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Humanity before Ethnicity

Ethiopians Who Fall Prey to Human Traffickers on Rise as
Government of Ethiopia Cracks Down on Freedom


As Europe struggles to respond to the growing number of African migrants, root causes should not be ignored. In the case of Ethiopia, one of the largest refugee-sending countries in Africa, what are the conditions that compel Ethiopians to take such life-threatening risks? Are there humane and sustainable solutions for receiving countries beyond simply coping? Is it time to examine how one’s own policies may either deter or contribute to root problems?

Thank you for inviting me to speak on this important but difficult topic. I will be giving an overview of the current conditions in Ethiopia; particularly in light of the overwhelming influx of refugees into Europe. African migration to Europe has become an overwhelming challenge on the continent as efforts to democratize Africa continue to fail in most places. Ethiopia is an example. There are no easy answers, but understanding is always the foundation for the best solutions.

Many of us feel especially touched by this topic after the recent tragic shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, where 500 people, mostly African migrants, were crowded onto an unsafe boat, which eventually lost power, caught on fire and sunk. Only 155 people were saved. The display of their coffins has left heart-wrenching images in our minds. Only four days prior to this, 13 other African migrants drowned off the coast of Sicily. These are only the ones we know about. Most of the victims were reported to be Eritreans and Somalis—two countries of immense suffering; however, Ethiopians were also among the dead and were also possibly underreported due to the practice of Ethiopians taking on Eritrean nationality as a short-cut to being accepted for asylum. 

To outsiders, these people are undocumented African migrants, but to us, they are our family members and neighbors. To their families, each has a name, an age and a story behind them. The pain we are feeling as fellow humans when seeing these coffins, especially the small white ones holding young children, is heart-rending; imagine how difficult it will be to the deceased’s loved ones?

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres surely felt it as he praised the rescue of those who survived the incident at Lampedusa, but decried the “rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea.”[1] Some 15,000 migrants enter Italy every year, but this year some put that count much higher.

Italy, as a common country of entry, has pressed the European Union for more help[2] in dealing with the huge influx of mostly African migrants, saying it’s a crisis that concerns the entire 28-nation bloc. However, refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia are fleeing not only to Europe but also to other parts of Africa, the Middle East[3], North America, Asia and beyond.

Many of those fleeing their countries use the services of human traffickers. These traffickers can make exorbitant profits while disregarding the lives and well being of those in their care. Human trafficking has become a global problem. In Europe, the reality of the dangers involved in the journeys of these refugees is hard to conceive. In the troubled region of East Africa, the numbers and movements of people are overwhelming.[4]

A recent news account tells us of an Ethiopian political dissident who paid a human trafficker over $3000 (USD) to take him and others to South Africa.  He reports that most of them were crammed in the back of a truck where they were hidden under wood, sixteen died. Others died when left for five days in the bush with no food or water. While in the bush, he learned of other Ethiopians using another trafficker who loaded them on a boat to cross Lake Malawi. It capsized and 47 of them died. He heard of another truck where Ethiopians also were packed in the back of a truck; 42 of them suffocated to death. The driver dumped the dead bodies on the side of the road along with 85 survivors and drove off. [5]

The UN refugee agency announced on October 6 that some 107,500 African refugees and migrants made the perilous sea journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2012, arriving in smuggler’s boats.  It was the largest such influx since UNHCR began compiling these statistics in 2006. Some 84,000, or more than 80 per cent, of the arrivals were Ethiopian nationals, some en route to states in the Persian Gulf.[6]

In Saudi Arabia, refugees and Ethiopians, desperate for work, have become a casualty of the great hardship many of them have faced there. Regular reports tell us of suicides, beatings, sexual abuse, working as slave laborers and of murder, both of Ethiopians and by some. One report indicates that 90% of those hospitalized for mental illness in Saudi Arabia are Ethiopian women.[7]

The question I will attempt to answer today is: what accounts for this stream of such great numbers of people? What makes people take such perilous journeys where so many die along the way? Are they simply economic refugees seeking a better life or do they have legitimate claims for asylum? What is the Ethiopia of today like that Ethiopia has become a major sending country of its people to destinations all over the world?

One of the US policy makers recently told me that we must do something about Ethiopia because it is the number one exporter of human beings. The Ethiopian government’s claims of double-digit growth seem to have little effect on reducing the numbers of people undertaking great risks to leave their homes and families behind. Many die on the way or languish in countries hostile to them or where they are not welcome.[8]  Why? 

For European countries like Switzerland, how can you respond to these people in a way that maintains your integrity, compassion and view on the dignity of all human beings? As the home of the United Nations, you are a pivotal country in influencing a humane response, yet, as a small country, the needs of these refugees, multiplied by their increasing numbers, calls for a more comprehensive solution that goes beyond your own borders to other countries affected by the same.

Simply said, the problem of the Ethiopian refugee started in Ethiopia and will not change, but only get worse, unless we focus on solutions to its root causes and to those factors which are either obstacles or facilitators to change. The fact that many European countries are trying to cope with the same problem, calls for a more coordinated and comprehensive European-based approach, which could actually positively impact this situation. 

I will attempt to summarize a very complex issue in the short time we have today, hoping it will contribute towards the search for ways to not only deal with the refugees in our midst but also to the alleviation of the suffering of Ethiopians living under a repressive government. This is central to the mission of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) of which I am the executive director. We are a social justice movement of diverse Ethiopians seeking to advance truth, freedom, justice, equality, respect for human rights and prosperity in Ethiopia.

We strongly contend that the future well being of our global society rests in the hands of those among us who can put “humanity before ethnicity,” religion or any other distinctions that divide and dehumanize other human beings from ourselves; inspiring us to care about these “others”; not only because of the intrinsic God-given value of each life, but also because “none of us is free until all are free.” We are having this meeting here in Switzerland today because Ethiopia is not free.                      Current State of Political rights and Civil Liberties in Ethiopia:

In Freedom House’s 2013 Index of Freedom, Ethiopia’s rating is “NOT FREE,” the same rating it has earned in the last three years.[9] Another part of that study was Freedom of the Net. Out of the sixty countries in the study that earned a lower score in terms of Freedom on the Net than Ethiopia were Syria, China (PRC), Cuba and Iran. This should speak for itself. A quick comparison of political and civil rights between Switzerland and Ethiopia reveals vast differences, with the higher scores being desirable:

Political rights:                                                      Switzerland          Ethiopia                     

  1. Electoral process                                               12                            1   
  2. Political pluralism and participation                     16                           2
  3. Functioning of government                                11                           4

Civil liberties:

  1. Freedom of expression and belief                        16                           3
  2. Associational and organizational rights                12                           0
  3. Rule of law                                                         14                           3
  4. Personal Autonomy and individual rights            15                           5

In terms of their study on Freedom of the Press, Ethiopia, again considered “not free,” was near to the bottom at position 44[10] out of a total of 49 Sub-Saharan African countries and 175 out of 197 countries worldwide[11]. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 79 journalists have been exiled, more than any other nation. Most notable are Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, and others who have been targeted through the use of draconian laws meant to silence the most courageous voices of freedom.  Two of these laws bear mentioning:

  1. Anti-terrorism Proclamation (2009): In 2012, Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu—both nominated for the Sakharov prize in the European Parliament—as well as numbers of others were sentences to years in prison, being accused of terrorism; anyone who speaks out against the government can be charged with this crime and sentenced to years in prison.
  1. Charities and Societies Proclamation: This law restricts civil society by making it illegal for organizations receiving more than 10% of its funding from foreign sources to advocate for human rights, child’s rights, rights for the disabled, women’s rights, conflict resolution between religious groups or ethnicities and other legitimate roles carried out by such non-governmental organizations and institutions. The law has closed down the work of more than 2,600 civic organizations and in their place have risen pro-government look-alike organizations.

Ethiopia’s Current Governance Post-Meles

Despite the death of the former prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, whose death was officially announced in August 2012, little has changed for the people of Ethiopia. His successor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, now has taken Meles’ place but was never part of the ethnic-based Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) that has ruled the country for over twenty years under the guise of the multi-party, Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front (EPRDF). He appears to have little control over the party and what happens in Ethiopia; instead, the power remains in the hands of some in the central committee. 

The entire system of dictatorship was set into place by Meles before he died and has not been dismantled at his death. He fathered an increasingly authoritarian government following the more open election of 2005 when the opposition nearly succeeded in challenging the status quo. Two million Ethiopians came out in protest of a flawed election, protestors were shot and killed, opposition leaders were jailed and in the years preceding the 2010 national election, the regime heavily cracked down on dissent, the media, journalists, political groups, and civic institutions. Reports from Human Rights Watch give evidence of the misuse of aid money to gain support for the government during the election. The TPLF/EPRDF won by 99.6% of the votes—or so they claimed.

Since the new prime minister was appointed, many were hoping for some reforms or at least hints of change; however, most people now agree that he has no power to enact such changes even if he wanted to do so. The goal of the central committee is clearly to continue to hold power by any means.

PM Hailemariam and the TPLF/EPRDF will face elections in 2015, but few expect there to be an opening up of political space, as the ruling party has demonstrated that it seeks self-survival above all else. However, new pressures may test them.

Peaceful protests by Muslims, UDJ and Blue Party a highlight

On the positive side, since Meles’ death, a highlight has been the peaceful rallies organized by several groups. One of those groups has been the Muslim religious community which has been peacefully rallying mostly within their own compound for over a year now. They have been demanding freedom from government interference in their internal religious affairs. Numbers of people, including some of the organizers, were arrested and beaten despite the peaceful way it was conducted and its legitimate claims. It should be understood, in Ethiopia, Muslims, Christians, Jews and others have a long history of living together peacefully; however, the regime is actively propagating a negative image of our Ethiopian Muslims in order to sway opinion. The Muslims are not alone in facing government interference in religious matters for the regime has done the same in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, dividing the church in two.  

Another rally, held in June by members of the Blue Party was the first of its kind since the post-election rally of 2005 and unexpectedly drew thousands of diverse people. A second rally planned in late September was sabotaged by regime officials when they planned another staged rally at the same time and closed off the streets. 

Just a week ago another rally was held by Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), also known as Andinet, where some were detained simply for exercising their constitutional rights. Former Ethiopian President Negussa Gidada was an organizer. When others were detained, he openly took responsibility and was also detained but later released. These developments have come amidst the confusion or readjustment following Meles’ death, which some see as a sign of hope, however small.  

However, just this week, Prime Minister Hailemariam stated publically that they now had proof that protest organizers were linked to terrorist groups operating in the country, a ploy used repeatedly in the past to vilify the opposition, particularly by claiming they are terrorists. In fact, this TPLF regime has committed its own terrorism in the country, not only in the last years of significant human rights abuses, but also when they were still fighting in the bush for power. At the time, the U.S. State Department had classified the TPLF as a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group before they overthrew the communist regime of Mengistu in 1991.

The opposition leaders at Ethiopia are doing their best but have not yet achieved the large public response necessary to gain enough leverage to press for change or to develop into a real alternative to the TPLF/EPRDF party. A primary reason is the government’s obstruction of any political space. Because of this, the future direction of the country remains unclear with no meaningful signs of reform.

Regime’s monopoly and corrupt practices exclude majority from gains

The economic future remains very grim for Ethiopians. Although the government under Meles claimed double-digit economic growth—though some question the reliability of the data—and despite economic forecasts that still anticipate 7% growth in the economy, little of this is trickling down to the majority. Instead, the gap between the rich and the poor is expanding as many are forcibly excluded from participating in the economy unless they become party members.

Many of the young are unemployed, even if educated. Advancement is not based on competence but on affiliations. TPLF insiders and their cronies enjoy most the opportunities for economic gain. In fact, many Ethiopians are worse off, especially some of the poorest within the country whose indigenous land is being taken away, leaving them landless, hungry, displaced, and without a means of livelihood. Many of these have left the country or are internally displaced.

Economic growth is now associated with a dramatic rise in corruption. Those in power have achieved great wealth through its monopoly of all sectors of society, including regional and local governments, tax perks, the judiciary, the media, the press, the military, telecommunications, the financial system, land administration, institutions and every facet of society. Opportunities related to education, private sector and government jobs, business permits and deals, government contracts, loans and credit and other perks are closely associated with being a government crony.  

A study by the task force for Global Financial Integrity (GFI) for the year 2009 found evidence of a huge rise in financial corruption, money laundering, mispricing and illicit financial practices in Ethiopia leading to 3.26 billion (USD) leaving the country in that one year. They report the country lost a total of 11.7 billion (USD) from the year 2000 to 2009. Impunity against criminal charges exists for the well-connected people and government officials but corruption charges, legitimate or manufactured, can be used as punitive measures against the non-compliant or political enemies. 

Under the current system, a small group of power-holders have been able to exploit the country’s national treasury, national assets and national resources such as its agricultural land, abundant water and minerals like gold as long as they were loyal to Meles and the party. In his absence, that impunity may not last as internal power struggles have caused splits within the cabinet. 

One of those most affected by these power shifts is Meles’ widow, Azeb Mesfin, who allegedly was recently accused of corruption.  She used to wield power while Meles was alive, even heading up the huge TPLF business conglomerate, EFFORT, which accounts for close to half of the economy; however, all of this is changing. In May 2013, a government crackdown on corruption led to the arrest of 50 prominent people.[12] Some believe it is a theatrical maneuver by the regime to appear to be dealing with endemic corruption, but it also might be a way to target this major political opponent, Azeb Mesfin and her camp of supporters. No one is certain what the final outcome will be but few expect the economy to open up to others.

Serial and widespread human rights violations:

I would not be speaking to you today if it were not for the 2003 massacre and subsequent ongoing egregious human rights abuses of people of my own ethnicity by TPLF/ERPDF regime forces, which led me to this advocacy work, later expanding to a national movement. Human rights investigations revealed that plans, Operation Sunny Mountain, were initiated at the top offices in the country and carried out in a dark corner of Ethiopia where they thought no one would see or care. It was related to the exploitation of oil resources on indigenous Anuak land. Those wells were dry but two thousand Anuak lost their lives. 

Now, the indigenous land of the people of Gambella is being leased to foreign investors and regime cronies under secretive deals that fail to benefit the people. Investigations by the Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch reveal that 70,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their land, contrary to international laws protecting indigenous land and prohibiting the deportation of a people group. Those who refused were threatened, beaten, arrested, raped and some were killed.

Evidence has emerged from investigations that donor aid monies were used in the forced resettlement of these people-- called villagization—as people were moved to areas where services were absent, where land was inferior and un-cleared of trees, and where access to clean water was more difficult. People often ended up living under trees until they built their own huts from foraged materials. Hunger, sickness and hardship prevailed. 

An appeal by some of those affected by the displacement in Gambella, where World Bank funds were misused, and another case involving grave human rights abuses where development monies from the UK were misused in the process, have resulted in a World Bank investigation and a lawsuit against the UK’s international development department, DFID. Warnings and reports of the misuse of funds had been given to the World Bank and DFID, but allegedly had been ignored.[13]

Resource grabs and human rights atrocities have gone hand in hand in Ethiopia. Rampant human rights abuses are ongoing throughout every region of the country, like in the Omo Valley, Oromia, Afar and the Ogaden. Those who protest for their legitimate rights or against the exploitation face the greatest threats.                                            Desperate to Leave

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of development aid in Africa,[14] with donors including many of the free countries of the West.  The TPLF/ERPDF ethnic-based government of Ethiopia speaks the rhetoric of democracy and human rights and associates with western leaders at places like the G-20; however, the country remains one of the poorest and among the most repressive in the world.

Oppression and poverty, when combined with the lack of opportunity or hope, causes tens of thousands of Ethiopians to leave the country. Additionally, the results of the Global Slavery Index 2013[15] show that Ethiopia ranks as the fifth worst out of the ten countries in the world that account for three-quarters of people subjected to human slavery.

Countries where these Ethiopians are seeking asylum fail to understand or admit the dire conditions and threat of harm these refugees face due to this repressive government. Authorities may embrace the democratic double-talk advanced by the TPLF/ERPDF, convincing them that Ethiopia is stable—not like Eritrea or Somalia—but it is not true. However, the result has been that Ethiopians are treated differently and with less concern. People should not be fooled by the government’s claims and assurances, for if it were true, there would not be such a flood of Ethiopians leaving the country for other places.

Are there solutions?

The solution of the refugee problem must rest in the hands of the Ethiopian people, their leaders and political groups.  Having said this, others can also play a supporting role, especially those countries who are dealing with the impact of Ethiopian migrants. These countries can become part of the solution. The world learned of the 500 people seeking refuge only after most of them drowned. Had they succeeded, they would have been on your doorstep, seeking asylum. Avoiding the problem will not stop the tragedies or the influx of desperate people. The lasting solution is to have a country with a good government, one that cares for its people and where its people can flourish. 

Each donor country or those who have concerns for the refugees have a stake in this. In the case of Ethiopia, please listen to what political prisoner Eskinder Nega[16] writes in a recent letter from his prison cell in Ethiopia where he says: 

European aid has transformed my country’s economy but also props up one-party rule. Let EU donors give us democracy… The theatrical blustering of the Ethiopian government, notwithstanding donor countries have a make-or-break power over Ethiopia’s prosperity. And European aid has done wonderful things in Ethiopia. But an aid policy tied only to economic and social needs is only half complete; a comprehensive approach entails a linkage with politics.

Aid should also strengthen democratic institutions. Here is where European donors' policy falters dramatically. The unintended consequence of indifference to democratic accountability translates into the subsidy and reinforcement of tyranny. The time for reassessment has come. After two decades of one-party rule, Ethiopia is visibly aching for change. Even the traditionally placid Sufi Muslim community is increasingly restless. There is clear danger of communal strife.

As a prisoner of conscience committed to peaceful transition to democracy, I urge Europe to apply economic sanctions against Ethiopia. What short-term pain may result will be compensated by long-term gain. A pledge to re-engage energetically with a democratic Ethiopia would act as a catalyst for reform. Sanctions need to be targeted – and the continuity of basic humanitarian aid without precondition is a moral necessity. But the EU should also impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.

We live in an age of global expectations. Our hopes have converged in many ways, none more so than in our democratic aspirations. The moral imperative is for Europe to align with the reform movement in Ethiopia. It is time to stand up for democracy.

We live in a world where the crisis of those outside our borders will come to us whether we like it or not like in the case of Ethiopia. Simply following the existing thinking of some in Europe to simply shut the door on these immigrants is not the solution because they will still find a way to your doorstep in their desperation. Instead, donor countries and the EU should be part of the solution by working with Ethiopians who are struggling to bring freedom and just government to the country.

A government like the TPLF/EPRDF, a one-party minority, which is structured on ethnic based politics is doomed to fail; and when it fails, the consequences flood over to other places. People believe if it is not dealt with carefully, it could explode and the crisis will overflow all the more.[17] When ethnic-based problems got out of control in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Syria, it reaches to the west. A different approach is needed.

We as a social justice group are fighting for an Ethiopian society where our shared humanity trumps any other distinctions such as ethnicity, religious view, political view or background. We believe our shared world has no boundaries and that lasting peace and justice will not come to one country, one continent, or one part of the world without its being impacted by those countries, continents, and regions where people are suffering and remain under tyranny. As we share this world together, there are things to do to help each other, not only when it is too late and it is claimed, “We did not know.” 

After the EU commissioner viewed the coffins from the Lampedusa shipwreck, it was reported that he had asked why one coffin was so large, unaware that a premature baby and his mother were buried together with the umbilical cord still connecting them. The mother had given birth to a son as she had been drowning.  The commissioner was told that when divers recovered their two bodies, the diver that had discovered the bodies of the mother and child said: “We all began to cry—my mask was full of tears.” 

How tragic that a child who had just come into the world that day had his life ended so abruptly. Human trafficking is a thriving business that exploits the desperation of millions of people. How tragic for all those who died and for the many more who will die in the future whose stories we may never know. The tragedy of these lives can only end when we work together to confront evil, starting with tyranny, human trafficking and other structural contributors to the perpetuation of the misery of so many human beings.    

May God, as our Creator, help us to realize that humanity has no superficial boundaries. The suffering, pain and loss we feel is part of the fabric of being human. When we can empathize with the pain of others, we show our shared humanity and make this world a better place for all of us.
Thank you!!                  


Please do not hesitate to e-mail your comments to Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE, at: Obang@solidaritymovement.org. You can find more about us through our website at: www.solidaritymovement.org

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/08/eu-immigration-policy-lampedusa-tragedy EU pressed to rethink immigration policy after Lampedusa tragedyEuropean commissioner calls for EU rescue mission for migrants spanning entire Mediterranean from Spain to Cyprus

[3] http://www.solidaritymovement.org/downloads/121221-RMMS-Monthly-Summary-November-2012.pdf Regional mixed migration summary for November 2012 covering mixed migration events, trends and data for Djibouti, Eritrea/Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Puntland, Somalia, Somaliland and Yemen.

[12] http://ethiopianewsforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=61776&p=375426#p375426; The Depth of Corruption in Ethiopia, 9/24/2013, ADDIS ABABA/LONDON (IPS)

[13] Two new reports from the Oakland Institute, Development Aid to Ethiopia: Overlooking Violence, Marginalization, and Political Repression and Ignoring Abuse in Ethiopia: DFID and USAID in the Lower Omo Valley, show how Western development assistance is supporting forced evictions and massive violations of human rights in Ethiopia.

[14] http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/10/19/development-without-freedom-0 ; Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression

[15] http://ca.news.yahoo.com/thirty-million-people-slaves-half-india-survey-231710875.html; The Global Slavery Index 2013 defines slavery as the possession or control of people to deny freedom and exploit them for profit or sex, usually through violence, coercion or deception. The definition includes indentured servitude, forced marriage and the abduction of children to serve in wars. According to the index, 10 countries alone account for three quarters of the world's slaves. After India, China has the most with 2.9 million, followed by Pakistan (2.1 million), Nigeria (701,000), Ethiopia (651,000), Russia (516,000), Thailand (473,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (462,000), Myanmar (384,000) and Bangladesh (343,000)

[17] http://www.genocidewatch.org/alerts/countriesatrisk2011.html ; Current Countries at Risk of Genocide, Politicide or Mass Atrocities

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