Migrant Lives

Protecting Ethiopian Women Migrant Workers In Gulf Region

In 2013, Ethiopia announced a ban on domestic workers from going to the Middle East. Authorities estimate nearly 1 million Ethiopians working legally and illegally in the region. It comes with opportunity and risk, especially for women.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Magdalena Vaculciakova

DEGA The house in Saudi Arabia was huge, with endless rooms blasted with cool air conditioning, recalls Tsega of her years as a migrant domestic worker. Now back in Dega, her village in northern Ethiopia, the 45-year-old mother of four describes her former life in the Gulf.

The air is thick with heat in this arid northern region of Tigray, which suffered greatly from the 1984 famine and more recent droughts caused by El Niňo. There is no electricity in Dega, no mill to process flour and women have to walk two miles to collect water.

Tsega's family has no land, and few means to earn money, so Tsega's husband eventually decided to leave for Saudi Arabia. Tsega agreed, hoping he could give their family a chance at a better life. But once he left, he did not send any money back. "I did not trust him, I thought he was not interested in me anymore," she says.

In 2008, Tsega decided to go to Saudi Arabia to search for her husband and earn her own money to support the family. Her mother agreed to look after Tsega's youngest, a one-year-old boy, while her eldest daughter would care for the rest of the siblings. "I was very sad leaving my children behind," she says. "I just wanted to earn money so that we can have a better house."

So Tsega joined hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian men and women seeking to pull their families out of poverty by working overseas. Women in particular have filled the demand for domestic workers in the Middle East.

Women often face greater social pressure to migrate than men, said Ethiopian gender and development specialist Meskerem Mulatu Legesse. As women and girls have lower education and employment rates but face the same expectations to take care of their parents, becoming a foreign domestic worker and sending their wages home is one way to help. Some girls choose to leave in order not to become a burden on their families; in other cases, parents send their daughters to the Middle East in the hope they'll find a better life there.

The economic opportunities often come with severe personal costs. For years, weak labor laws in the Middle East and East Africa, unregulated and unscrupulous employment agencies and irregular migration routes have exposed women to danger and abuse.

I escaped without asking for my salary.

"Many Ethiopian domestic workers in the Gulf States do not get paid, even though they have large workloads," says Mulatu Legesse. "Employers very often keep their passports, the migrants cannot leave the houses and they are not allowed to rest."

In 2013, Ethiopia announced a ban on domestic workers from going to the Middle East, which remained in place until earlier this year. At the time, Ethiopian authorities said some 460,000 Ethiopians were working legally in the Middle East, while humanitarian groups estimated as many as double that number were undocumented workers.

Tsega paid a smuggler to transport her to Saudi Arabia, crossing Djibouti, the Red Sea and Yemen, who delivered her to a woman in Saudi Arabia who arranged her first job. But before long, Tsega ran away from her employer. "I did not have to clean or iron only, but also tolerate inhumane treatment," she says. "I escaped without asking for my two months salary."

After nine months in Saudi Arabia, Tsega found her husband. Over the next five years, she worked for two other families; even though they treated her better, she felt a certain relief when she was deported in 2013, during Saudi Arabia's mass expulsion of undocumented workers.

Tsega explains that she would never have left Saudi Arabia on her own because she was making good money, but she was happy to be going back to see her kids. There have been several further waves of deportations since; Saudi Arabia recently announced it had arrested 1.25 million undocumented residents since November 2017.

In Ethiopia, girls often feel a responsibility to take on the financial burdens of their families — Photo: Noel Rojo/Women Who Stay

During her five years in the Gulf, Tsega was able to send around 30,000 birrs ($1,090) to her family in Ethiopia that they spend mostly on food. Back home, she returned to caring for her family, like most other women in her community. Her husband had been deported to Ethiopia before her, but still hasn't found regular paid work.

She advises other Ethiopians not to go to Saudi Arabia. "I would not even pee in their direction," she says, with disdain. Yet, Tsega was not able to convince her 18-year-old son to stay in Ethiopia. He left for Saudi Arabia eight months ago and she has not heard from him since.

Opportunities and Dangers of Migration

Despite the 2013 ban, irregular migration from Ethiopia continued and, according to the International Labor Organization, may have increased.

Ethiopia lifted the ban this February, after passing a new law regulating employment agencies and establishing more training centers to prepare workers before they leave, including information about their rights, cultural norms and basic Arabic.

The government has also signed or is drafting bilateral labor agreements with Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia — the top destination for Ethiopians in the Middle East.

Under the Saudi-Ethiopia agreement, Ethiopian workers must have their own bank accounts and salary deductions are prohibited. The draft deal with Kuwait sets a maximum of 10 working hours per day, establishes a minimum wage and forbids employers from keeping workers' passports.

The push to regulate migrant work followed a spate of videos showing harrowing violence against Ethiopian workers in the Middle East, including of a woman being dragged down the street by her hair in Lebanon and another filmed helplessly falling from a balcony in Kuwait.

Not even their families know.

Gulf countries have also reacted to a few cases of violence against employers. After an Ethiopian housemaid murdered a 19-year-old Kuwaiti woman in 2014, the Gulf state instituted its own ban on Ethiopian domestic workers.

Kuwait lifted that ban earlier this year, fearing a shortage of domestic workers after the Philippines briefly forbade women from working in Kuwait when a Filipina woman was found dead in her employer's freezer.

"Lack of sleep, experiencing abusive behavior, exhaustion, all this leads to frustration or even aggression of domestic workers," says Mulatu Legesse, who has researched trauma among migrant domestic workers who returned to Ethiopia. "There were cases of maids trying to commit suicide or to attack their employers; many migrants come back to Ethiopia with mental issues."

"Very few talk about sexual violence as it is painful. Not even their families know," says Legesse.

In 2014, many of Fiyori's friends were heading to Saudi Arabia from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border town of Zela Anbesa. "My family's income was declining … I also wanted to help my family," says the 27-year-old.

Her father, Mesele, helped her find a recruitment agency to take her to Saudi Arabia. He said the family was not aware of Ethiopia's ban on traveling for domestic work. "The agency seemed legal, we did not know what the risks were," says Mesele.

But when Fiyori arrived in Saudi Arabia, her employer took away her passport and forced her to work without a salary for two years. "Even when I was tired and wanted to sleep, they forced me to work. The husband's brothers were beating me, too," she says.

Fiyori lost contact with her family in Ethiopia. After a brief phone call to her father when she first arrived, her employers took away her phone.

Migration is not worth it if you have a family. I lost the love of my children, which is more than money.

Mesele tried everything he could to get his daughter back to Ethiopia. He couldn't bear to tell his wife that he'd lost touch with her, so kept making excuses why his wife could not speak to their daughter. For more than a year, he was constantly traveling to Addis Ababa, searching for help from the Ethiopian government offices. He told his wife he was going for medical checks at a hospital in the capital.

After failing to get help from the recruitment agency and the Ethiopian police, he reached the Ethiopian embassy in Saudi Arabia and gave them the phone number Fiyori first called him from. Saudi police were eventually able to locate the phone; they found Fiyori and flew her back — penniless — to Ethiopia.

Fiyori now lives with her parents; she has a few chickens and is planning to sell their eggs. She refers to Saudi Arabia as a prison. "I tell everybody not to go," she says.

As she prepares coffee in her parents' house, her meandering recollections of her time in Saudi Arabia are hard to follow and make sense of. "She has been back for two years, but she still suffers from traumas," explains Mesele.

The Difficult Path Home

How well Ethiopia's new laws and bilateral agreements are implemented in practice over the coming months will be key to more women returning from the Gulf with savings instead of traumas. For some returnees, their lives and families are forever changed by the experience.

Serkalem, 42, spent 11 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. "My husband was not working, and we had to pay for rent and our children's education," she says. For years, what kept Serkalem going through sleepless nights and overtime work was the thought of her family saving money for a better future.

When Serkalem returned to Ethiopia in 2013, she came back to what she describes as "a dark world."

Fiyori, trying to get back to normal life — Photo: Noel Rojo/Women Who Stay

"I lost everything. My children got on the wrong path when I was not here, I separated from my husband and the family spent all the money I earned," she says. Serkalem now sells soaps and vegetables at the market in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

"Migration is not worth it if you have a family. I lost the love of my children, which is more than money," she says.

A recent study published in Globalization and Health asked Ethiopian returnees what advice they had for other women traveling to the Gulf to be domestic workers. They advised cultural awareness, polite assertiveness, safeguarding their earnings and keeping a phone — hidden if need be — in case of emergencies.

Many women interviewed for the study said they had heard reports of abuse before they left, but put it down to bad luck and focused instead on success stories.

Working in Saudi Arabia can be challenging.

Tigist, 27, was in many ways among the fortunate ones. In 2012, her sister, who was already abroad sent Tigist money so that she could pay a smuggler to fly her to Saudi Arabia. Her employer treated her well, she was even able to save up money. But one day when she went to the bank to withdraw her savings, she was robbed and injured.

"My employer allowed me to fly to Ethiopia for three months to heal when they found out my leg was broken," Tigist says. She never went back.

Now living in Addis Ababa, Tigist has rebuilt her life despite losing her savings. She took business development classes with an Ethiopian organization, Women in Self-Employment, and opened up a restaurant that now has two branches.

"I want to have more restaurants and employ girls who are thinking of migrating, so that they stay here, in Ethiopia, as working in Saudi Arabia can be challenging," she says.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!