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Some of the Ethiopian nationals repatriated from Saudi Arabia. Image from The Ethiopian Monitor

Ethiopia's decision to repatriate thousands of its nationals from Saudi Arabia demonstrates a strong dedication to assisting its citizens abroad and addressing humanitarian issues both at home and abroad. The repatriation initiative, set to begin in early April, targets approximately 70,000 Ethiopians living in difficult conditions in Saudi Arabia.

State Minister Birtukan Ayano announced the repatriation plan, emphasizing its focus on Ethiopians facing hardships in Saudi Arabia. This initiative, the third of its kind since 2018, underscores the government's dedication to assisting its nationals in challenging circumstances.

Ethiopia's history of hosting refugees from neighboring countries is deeply intertwined with its geographical location in the Horn of Africa. Situated at the crossroads of East Africa, Ethiopia shares borders with several countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. This strategic position, coupled with environmental and geopolitical developments in the region, has made Ethiopia a destination for asylum seekers fleeing conflict, droughts, political events, and civil wars in neighboring countries.

The country's open-door policy towards refugees reflects its commitment to providing humanitarian assistance and protection to those in need. Over the years, Ethiopia has welcomed people displaced by cross-border movements, offering them refuge and support. This approach aligns with Ethiopia's historical role as a sanctuary for those seeking safety and security.

"It is estimated that about 750,000 Ethiopians currently reside in the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) with about 450,000 likely to have traveled to the country through irregular means and will need help to return home," the IOM said in a statement. Human rights organizations have for several years denounced the detention conditions of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia. "We were crying daily," said Jemila Shafi, 29, one of the returnees from Saudi Arabia. She said that they were given one loaf of bread and a pot of cooked rice to be shared between 300 people. "Even 400 people were living in one room and we couldn't see the sunlight," she added. Most of the women returnees were dressed in black abaya robes, traditional in Saudi Arabia, some with their faces covered by a niqab.

The Ethiopian foreign ministry has said it will repatriate about 100,000 of its citizens from Saudi Arabia over the next seven to 11 months, under an agreement recently signed between the two countries. The returnees "were assisted and registered by IOM staff and offered, among others, food, temporary accommodation, medical help, and counseling services," the UN migration agency said in its statement. "These are our citizens," said Hana Yeshingus, a representative of the Ethiopian ministry of Women and Children. "Our citizens have come back home” after going through a very painful time, she added. The IOM stressed that "meeting the needs of the 100,000 returnees is going to be an enormous challenge for the government, IOM, and partners". Over the last four years Saudi Arabia "has returned nearly 352,000 Ethiopians back home," it added.

As Ethiopia continues to receive asylum seekers from neighboring countries, the government faces the challenge of managing the needs of both refugees and its own population. The repatriation initiative for Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia is part of this broader context, highlighting the country's ongoing efforts to support its citizens abroad while also addressing the needs of refugees within its borders. Just like, the refugee influx to Ethiopia is not a recent phenomenon. The history of refugees in Ethiopia had dated back to 615AD when Prophet Mohammed's earliest followers with his daughter Rukiya sought refuge in Ethiopia and their persecutors arriving from Arabia with assistances and demanded their forcible repatriation.

However, King Arma of Axum, having interrogated them, turning to the visiting delegation responded in a famous remark. Additionally, since the beginning of the First World War, relatively some refugees from Europe and even Asia have come to live in Ethiopia. Again the African struggle against colonialism was also another factor that drove numerous refugees to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a long history of hosting refugees in camp settlements and urban centers. Moreover, Ethiopia has maintained its ancient civilization of hospitability of its people and the government by granting safety seekers protection and receiving refugee populations displaced by war and persecution even at the moments grappling with its economic and developmental difficulties is an expression of its commitment to international standards and humanitarianism. More recently, Ethiopia hosted refugees that in some cases exceeded one million.

These numbers decreased very significantly when most of the Somali refugees repatriated between 1997 and 2005, but many more continued to come. Moreover, Ethiopia in 2014 took over Kenya as the country with the most refugees in Africa. Through the end of July, Ethiopia became the host to over 620,000 refugees. Most of these new refugees are from a growing situation in South Sudan. Also, Ethiopia is a major host for Somali and Eritrean refugees who make up the second and third most refugee numbers in the country. The flows of refugees into Ethiopia are mainly the result of political and civil unrest and frequent natural disasters in the neighboring countries. Although, about 85,000 refugees from several other African countries are present which including Angola, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen. Refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea make up the majority. Most recently 3,000 Kenyans sought refuge in Ethiopia.

Moreover, Ethiopia hosts some eight refugee camps that are located along its western, northern and eastern parts of the border: two for South Sudanese, four for Eritreans, two for Somali. Accordingly, UNHCR is the main office in charge of the coordination of assistance in the various camps. The Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs which falls under the National Intelligence and Security Agency, is the national partner of UNHCR. ARRA oversees food distribution and security issues in the camps, as well as programming on health and education. To protect its natural resources and infrastructure from the pressure of the refugee influx, Ethiopia has confined the refugees in camps and has limited their rights about movement, education, and work opportunities. Permits to leave the camps can be issued for personal, medical, educational or safety reasons.

The repatriation program is not without its challenges. Ethiopia's capacity to resettle and reintegrate such many returnees is a major concern, especially given the country's existing challenges with internal displacement and limited resources. The success of the repatriation program will depend on effective coordination, adequate funding, and support from the international community. Ethiopia's commitment to supporting its citizens in the diaspora is evident in its efforts to facilitate their return from Saudi Arabia. The government has also engaged in constructive dialogue with the international community, as demonstrated by the recent visit of Julieta Valls Noyes, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. This engagement highlights the importance of international cooperation in addressing humanitarian challenges. The repatriation program is part of Ethiopia's broader efforts to strengthen its ties with the international community and address the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons. By bringing back its citizens from Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia is not only fulfilling its duty to protect its nationals but also demonstrating its commitment to upholding humanitarian values. As Ethiopia prepares for the repatriation of thousands of its citizens, it faces a significant challenge in ensuring their successful resettlement and reintegration.

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