A 17-year-old-girl's hope for a better life turns into a frightening journey

Tigray region, Ethiopia

By Ruth Regassa and Tsegay Woldegebriel
Lemlem and her siblings at their home in Hawelti kebele
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019

29 August 2019

Lemlem (17) is the third-born in a family of seven siblings. Her family lives in a one-roomed hut and she survives through subsistence agriculture, like most families in Hawelti village, Tigray region. Hawelti has a population of 12,000 and is located in Raya Azebo district, which has been identified as chronically food insecure. The government's Safety Net Program provides cash transfers to households living in extreme poverty.

Lemlem completed primary school but could not continue due to lack of money and the absence of a secondary school in the area. She stayed home, undertaking some menial tasks around the neighbouring farms to earn an income. Like many young people in the area, Lemlem felt that her situation was hopeless. Young people, including children, had often migrated from the village through the neighbouring Afar region, which borders Djibouti, in search of a better life in the Middle East or Europe. The dangers and risks of exploitation were immense.

With encouragement from other young people, what she describes as peer pressure, Lemlem decided to risk it all and undertook the journey.

“I travelled because I needed money to construct a house with iron sheets for my family,” she says.

The Journey to Yemen

In February 2019, together with three boys from the village, Lemlem set on a journey to Saudi Arabia through Afar, Djibouti, and Yemen. She had only her small savings, part of which she used to pay a transport broker. Information about transport, the route, and stopovers was readily available in the village.

The four friends travelled by car for six hours to reach Wuhalemate in Afar region. From there, the quartet was joined by other young people making the same journey. It took them four days to cross the desert to Djibouti, all the while hiding from authorities. To raise funds for the rest of the journey, Lemlem and her friends found work on a commercial farm.

When they reached the Red Sea, smugglers told them to pay 45,000 Ethiopian Birr (about US$1,500) for the eight-hour boat ride to Yemen. As they didn’t have the money, they promised the smugglers their families in Ethiopia would pay. The four friends boarded the boat and set sail for Yemen.

Back home, Lemlem's parents were told their daughter would be tortured and burned alive if the money was not paid. As a consequence, Lemlem’s parents sold their two cows and borrowed 20,000 Birr to pay the smugglers. Lemlem and her friends were held by the smugglers in Yemen until the fees were paid a month later.

After release, the quartet, along with other migrants, were rounded up and arrested by Yemeni authorities in the city of Aden. Their arrest spelt the end of the journey. The four were detained in a stadium in Aden for three months as they awaited humanitarian assistance.

Rescue and support

Lemlem and her friends accepted to voluntarily return to Ethiopia. They were profiled and their families identified. On arrival in Addis Ababa, they were met by social workers who facilitated their reunification and reintegration.

Lemlem’s mother was elated to hear that her daughter was coming home. Eager to see her, she went to the place in town where the returnees were arriving.

“Seeing her again was like a miracle. We gave everything we had to the smugglers; we have nothing left. However, I am happy to get my daughter back.”

Lemlem’s mother is adamant that her daughter won’t attempt the journey that almost took her life. Lemlem says she was scared to death, especially during the sea-crossing, and vows to never put herself in such a situation again. She hopes to start a business to change her life.

Taemo Hadis, a social worker in the village, advised Lemlem to take a loan from a community-based scheme where resources have been mobilized from the community to support vulnerable members with start-up capital. Additionally, Community Care Coalitions give 5,000 Birr from a revolving fund to individuals from poor households like Lemlem’s.

UNICEF Collaboration and Multisectoral Interventions

Voluntary return of migrants is facilitated through the collaborative efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Yemen Red Cross, UNICEF Yemen and the International Organization for Migration. Through UNICEF and IOM collaboration, 2,833 migrants, nearly half of them minors, have been profiled in Yemen. In Addis Ababa, the Government of Ethiopia, IOM, UNICEF, International Red Cross, Ethiopian Red Cross Society, and other local civil society organisations organize resources and technical expertise to support the arrival, reunification and reintegration of returnees.

UNICEF Ethiopia, in partnership with the Addis Ababa Bureau of Women, Children and Youth, supports the deployment of four permanent social workers as part of overall systems strengthening. The social workers facilitate profiling, assessment, family tracing and reunification of all migrant children passing through the IOM transit centre in Addis Ababa.

Part of UNICEF's support to successful family tracing and reunification of children on the move in Ethiopia has been made possible through funding from the UK's Department for International Development under the project “Children on the Move: Ending Violence, Abuse and Exploitation of Children."