Opinion14 Jun 2019

Ethiopia’s new migration policy: a positive step but continued scrutiny needed

Migration laws have changed in Ethiopia, but labour migrants travelling overseas are still at risk of modern slavery. The situation needs to be monitored closely, as was noted at a workshop hosted by Walk Free and Retrak Ethiopia in Addis Ababa earlier this year.


Until last year, it was illegal for Ethiopians to travel to Gulf countries to seek work overseas. However, due to bleak employment opportunities at home, many were still forced to leave the country to find employment. These migrants were highly vulnerable to human trafficking on their journey and often exploited by their employers when they arrived.

In 2018, the Ethiopian government under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed lifted the restrictions on overseas migration for work. While this is a positive step, concerns exist about how some aspects of the new legislation will play out in practice. The Ethiopian government must continue to monitor the situation closely and implement the policies necessary to ensure overseas employers don’t exploit workers.

In search of opportunities

Labour migration from Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East started in the 1980s and has increased significantly in recent years. As noted in the Global Slavery Index Africa Regional Report, many individuals suffering chronic hunger, poverty, and violence, leave their home countries in search of work overseas. East African migrants, including Ethiopians, travel to the Middle East for employment as low-skilled domestic workers, cleaners, labourers, and construction workers.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia expelled more than 100,000 Ethiopian migrants as part of a violent crackdown on “illegal” migrant workers. In reaction to this, the Ethiopian government banned the work-related migration of its citizens to all Gulf states.

During this period, it is estimated that roughly 1,000 Ethiopian women were leaving the country each day to seek domestic work abroad, with Saudi Arabia the most common destination. Women were commonly reported as being exploited at the hands of their employers, with this ranging from passport confiscation and inadequate pay to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

In March 2017, the Saudi Government launched another hard-line campaign, granting all irregular migrants an amnesty period of 90 days to leave the country without being penalised. Since then, an estimated 260,000 Ethiopians have returned home according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Lifting the ban

In 2018, the Ethiopian government lifted the ban on overseas migration. The new legislation aims to protect its citizens from ill-treatment by establishing regulations for recruitment agencies, minimum age requirements, a minimum level of education, and training for migrant workers before departure. While mostly seen as a positive step, it is unknown how parts of the new legislation will play out.

One issue is that it is challenging to ensure licensed recruitment agencies operate ethically. It is particularly challenging for the Ethiopian government to oversee this in destination countries, where regulations and monitoring are often lacking.

Additionally, there are potential consequences of the legislation, which are yet to be considered. Many Ethiopians are likely to fail to meet the requirements of the new legislation. If they then choose to migrate anyway, they could be rendered even more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

A broader concern is how persistent corruption and a lack of resources and expertise will affect the implementation of the new law. It will be critical for Ethiopia to work with destination countries to ensure workers are protected from exploitation when they arrive.

Ethiopia took the critical step of implementing new labour agreements with Saudi Arabia in 2017 and the United Arab Emirates in 2018. These agreements contain protections for workers, which will hopefully benefit the thousands of Ethiopian women who still travel to the Middle East in search of work each week.

Ethiopia’s road ahead

In April, attendees of a workshop in Addis Ababa hosted by Walk Free and Retrak Ethiopia discussed the new Ethiopian legislation and its potential to address so of the challenges facing the country. The workshop brought together over 30 participants from across seven countries representing local, regional, and international anti-slavery NGOs and government to discuss a broad range of issues facing the Africa region.

Workshop participants noted that Ethiopia’s move to lift the migration ban was a step in the right direction for the country. However, the need for further analysis and effective regulation was also emphasised. This scrutiny will protect vulnerable citizens from the risks of trafficking and exploitation when they leave Ethiopia in search of a better life.