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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Drawn by Illusion

The lure of false promises of prosperity

Dawit was 16 and living alone in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, when he began to dream of setting sail across the Mediterranean toward the promise of prosperity in Europe.

In Addis Ababa, where life moves at a frenetic pace, as people rush to work and vendors peddle their wares on every corner, survival for the most vulnerable — especially amid the country’s ongoing civil, environmental and socioeconomic crises, now exacerbated by war in Ukraine — seems almost impossible.

Faced with these harsh realities, Dawit, a pseudonym to protect the young man’s privacy, was desperate for guidance and information. He sought someone who could shed light on this endeavor. It was then that providence intervened.

Birknesh Gobena, the education and youth development coordinator at Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.), learned of Dawit’s plans through a mutual contact. She and her team took swift action in Dawit’s case, offering counseling, arranging financial support to alleviate his burden of living alone, and exploring the possibility of Dawit living with his friends.

J.R.S., an international Catholic organization that works directly with refugees, many of whom are victims of human trafficking, has been operating in Ethiopia since 1982.

Since meeting Ms. Gobena and J.R.S., Dawit’s life has taken an unexpected yet welcome turn. Now 17, Dawit is immersed in the world of graphic design, honing his skills at the Technical School of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Mekanisa, a neighborhood of Addis Ababa.

Dawit is one of many young people who, either alone or in groups, migrate from Eritrea to Ethiopia every year for economic, social and political reasons, says Ms. Gobena. Dawit had made the journey alone and had no one to rely on once he reached the big city.

Amid regional conflicts, drought and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, the decision to leave for many people is a matter of survival. According to Ms. Gobena, some migrants come to Addis Ababa with the intention of continuing on to Libya to reach Europe or Arab countries, with the assistance of human smugglers.

However, most of them are unaware of the potential risks involved due to poor access to information and resources. These risks include falling prey to sex or labor trafficking in their new host country or, possibly, dying on their migration route due to unsafe conditions or outright violence.

“In their eyes, poverty and political instability make staying in Ethiopia seem like a perilous path.”

An August report from Human Rights Watch states “at least hundreds” of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers were killed by border guards in Saudi Arabia, between March 2022 and June 2023, while attempting to cross the Saudi-Yemeni border.

The Missing Migrants Project of the International Organization for Migration, says the reported number of migrants who have died or gone missing on migration routes since 2014 is more than 58,000, noting these incidents remain largely underreported. Of these, more than 2,115 are Ethiopian.

According to the International Labor Organization, the lack of legal pathways for migration is a major factor contributing to human smuggling and trafficking, which are both crimes under international law.

Refugee children play at the Jesuit Refugee Service center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Refugee children play at the Jesuit Refugee Service center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (photo: Abenezer Israel)

While these crimes are often entwined, and the terms used interchangeably, they are distinct with significant differences. Human trafficking involves exploiting individuals through force, fraud or coercion for labor, commercial sex acts or other nonconsensual purposes. These individuals are considered victims regardless of their perceived consent or previous involvement in criminal activities.

Human smuggling occurs when individuals willingly enter into agreements with smugglers to gain illegal entry into a foreign country, where language barriers, cultural differences, discrimination and unfamiliarity with the law leave smuggled migrants more vulnerable to trafficking.

“Their awareness is limited to hearing some successful stories without fully understanding the reality of the route, the tactics used by traffickers and the risks involved.”

While smuggled migrants consent to be moved, and the transaction with the smuggler typically concludes upon crossing the border and payment to the smuggler, in some cases, smuggled persons are held for ransom.

Solomon Bizualem, national director at J.R.S. in Addis Ababa, says “the absence of opportunities and education is a significant factor contributing to both human trafficking and onward illegal migration.”

“One of our main focuses is to understand the knowledge of these refugees regarding the risks of human trafficking and illegal migration,” he explains. “We strive to inform them about these risks, help them make informed decisions and encourage them to remain in Ethiopia.”

As of July 2023, Ethiopia was home to more than 930,000 refugees and asylum seekers, many of them from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. These vulnerable populations, especially those facing economic and educational barriers, are at a heightened risk of falling victim to human trafficking.

While Ethiopia grapples with a multitude of challenges, poverty is the primary factor contributing to human trafficking in the country, followed by conflict and natural disasters. According to the U.N. 2023 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, a considerable portion of the population lives under difficult conditions, with limited access to education, health care and basic services.

A migrant is seen aboard a ship, which rescued 194 migrants at sea on 4 August. The migrants had left Tunisia for Europe.
A migrant is seen aboard a ship, which rescued 194 migrants at sea on 4 August. The migrants had left Tunisia for Europe. (photo: Valeria Ferraro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Our organization primarily works on addressing these root causes,” says Mr. Bizualem. “In our programs, we strive to provide refugees with a wide range of educational opportunities, both formal and informal, to empower them and instill hope for a brighter future.

“Our ultimate objective is to reduce their susceptibility to exploitation by human smugglers and traffickers by equipping them with valuable skills that are in demand. We also have a special program for protecting children because we understand that they, too, can become victims of human trafficking.”

Human trafficking is a major issue of concern in regions outside the national capital as well. The recent conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region triggered a series of catastrophic events, leaving behind a trail of devastation, including an alarming rise in human trafficking, with women and girls in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions being disproportionately affected. As they flee conflict-ridden areas, the U.N. warns, their vulnerability to abduction and exploitation for sexual purposes increases exponentially.

Those who remain behind are also at increased risk of trafficking, as the ongoing limited humanitarian access to the region exacerbates an already desperate situation and motivates some to resort to radical means to meet their basic needs, including the trade of human persons.

The Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat in Tigray is working to address these social problems and to educate young people especially about the risks involved in human smuggling and trafficking.

“The youth express a desire to migrate to Europe and Arab countries,” says the Reverend Negasi Yohannes, coordinator of the eparchy’s Youth Ministry Office. “It is challenging to convince them that Ethiopia holds better prospects for their future.

“In their eyes, poverty and political instability make staying in Ethiopia seem like a perilous path, as great as the risks of death and other consequences during illegal migration.”

He works with parish youth groups, including with children as young as age 7, to raise awareness about the potential pros and cons of migration and the tactics used by human traffickers. He also presents the advantages, opportunities and impact they could make if they chose to stay and work in Ethiopia.

The challenge, then, is to ensure the facts of life in Ethiopia are more supportive of arguments in favor of staying rather than of leaving, he says. To this point, his office offers basic social support and a trauma recovery program, while teaching young people how to be self-sufficient. It also seeks to address other social factors that will enable young people to remain.

His primary focus is on university students, whose studies were suspended when the universities were destroyed during the war. Since then, a rise in boredom, poverty, hopelessness, addiction, popular trends on social media and quick money-making schemes “encourage some young people to fall into traps,” strategically set by traffickers, and to run away from home, leaving on these migration routes without telling their parents, he explains.

Abba Negasi shares migrant horror stories that have made their way back to Adigrat, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which is “where they go the most these days.”

“We were informed the day before yesterday of the death of a young man who traveled to Yemen and was killed there,” he says in early July. “We have heard about deaths in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.”

The priest describes the torture “these people are subjected to. … They confine those people and sexually abuse women. They restrain and torment the victims and force them to phone their own families. The victims scream and beg for money from their families to be delivered from the traffickers.”

If sufficient ransom is not delivered or does “not go to the right person at the right time … they may even murder those young kids, dismember their bodies or sell their organs for money,” he says. “There are no rules that prevent these young people from being mistreated.”

In their desire to alleviate current hardships, some young people will “resort to deceiving and betraying their friends or family members” by recruiting them and selling them to traffickers, he adds.

“These traffickers operate within a network, transporting these vulnerable children and young individuals through Afar and Djibouti, ultimately trafficking them to Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” he explains.

“Those who have received commissions do not remain here; they, too, aspire to travel abroad, influenced by the experiences of their peers,” he continues. “Their awareness is limited to hearing some successful stories without fully understanding the reality of the route, the tactics used by traffickers and the risks involved.”

These young people believe the rags-to-riches stories traffickers tell.

“However, the traffickers never inform them of the awful things that have happened to other people who have left,” Abba Negasi says. “They only realize this when they leave and see it with their own eyes. At that point, they would have reached a point where they cannot return home.”

At the root of the problem is ignorance about the realities of migration and about human dignity, Abba Negasi explains.

“The way we deal with that is, first, making it part of the church’s general mission internationally,” he says. “The Catholic Church is attempting to teach about human dignity.”

“Second, is fixing the community’s issues.”

The priest says his approach seeks to empower the young people and help them understand that human smuggling and trafficking are “inhumane treatment and the violation of their basic human rights.”

“Our focus is on equipping the youth with information and education, enabling them to develop a balanced perspective on these critical matters,” he says. “But the final decision and the results are up to them.”

Read this article in our digital format here.

About the Author: Hikma A. Abdulmejid

Hikma A. Abdulmejid is a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism and communications at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

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