While the EU seeks an agreement with Libya to halt the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean, the prospect of a better life elsewhere is what all in rural Ethiopia talk about.
AGARFA — A soldier chews on a leaf of khat, a mild stimulant, and spits it on the ground. "Hey you, ferenji, how much do you want to take me with you to Italy?" he asks me, laughing with his comrade. Ferenji means stranger in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language.
In the small, far-flung town of Agarfa, in the province of Bale, the soldier is working security at an event organized by Medical Collaboration Committee (CCM), an Italian NGO. The CCM has come to this town, which lies 280 miles away from the capital of Addis Ababa, to educate locals on the risks of illegally migrating to Europe.
Mohammed, the local imam, asks to speak. "I haven't heard back from four of my children," he says, holding back tears. "I know nothing, they've disappeared. I had warned them not to go."
Mohammed's words clearly have an effect on those attending the meeting; the women around him hide behind their hijabs or begin to cry openly.
While the European Union seeks an agreement with Libya to halt the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea, the prospect of a better life elsewhere is on everyone's lips here in rural Ethiopia. Some have relatives in Europe, the United States, or in the Arab world; some have families stuck in migrant welcome centers in Libya; some have attempted the journey and were sent back; some cry over their loved ones who didn't make it out; and some just want to leave.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the country's strategic location in the Horn of Africa — the region comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti — and local political instability contributed to rising emigration from Ethiopia in recent years. There has been a growing exodus since 2015. About 740,000 Ethiopians now live abroad. Ethiopia itself is home to the largest number of refugees in Africa, housing 670,000 refugees in camps along its borders with Eritrea, South Sudan, and Somalia.
The province of Bale has one of the highest emigration rates in the country. Images of Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli are emblazoned on the tuk-tuks — known here as Bajaj — that fill the streets in the cities of Robe and Goba. People don't seem to care that Balotelli is of Ghanaian origin and was born in Palermo; what matters is his success and the color of his skin.
"People leave because there's no work here," says Abdulkadir Gazali, a 39-year-old father of five. "I tried going to Saudi Arabia three times, but they always sent me back."
It might appear easy to leave as long as you have money to pay smugglers.
"It costs 400 to 600 euros ($420 to $640) to reach an Arab country," says Waldayese, head of immigration at Bale's department of social affairs.
The price for migrating to Europe is much higher. It can cost up to 4,000 euros ($4,245). The entire practice is illegal, of course.
"Young people collect the necessary funds by selling livestock or working in the fields," says Waldayese.
Most emigration occurs in the first few months of the year — after the coffee harvest. In some cases, migrants receive the funds from their parents or from friends and relatives who've already made the journey successfully. While many Ethiopians manage to reach foreign shores, others vanish without a trace. They drown at sea or die of thirst in the desert. Others are abused and killed by traffickers, or simply disappear.
Traffickers, called dallala, are easy to get in touch with even though they face the death penalty if they're caught. Smuggling networks reach everywhere, even into remote towns like Agarfa, and the system is straightforward. A local broker puts the person wishing to migrate in touch with a dallala in Addis Ababa, who in turn provides the necessary documents for the journey and finds another contact in the desired destination.
To reach Gulf states, migrants travel through Djibouti, Yemen, and then Saudi Arabia. In the coastal Djiboutian city of Obock, located just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, the migrant smuggling business is worth millions of dollars.
Reaching Europe is more complicated, and the journey includes several steps. First, migrants travel to the town of Metemma on the border with Sudan, where they join other smugglers in crossing the Sahara desert into Libya. Once they reach, Libyan traffickers bring them to the Mediterranean coast, where they are loaded onto overflowing rafts for the final leg of their desperate journey.
"In Bale, we try to reduce the causes of illegal migration to a minimum through events like the one in Agarfa," says Stefano Bolzonello, the head of the local project at CCM. "Along with another Italian NGO named International Cooperation (Coopi), we incentivize the development of micro-businesses to provide employment opportunities to young people."
Radiya Abdar, 28, found employment through this project. "In 2010 I left for Kuwait. I was told I could earn a lot of money there," she says. "I ended up working as a servant for 100 euros ($106) a month and worked for four different families but they were all the same."
"They took my passport and freedom," she says, adding that she finally managed to get back to Ethiopia. "They called me kaddama, slave."