Settling Back Home: Middle East Returnees Face Social Alienation and Institutionalized Discrimination

By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan 

Addis Abeba, October 06/2020  – “I lived my entire life identifying as an Ethiopian”, says Othman Hamid. “My parents migrated during the civil war first to a neighboring country that graciously gave them a passport to travel with to the Middle East. Once the Derg regime was defeated my dad reclaimed his nationality and at the time minors weren’t required to have passports and could be added to their parent’s passports, we were added to my mother’s passport who still holds a foreign passport. We didn’t get our passports until 2012. That in itself was a challenge.” he continues, “We moved back to Ethiopia in 2017, my passport expired that year when I applied for renewal. My identity was questioned. It took me a long time to get the approval for renewal.” According to Othman, his poor Amharic language skills might have contributed to his identity being questioned. Nonetheless, the issue of having one’s identity questioned is not new to the community.

According to a study focused on returnee migrant workers from Saudi Arabia that was prepared by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “there was a gap between the returnees’ expectations and the implementation of their sought actions.” Based on their account of events, immediately, after their return, the matter becomes a high priority on the national agenda and receives the attention of the government and donor agencies. However, the returnees argued that focus and attention faded over time.

The report also listed reasons that are slowing the reintegration efforts; these included a lack of integrated coordination, a lack of clear responsibilities and mandates, a lack of commitment, a lack of consistent monitoring and evaluation at the woreda level, as well as limited involvement of non-governmental organizations.

However, both international and local organizations that deal with returnees seem to turn the focus to migrant workers while ignoring first and second generation Ethiopian Nationals born in the Middle East (Mostly Gulf States) who constitute a huge number of the returnee population from the Middle East especially Gulf States. But issues raised by the community and its demands for equal opportunities and fair repsresntation in the public discourse fall to deaf ears. 

This large demographic presence in the Middle East is credited by multiple factors. Mainly a trend of migration arising out of conflict from present day Harari, Oromia and Somali regional states in the late 1960s throughout the 1970s. That coupled with an economic boom in the Middle East after a jump in oil prices in the early 1970s, especially in the Gulf States. The settlement of the migrant generation of the community followed by high birthrates, produced two generations of Ethiopians who due to citizenship laws restricting birthright citizenship remained with the Ethiopian nationality. In comparision to other diaspora communities, the community along side migrant workers in the Middle East contirbute the lion share the country’s rimmitance income, the community has also produced experts in all walks of life; in Media, the community produced the likes of Mohammed Tola and Anwar Ibrahim, in entertainemnt it produced the acclaimed spiritual singer (munshid) Akaram Al-Arousi and in religion it produced the likes of the late Dr Abdul Shakur Aman, the only foreign religious scholar permitted to preach at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and Sh. Mohammed Aman Jammi, the founder of the infamous salafist school named after him (Jammism).

Sa’ed Jabarti, a community organizer told Addis Standard, “Ethiopians born in the Middle East have always complained about treatment at Ethiopia’s diplomatic posts.” He continues, “I was treated badly and accused of identity theft. I only spoke Arabic not even Tigrinya which is my family’s tongue and I remember the official at the Embassy asking me, “How do I know you are Ethiopian”. But Sa’ed asks back “What about the official documents that say I am? As far as I know the Ethiopian nationality is not connected to a language or is it?”

Sa’ed spoke to Addis Standard about unsuccessful attempts at registering an umbrella organization under the name “Ethiopians Born in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries Cooperative Association”. The organization aimed at participating in the reintegration process of members of the community and taking lead in addressing some of the challenges members of the community face, “It begins at the smallest levels like rent, banking and other basic services every other Ethiopian enjoys and it is linked with institutions both at Federal and Regional levels.” said Sa’eed Jabarti. ”The problem goes deep into social behaviors from verbal assault at the smallest of disagreements to calling the police on gathering by members of the community to physical assault.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a televised statement inserted that many of those demanding repatriation are illegal immigrants, many of whom the country can’t confirm their identities. Amer (asked to be quoted by first name for safety reasons), an Ethiopian businessman born in Sudan who now resides in Addis Ababa finds such a statement “problematic.” He told Addis Standard “When the Prime Minister of your country comes on national television make generalizing statements that question your identity, that action sends the wrong message to every member of the society and to every public servant” he continues, “The message is in general Ethiopians living in the Middle East are a liability and a burden to Ethiopia. The message is they only remember Ethiopia in their times of trouble, inserting that they are not Ethiopian enough or Ethiopian in times of need only.” The Prime Minister spoke about the financial and political burden of such campaigns, something the community have an understanding of, it is a tone of generalization and the attitude towards a community that have long contributed to the country’s economy and that have produced scholars and able intellectuals according to Amer.

A case in point is Anwar Ibrahim, an Ethiopian Arabic language author and the former Director for the Arabic language department at the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) who told Addis Standard, “First let’s talk about people who worked for the system. Their identities, their loyalty and every decision that is made by them in their capacities is questioned and criticized.” Anwar spoke to Addis Standard about the assumptions made by the wider society about the community, “They think we are a homogenous group meaning we are all Muslims following an extreme point of view, when in fact we are a diverse community with people from all religious and cultural backgrounds.” Anwar added, “When you hear complaints by members of the community, you don’t dismiss them because they have merit, and discriminatory attitudes has always been the case for the community.”

Anwar Ibrahim (Left) Nurrddin Abda (Right) participating in a panel of Middle Eastern experts on the issue of GERD. (Picture: ENA)

Noura (prefers to go by her first name only for personal reasons), runs a successful food and beverages business in Bethel area, Addis Abeba, told Addis Standard, “I rented legally a space that was designated for a coffee shop but I was constantly harassed by my neighbor. I later came to learn that his attacks were based on the account that I am a returnee, long after I thought it was based on my religious affiliation for a long time.” she continues, “He called the police on me once accusing me and my customers of disturbing the peace. But the police found him in the wrong and left him off with a warning. His harassment only stopped after that.”

While Noura’s story with law enforcements is that of positive nature, others have different accounts. One account of police brutality is that of Hamza (asks to be identified by first name only for personal safety) ,who described to Addis Standard an event in which the police harassed him after an altercation with his neighbor.“They sided with him once they knew I was not born here and when I tried to explain to them the issue, they did not listen to me. I felt pressured and dropped the complaint.”

Nurrddin Abda, a Middle East expert with a background in journalism and a member of the community who moved back to the country in the 90s told Addis Standard, “Here the general environment is affected by the stereotype about the Arabs. This stereotype is reinforced by the political narrative of Arab-Ethiopian relations, which is tinged with suspicion. Therefore, you find incidents of discrimination happening intentionally or not because the society looks at the returning citizens from the perspective and complexities of regional geopolitics.”

While the community’s hotspots include Adama, Addis Abeba, Dire Dawa, Dessie, JigJiga and Mekelle; the majority of the community’s population resides in Addis Abeba. Some of the challenges faced by members of the community alongside social alienation include lack of a clear integration policy, lack of access to resources, lack of representation in the public discourse and the language barrier that creates a hostile surrounding environment.  Both Sa’eed and Nurrddin consider the lack of a clear policy for integration as the main factor behind all issues faced by the community.

A memo Addis Standard received from Alemayehu Seife Selassie, the national communication officer at the country’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) office, complimented both Nurrddin and Sa’eed’s words. The memo also put the estimate of returnees in the period between Jan 2017 and Feb 2020 at 354,988 returnees (from the gulf region alone), an additional 7,434 returnee from the same region were registered since the start of the pandemic.

The team at IOM suggests in the memo shared with Addis standard that the biggest challenges that returnees face upon their return to the country were the difficulty to integrate in some communities, the lack of access to financial resources and social alienation. The memo also outlined that the government’s main focus at the moment was “economic integration.”

Addis Standard repeated attempts at contacting the public relations office at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs were unsuccessful. However, Addis Standard contacted Addis Ababa’s Police Commission for information regarding data on registered complaints by the community, the Addis Ababa Police Commission provided no data and inserted that “there are no registered complaints so far”. AS

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