From Hope to Horror: Ethiopian Migration to Saudi Arabia

By: Daniel Somart

Picture credits: Prof. Mortel via Wikimedia

Over the past two decades, Ethiopian migration to the Middle East has seen a significant surge, initially starting in the early 1990s. Currently, smugglers are assisting migrants along their journey from rural Ethiopia to Yemen via the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, often on overcrowded boats with no food or water. Smugglers have taken advantage of areas in Yemen with weakened government control as a result of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war. After completing the treacherous route, many Ethiopians are systematically killed by Saudi border guards, likely constituting crimes against humanity. Although around 750,000 Ethiopians reside and work in Saudi Arabia as of 2017, irregular migration and mass deportations make numbers difficult to calculate.

Specifically, while regular migration involves crossing internationally recognised borders without violating immigration laws, irregular migration bypasses these regulations, mainly due to costly or restrictive official channels. According to the European Union, the term “illegal migrant” is inaccurate and harmful as it carries a criminal connotation, especially when irregular migration is not a criminal offence but a breach of administrative rules. Furthermore, even in the face of restrictive policies, irregular migration will undoubtedly persist. Therefore, legal pathways must be expanded to ensure migrants’ well-being along with maximising the benefit of migration for all parties involved, including origin and destination countries, migrants, and their families. By understanding the drivers and processes of migration at the structural level, it is possible to humanise migrants, recognise their agency, and end the atrocities perpetrated against them.

Reasons for migration

At the macro level, the drivers of Ethiopian migration are mainly economic and political, with social and environmental drivers also playing a role. One perspective through which one can understand this migration is through the aspirations-capabilities framework. This framework presents migrants as individuals with agency who make their own decisions to move, and have the resources to do so. The model gives nuance to the Everett S. Lee’s so-called ‘push-pull’ binary theory, which portrays migrants as mere objects seeking to maximise their income.

The aspirations-capabilities framework suggests that when individuals gain greater access to new ideas about the “good life,” they are more likely to develop the aspiration to migrate. For instance, official remittances in 2022 amounted to $4.6 billion and significantly contributed to the Ethiopian economy. An overwhelming majority of those who secure employment in Saudi Arabia are domestic workers, with their salaries having increased fivefold. These remittances enhance the quality of life in villages, such as better roofs, furniture, and other amenities, leading children to aspire to migrate in order to assist their families, often encouraged by their parents. Additionally, women face a dilemma by migrating for economic and social empowerment, but at the cost of exploitation and sexual violence. Despite this, their remittances can improve the status and acceptance of women in local communities. As a result, the aspiration to migrate is driven by the perceived value of migration for family well-being, social empowerment, and enhancing the quality of life within the community, rather than a desperate escape from poverty.

Furthermore, aspiring migrants must have the capabilities, such as money and social connections, to be able to migrate. In Ethiopia, migrants pay smugglers who facilitate the migration process. Although there are cases of smugglers turning into traffickers, torturing and extorting ransom money from migrants, ethnographic research has shown that the smuggler network does not always operate as a complex criminal business. Rather, smuggling can be part of an opportunistic livelihood based on personalised relationships in which “aspiring migrants, their families, and the wider community regard smugglers as benefactors and smuggling as essential to realise their dreams.” Hence, if governments simultaneously criminalise such networks and keep legal migration pathways restrictive, aspiring migrants may have no other choice but to revert to irregular migration. Legal pathways must be made accessible and affordable to make migration safer.

The migration process

Figure 1: Eastern Route. Picture credits: Human Rights Watch. Ethiopians Abused on Gulf Migration Route © 2019 by Human Rights Watch.

In order to reach their destination, migrants are taking the Eastern Route, i.e. one of the main global migration routes, running from Ethiopia through Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen, towards Saudi Arabia. The desert heat in Djibouti can surpass 50°C in summer, causing migrants to experience heat exhaustion and dehydration. Despite this, over 206,000 movements along the Eastern Route were recorded between January and October 2022, twice the amount compared to the year before. Most Ethiopian migrants start their journey from Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray, and cross into Saudi Arabia near mountain villages such as Souq al-Ragu and ‘Izlat Al Thabit. As of July 31, 2023, IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix reported over 86,630 migrant arrivals in Yemen. The Yemeni border town of Al-Raqw has become extremely overcrowded, as migrants hesitate to make the border crossing out of fear of getting killed by Saudi border guards. Rural Ethiopians have an uneven distribution of information about the dangers of migration and aspiring migrants may be unaware of the fact that since 2014, 805 people have died at sea while attempting to reach Yemen. It is important to note that statistics on migrant movements and deaths are indicative, not representative, as many go unaccounted for. Nevertheless, the trends indicate that more and more migrants are heading to Saudi Arabia despite dangerous circumstances.

Crimes against humanity

Ethiopian migrants suffer from crimes against humanity inflicted by Saudi and Yemeni authorities. Saudi Arabia has justified the militarisation of borders by framing smuggling as a threat to national security. According to Human Rights Watch, up to 430 migrants have allegedly been killed by Saudi border guards in early 2022. UNHCR Special Rapporteurs disclosed that victims are either left to rot or buried by other migrants. To support this, 287 graves have been confirmed via satellite imagery as of June 2023. Saudi security forces have reportedly raped girls as young as 13 and deported them unclothed. It can be argued that Saudi Arabia’s use of excessive force violates the principles of necessity and proportionality under international law. To clarify, any use of force must be justified by a necessary objective while also ensuring that it is proportionate to the perceived threat, thus requiring a balance between protecting security interests and protecting human rights. Furthermore, alarming cases of abuse occur in prisons and detention centers. In Saudi Arabia, migrants are reportedly beaten and chained together and are deprived of sufficient food, sanitation, and other basic needs, whilst guards of a Yemeni detention center reportedly tortured and raped migrants. In addition, Human Rights Watch investigated that there were accounts of inhumane deportations. Between May 2017 and June 2023, over half a million migrants were deported to Addis Ababa, with some arriving in the cargo terminal at Bole International Airport with no belongings, food, or money. For this reason, returnees often end up internally displaced and involuntarily immobilised. As these crimes and abuses persist, Saudi Arabia continues to invest billions in sports-washing to improve their international reputation, including signing Cristiano Ronaldo for the Saudi Professional League and hosting the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Meanwhile, countries such as France, Italy, and the UK sell weapons to Saudi Arabia in defiance of UN experts’ calls to cease exports for fear of being used in unlawful attacks. Throughout this crisis, the international community has largely remained silent.


To ensure justice for migrants, governments must adhere to good governance principles by increasing legal mechanisms and treating migration as a normal social process, rather than an undesirable one. Expanding legal pathways remains a cornerstone in ensuring safe migration. This goes hand in hand with providing aspiring migrants with services that are efficient and accessible. For instance, individuals from rural communities must be able to apply for passports and visas in facilities that are reachable within their means. In regards to remittances, governments and the private sector must commit to realising Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, which aims to make remittances more efficient and affordable by reducing the average cost of transfers to less than 3 percent and eliminating remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 percent. Additionally, migrants deserve humane and dignified deportation and reintegration conditions, as well as the ability to legally challenge detention and deportation. Their families and respective governments should also be notified of their detention and status. Furthermore, concerning international law, Saudi Arabia and Yemen must protect migrants on their territory and immediately cease all acts of torture, as obliged by the UN Convention Against Torture, of which both parties are signatories. To ensure accountability, non-state actors, including civil society organisations, should continue reporting on the situation to raise awareness in an attempt to end crimes against humanity. It is important to consider asylum seekers and refugees within the aforementioned policies, who are often caught in the dragnet of “migrants.” At the same time, the Ethiopian government should first and foremost create local livelihood opportunities and conduct information campaigns aimed at potential migrants about regular migration options and the risks associated with irregular migration. The campaign could outline the process of migration, the working conditions in Saudi Arabia, and the geopolitical situation in Yemen. Regrettably, the chances of Western diplomatic pressure are slim, as a result of a reliance on Saudi oil due to a European energy crisis. At its core, irregular migration occurs, and will continue to occur, no matter the level of securitisation. Migrants’ journeys are full of risks and vulnerabilities, underscoring a crisis that demands a swift response. Achieving this requires a fundamental shift in the narrative surrounding migration–one that takes a humane perspective on the complex realities migrants face and recognises the role migration plays in alleviating poverty in origin countries.

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