Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ethiopian Migration: Opportunity or Loss?

Becca McBride and Joanna Bascom


By Becca McBride and Joanna Bascom

February 28, 2014

We tend to think of migration in two ways. On the one hand, we think of it in terms of heroic individuals who exercise their agency by moving to a foreign land to increase their economic opportunities and to provide for their families. On the other hand, we perceive migrants as victims who are forced to move because of circumstances beyond their control such as war, persecution, and natural disasters, and we look for ways that they can reclaim their agency. While the dichotomy of the migrant as hero or victim can be useful in thinking about migration, our increasingly globalized context complicates this view and necessitates a more nuanced understanding.

A recent news article about the migration of Ethiopian citizens to Gulf states to pursue jobs as domestic workers illustrates how migrants can simultaneously be both heroes and victims.  Although this migration has seemingly positive outcomes, such as increased agency for those migrating and greater economic flows back to Ethiopia, ultimately these are not sustainable benefits for Ethiopian citizens or the Ethiopian economy. This particular migration ultimately may undermine the Ethiopian citizens’ pursuit of agency over their economic situations, and it prompts an examination of how migrant workers should be protected.

At first glance, it appears that the more than 200,000 Ethiopian migrants to the Middle East are asserting a rare independence for young people from patriarchal, rural Ethiopian communities.  Migrating, however, does not necessarily signal a gain in personal autonomy, since gender roles in the family and an obligation to contribute to household income shape the decision to seek work abroad. Additionally, due to their lack of skills and experience, many of these migrants end up in work situations that limit their freedom and independence instead of empowering them.  Reports of discrimination, racism, and abuse of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East are widespread, and domestic workers are often relegated to marginalized jobs outside the protection of labor laws.

These Ethiopians migrate to the Middle East because they are able to financially support their families in Ethiopia through remittances; overall, remittances now constitute ten to twenty percent of Ethiopia’s GDP. Ethiopian youth are able to earn up to ten times more for the same types of jobs in Middle Eastern countries than they can earn within Ethiopia. In theory, remittances contribute to increased standards of living and education; in reality, they also foster dependence on both the household and national level. Since remittances generally raise the standard of living at the household level instead of the country level, remittances are not a viable or sustainable development strategy for Ethiopia. This is especially true because the benefits of remittances do not outweigh the costs of exploitation and abuse of the Ethiopians working in the Middle East.

Where do these Ethiopian migrants fit into the hero-victim conception of migration?  While they are choosing to migrate to seek better economic opportunities than are available within Ethiopia, their choice is shaped by inequality within Ethiopian society that hinders youth, especially women, from finding adequate employment opportunities. Moreover, these migrants face unjust working conditions in Middle Eastern countries where they are often not protected under labor laws. In October, the Ethiopian government recognized this tension and banned Ethiopian citizens from migrating abroad for work. But this action does not necessarily solve the problem, since Ethiopia itself has not been able to create enough jobs to meet the demand. 

A more nuanced understanding of migration takes into account factors on both sides of the migration exchange. We tend to assume that migrant workers have information about the economic possibilities in both the home country and destination country, and they make the decision to migrate in order to maximize their economic potential.  But when this calculation is also influenced by injustice and inequality at home, migrant workers are more likely to choose opportunities in destination countries that represent an escape instead of enhanced economic opportunities. Moreover, when migrant workers are unable or unwilling to return home, they are more likely to subject themselves to unjust working and living conditions. 

We need advocacy efforts to focus on alleviating the injustice that corrupts the calculation to migrate in the first place. Potential migrants need better information about the working conditions in the destination country so that they can more adequately weigh the costs of moving versus remaining. Undergirding this should be concerted efforts to mitigate injustice and inequality in the home country so that everyone seeking work and economic opportunity has the chance to do so in ways that support the sustainable flourishing of their own country and its citizens.

- Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Calvin College. Joanna Bascom is a freshman at Calvin College studying Economics and International Relations with strong interests in the role of public policy in economic development.

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