The 28 Ethiopian migrants of Christian faith murdered by the Islamic State (IS) on Apr. 19 in Libya had planned to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of work in Europe.
Commenting on the killings to Fana Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), Ethiopian government spokesperson Redwan Hussien urged potential migrants not to risk their lives by using dangerous exit routes.
Hussein’s call sparked anger among hundreds of Ethiopian youths and relatives of the deceased, who took to the streets in the capital Addis Ababa this week before the demonstration was disbanded by the police, local media reported.
Protestors cited the government’s lukewarm response to the massacre of Orthodox Christians for their outrage, the Addis Standard reported. Later in the week, during a public rally organised by the government in the capital, violence again broke out between security forces and protesters resulting in injuries and the detention of over a hundred protesters, local and international media reported.
“Pervasive repression and denial of fundamental freedoms has led to frustration, alienation and disillusionment among most Ethiopian youth” – Yared Hailemariam, former senior researcher for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (now Human Rights Council)
Almost two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians, the majority of those Orthodox Copts – who say that they have been in the Horn of Africa nation since the first century AD — as well as large numbers of Protestants.
In the widely-reported incident in Libya, IS militants beheaded 16 Ethiopian migrants in one group on a beach and shot 12 in the head in another group in a desert area. Eyasu Yikunoamilak and Balcha Belete, residents of the impoverished Cherkos neighbourhood in Addis Ababa, were among the victims, it was learnt, along with three other victims from Cherkos.
Seyoum Yikunoamilak, elder brother of Eyasu Yikunoamilak, told FBC that Eyasu and Balcha left their country for Sudan two months ago en route to reach the United Kingdom for work to help themselves and their families, but this was not meant to be.
“I used to talk to them on phone while they were in the Sudan,” Seyoum said in grief. “But I never heard from them since they entered Libya one month ago.” Eyasu had previously been a migrant worker in Qatar and had covered his friend’s expenses with his savings to reach Europe, said Seyoum.
In defiance of the warning of the government spokesperson, Meshesa Mitiku, a long-time friend of Eyasu and Balcha living in Cherkos, told the Associated Press on Apr. 20: “I will try my luck too but not through Libya. Here there is no chance to improve yourself.” Meshesha’s intentions came even after learning about the fate of his friends.
Ethiopian lawmakers declared a three-day national mourning on Apr. 21. The government also expressed its readiness to repatriate all migrants in dangerous foreign countries, the Washington-based VOA Amharic radio reported.
The rally earlier in the week came one month before Ethiopia holds parliamentary elections, the first since the death of long-time leader Meles Zenawi, and current prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn is expected to face little if any opposition challenge.
“We will redouble efforts to fight terrorism,” foreign ministry spokesman Tewolde Mulugeta said in response to demands for action from protesters.
Ethiopia is trying to create jobs so that people do not feel the need to leave to find work, he added. “We’re trying to create opportunities here for our young people. We encourage them to exploit those opportunities at home.“
Nevertheless, disenchantment marked by asserted claims of repression, inequality and unemployment has spurred a series of protests against the regime over the last few years.
These and other issues have prompted the exodus of Ethiopian migrants to Europe, according to several observers. “The idea that the majority of Ethiopian migrants relocate due to economic reasons appears flawed,” contends Tom Rhodes, East Africa Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in an email interview with IPS. Rhodes also maintained that the violation of fundamental freedoms is closely tied with poverty and economic inequality.
In an email interview with IPS, Yared Hailemariam, a former senior researcher for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, agreed. “Pervasive repression and denial of fundamental freedoms has led to frustration, alienation and disillusionment among most Ethiopian youth.”
“Citizens have the right to peacefully protest,” said Felix Horne, East Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It’s no surprise given the steps government takes to restrict peaceful protests that disenfranchised youth would use the rare opportunity of an officially sanctioned public demonstration to express their frustrations. That’s the inevitable outcome when there are no other means for them to express their opinions.“
The main opposition parties say that the government has failed to create job opportunities, making migration inevitable. The regime, they charge, favours members of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and creates economic inequality.
Recently dubbed an “African tiger“, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most populous nations with 94 million people (Nigeria has 173.6 million). It has been celebrated for its modest economic growth over the last years. But the average unemployment rate (the number of people actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force) was stuck at 20.26 percent from 1999 to 2014.
“The regime allocates state resources and job opportunities to members of the ruling party who are organised in small-scale and micro enterprises,” noted Horne. The CPJ representative agreed. “Ethiopian government authorities tend to reward their political supporters and ethnic relations with lucrative political and business positions” at the expense of ingenuity in the business sector.
In its 2015 report, the World Bank shared this discouraging view. Some 37 million Ethiopians – one-third of the country’s population – are still “either poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty“, the World Bank said, adding that the “very poorest in Ethiopia have become even poorer” over the last decade or so.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has estimated that about 29 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line. This explains Ethiopia’s rank at 174 out of 187 countries on the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index.
The Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation that spotlights land grabs, was recently denounced by Ethiopian officials for its latest report ‘We Say the Land is Not Yours‘. According to the government, the institute used “unverified and unverifiable information”.
In a reply to the Ethiopian Embassy in the United Kingdom on Apr. 22, Oakland Institute challenged the government’s claim that ongoing development was improving life standards in the country.
The institute maintained that the government’s development endeavours are “destroying the lives, culture, traditions, and livelihoods” of many indigenous and pastoralist populations, further warning that the strategy was “unsustainable and creating a fertile breeding ground for conflict.”
More than half of Ethiopia’s farmers are cultivating plots so small as to barely provide sustenance. These one hectare or less plots are further affected by drought, an ineffective and inefficient agricultural marketing system and underdeveloped production technologies, says FAO. Several studies indicate that this phenomenon has induced massive rural-urban migration.
According to Yared Hailemariam, state ownership of land has contributed to poverty and inequality. “People don’t have full rights over their properties so that they lack the motivation to invest,” he stressed. The ruling regime insists that land will remain in the hands of the state, and selling and buying land is prohibited in Ethiopia.
Yared also pointed out that the ruling party owns several huge businesses which has created unfair competition in the economy. “The party’s huge conglomerates have weakened other public and private businesses” he told IPS. “Only the ruling party’s political elites and their business cronies are benefitting at the expense of the majority of the people.”
The tragic news of the massacre in Libya came amid news of xenophobic attacks against Ethiopian migrants in South Africa last week including looting and burning of properties. Unknown numbers of Ethiopian economic migrants are also trapped in the Yemeni conflict, according to state media.
Young men in Ethiopia say they’re prepared to risk their lives making the journey to Europe despite the risk of drowning or capture by armed groups. They say they have few opportunities at home and risking death is a price worth paying.Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi reports from Addis Ababa.