I witnessed one of the most striking scenes from my reporting on the migration of young Ethiopian women to the Middle East when I interviewed Lettegebriel Hailu and her 16-year-old niece Mebrhit. The teenager was poised, against her family’s wishes, to set off for Israel to work as a domestic servant.
We sat on plush couches and neatly upholstered chairs in the foyer of the domestic abuse shelter that Lettegebriel runs in Addis Ababa. The smoky scent of freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee filled the air. The scene was comfortable, if not the conversation, as Lette translated her young niece’s answers to my questions.
The first part of the interview offered few insights into Mebrhit’s thinking. Like a teenager steeled to get her way, her replies were hushed and to the point. She seemed disinterested in the discussion at hand.
But when I asked Mebrhit about the logistics of traveling to Israel, for the first time she started to open up. And what she had to say must have sent shivers up and down her aunt’s spine.
There are two ways for migrants to leave Ethiopia for the Middle East. They can fly out of Bole International Airport with a legitimate travel visa — for tourism or work abroad — or they can go overland on the “desert route” and cross the border into a neighboring country, usually with the assistance of illegal traffickers. Some head to Djibouti then take a boat to Yemen and eventually make their way to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Others go through Sudan and continue by bus or by foot to their destination country.
If all goes according to plan, they arrive no worse for the adventure. But for even the most discerning and well-traveled migrants, let alone a 16-year-old girl from rural Ethiopia, that is one very big “if.”
According to Mebrhit and her friends who have already braved the passage from Ethiopia to Israel, she will follow her brokers’ instructions — from what to wear and how to behave, to where to go and what to do. She will travel from the Merkato in Addis Ababa to Sudan by bus. She will dress in Muslim attire, covering her face and traveling in slippers. From there, she will cross into Egypt on foot, claim Eritrean nationality and, says Mebrhit, “there’s an obvious place where you go to prison.” In jail, she will make a short telephone call.
Lette interrupts her translation: “She’ll be saying, ‘Send me this amount of money, otherwise I’ll spend the rest of my life in prison.’ Then by hook or crook, we’ll have to get her that money. Once she receives the money, she’ll be let go.”
By that point in the journey, Mebrhit will have memorized her new identity, that of a persecuted Eritrean. Her traffickers will have given her fake Eritrean documents — with a few years added to her age. She will have studied the details of her Eritrean village, the high school she supposedly attended, the names of fictitious family members and concocted stories that demonstrate a youth going nowhere. And on the buses and in jail, she will do deeper background research about life in Eritrea. After her release from prison, she will look to connect with another broker to get her to Israel.
As Lette knows well, the dangers of these overland journeys — not to mention what Mebrhit faces once in the destination country — lurk at every turn. In the desert, migrants are sometimes left miles from the border and told to walk the rest of the way with no food or water. Boats that traverse the Gulf of Aden can be overcrowded, shoddy and at risk of capsizing. Along the way, migrants may be passed from one broker to the next, each ready to exploit and extort the vulnerable migrant in his possession.
Mebrhit is too young to grasp the gravity of these life-altering risks. And Lette is essentially powerless to prevent Mebrhit from taking them. She and her family can only advise Mebrhit and support her in Ethiopia, if not her decision to make this journey.
“She doesn’t know more than we know,” says Lette. “And this is all the information we have. But her mind’s made up. So we’re really stuck.”
Lette and I squirmed in our cushioned chairs, hunting for a more comfortable position. But there was none.