Migrant Lives

In A Small Ethiopian Town, That Fateful Choice To Flee To Europe

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.

The prospect of a better life elsewhere is on everyone’s lips in rural Ethiopia
Enrico Caporale

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.

Inside a school in Agarfa — Agarfa Improvment Association

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.

Ethiopian migrants arriving in Italy — Photo: Alfonso Di Vincenzo/Pacific Press/ZUMA

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."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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