Heightened risks as thousands of migrants return to Ethiopia amid the coronavirus pandemic
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Berhan Berhe, 17, thought he could secure a brighter future for his family when he travelled abroad to find work. Like many young people, he decided to travel to Saudi Arabia via Djibouti and Yemen from his home in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia. However, his dreams were shattered when he was captured in Yemen by human traffickers. He is one of many young people who embark on this nightmarish journey only to face trafficking, kidnapping, abuse and torture until they pay ransom.
After enduring five months of captivity, Berhan was released by his captors without paying ransom. He proceeded to Saudi Arabia where he was detained by authorities upon arrival. After a month in detention, he was deported to Ethiopia where he says he has a chance to reunite with his family and rebuild his life. Yet that chance has to wait because, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Berhan and other returnees need to go through a 14-day quarantine to ensure they are in good health and have not been infected with the virus. With more returnees expected this month, the resulting demands on the country’s health system are unprecedented. At the time of writing, Ethiopia had reported 85 cases of coronavirus and three deaths.
Berhan’s story is like that of thousands of other young people who have embarked on similar treacherous journeys, only to find dangers they had not known existed. After his father passed away, he dropped out of school in third grade and assumed the responsibility of taking care of his family through farming.
“I believed if I went to Saudi Arabia, I would be able to support my mother and three siblings,” he says. Due to limited rain, he was unable to harvest much crop. He reached out to a broker who promised to smuggle him out of the country.
“When we were captured [by traffickers], there were 115 of us in one small room. We were given two slices of bread per day with little water,” he says.
Now back in his country, Berhan is among hundreds of returnees that have arrived in Ethiopia in the last few weeks. Medical doctors and social workers at the quarantine centers are grappling with the growing numbers of returnees.
"Upon arrival, we try to put them in one room each and check for symptoms and fever," says Dr Minyahel Taye, a general practitioner at the Civil Service University Quarantine Centre. "If we find any symptoms or high fever, we take them to a prepared isolation area. Apart from COVID-19, we are also on the lookout for other infectious diseases they might have been exposed to during captivity."
The sudden surge in returnees is straining local capacities, especially the health system. In total, 3,273 returnees have been registered and quarantined at various centers the government has set up in Addis Ababa, including 434 unaccompanied children, 135 of them girls.
Turusew Getahun, a social worker, is working to identify, profile and register unaccompanied children at the center. All unaccompanied minors are classified as vulnerable migrants hence the social workers, in addition to profiling and registering them, identify their needs, look for signs of abuse requiring follow-up services, and obtain information about their families. The latter information is important for initiating a detailed assessment, family tracing, and reunification. In cases where a reunification with the family is not possible, alternative care arrangements are explored in cooperation with social workers or community service workers in their places of origin.
The social workers also identify children who need mental health and psychosocial support. Some of these children will have gone through difficult experiences which include threats by brokers and incarceration in detention centres. The social workers provide basic counselling and refer children with deep psychosocial distress to specialised therapy.
Turusew says she looks forward to reuniting the children with their families when the quarantine is over. In the meantime, she wants them to be protected from COVID-19 during their quarantine.
“Although information [about COVID-19] is being given to all returnees, children [and young people] require specific support and child-focused messaging to help them understand how to protect themselves from the virus,” she says.
“Children need to be prioritized and separated because they are more likely to worry and stress more from hearing about COVID19,”says Goshu Brehane, another social worker at the center. “We also need to prioritize their return once we trace their families.”
Berhan is not disappointed that he was unable to achieve his dream in Saudi Arabia.
“I have seen the dangers and I don’t want to go back. But I hope to find work now that I am back home and be able to support my family.”
The International Organization for Migration and UNICEF are supporting the government to register the returnees, identify those who are vulnerable, especially children, and ensure they are referred to appropriate services based on identified needs. The work also includes tracing the families of unaccompanied children, ensuring the children return safely to their homes, and supporting their reintegration in the community. The two agencies are also supplying the returnees with dignity kits, soap, water where needed, recreational kits, tents, beddings, and other essential non-food items. IOM is supporting the government to develop and implement a plan for the sustainable reintegration of vulnerable returnees.The International Organization for Migration is supporting the government to develop and implement a plan for the sustainable reintegration of vulnerable returnees.
With financial support from the UK’s Department for International Development, UNICEF is implementing a two-year programme to improve protections for children and young people like Berhe. The plan includes training social workers, identifying vulnerable children early, and developing a data management system.