ethiopians, including 150,000 from [the Amhara] region have been made available,” Tsehaye Bogale, a communications official in Ethiopia’s Amhara regional administration said in an official communique.
Under the programme, women will board flights paid for by the government. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers may earn 1,000 riyals monthly (about $266), more than most jobs on offer in Ethiopia where the per capita annual gross domestic product (GDP) was $925 in 2021.
Federal officials are also hailing the programme as a life-saving endeavour, highlighting the dangers Ethiopians face on perilous journeys along migrant corridors through Yemen and Djibouti.
“Ethiopian and Somali migrants en route to Saudi Arabia can be murdered, or die in road accidents in Yemen and are quickly buried with no follow-up,” said Sagal Abas, an activist and humanitarian worker focusing on migration in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
By removing travel through Yemen from the equation, the Ethiopian government claims that it is containing the danger.
“Our ministry is working to ensure Ethiopians can migrate for work without risking their lives and with their salaries and wellbeing guaranteed,” Amsalu Basha, an official at the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Skills explained in a state media broadcast last month.
He clarified that the request for mass deployment of Ethiopian workers came from the Saudi government.
Amsalu also said that 21-day orientation sessions were being given at 77 locations, mostly college campuses, nationwide, to prepare recruits for life in Saudi Arabia.
Ten of the centres are in Addis Ababa, according to the city’s deputy mayor Jantirar Abay. “[The programme] will prove highly beneficial for our economy in addition to creating jobs, as such it requires our utmost dedication,” he told fellow officials in March.
‘False guarantees of protection’
But human rights experts say they are concerned by the mass recruitment drive, given Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.
In 2020, the European Union Parliament passed a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia after reports of the torture and deaths of Ethiopians in Saudi custody.
Still, many migrant workers remain excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labour laws and are vulnerable under the “kafala” or sponsorship system that has been likened to modern-day slavery – despite regulatory amendments in 2021.
Under the kafala system, a worker loses their documented status if they flee from their employer, even in the case of abuse.
“Saudi Arabia has for years arbitrarily arrested and detained thousands of Ethiopian migrants in the most appalling conditions which amount to torture and degrading treatment, beaten people to death and deported them in their thousands, despite some people’s fear of persecution in Ethiopia,” Nadia Hardman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Refugee and Migrants Rights Division, told Al Jazeera.
“Given the lack of access to detention facilities and a likely inability to monitor the workings of such a plan, it’s alarming to learn of the Ethiopian push to promote a scheme to send thousands of people to work there,” she said.
Officials at one recruitment session in the country’s Oromia region reassured young recruits that “[the ruling party] has taken charge of the process to prevent the harms that come with illegal migration.”
But recruits excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labour protection laws still have no legal redress for abuses.
“Ethiopian authorities should be seeking to ensure full protections, including the dismantling of the kafala system that traps migrants to abusive employers,” Hardman added.” They shouldn’t be pushing women into migrating with false guarantees of protection.”
On April 4, as the first flights ferrying recruits departed for Saudi Arabia, formerly imprisoned Ethiopian migrants including women and children, flew in the opposite direction, on board a deportation flight destined for Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official Gebeyehu Ganga was at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport to receive the deportees.
Emails sent by Al Jazeera to Gebeyehu and Muferiat Kamil, Ethiopia’s Minister of Labour and Skills, were unanswered.
Economic gains versus women’s rights
Officials have repeatedly suggested that remittances from workers abroad could help with the country’s economic woes, given that a two-year civil war, which ended with a truce last November, has severely affected the Ethiopian economy.
But the state would still be unlikely to reap benefits from the programme, say experts like Ayele Gelan, a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.
“Only a small fraction of Ethiopian migrants transfer money through official channels,” he told Al Jazeera. “The bulk of funds end up in the black-market sinkhole.”
Informal migrants account for the largest group of Ethiopian emigrants, but are excluded from official data, according to Ayele who estimates that with proper regulation, total remittance inflows to Ethiopia could have been as high as $6.9bn this year.
Sagal, the activist is simply concerned about the women’s welfare.
“Vulnerable women in Ethiopia are being misled and sold a dream that will risk their lives and anyone can see where this leads,” she said. “Unfortunately, economic gains are being prioritised at the expense of women’s safety and their rights.”
In Addis Ababa, Hirut, despite being unemployed, is unwilling to return to Saudi Arabia for work.
“I went through hell in the Middle East and I won’t go back,” she told Al Jazeera. “My last employer in Kuwait refused to pay me four months of wages. I have no savings and I’m uncertain about tomorrow, but watching my baby boy grow helps me cope with trauma and frees my mind.”
“I’m sad because I feel these women don’t know what awaits them in Saudi Arabia,” she added. “Many will suffer and may even die.”