The Ethiopian secondary school we visit is perched on a mountainside, accessible only by a winding dirt track through the local market. It’s been raining, so the mud is too much of a challenge even for our 4-wheel drive vehicle. We leave it behind the market and finish our journey on foot, strolling through stalls selling local basketry, brightly coloured powdered spices, the latest fruit crop, and plastic buckets imported all the way from China. When we reach the school, the pupils are on their mid-morning break, chasing each other up and down the hillside, barefoot or in flipflops. The stare at us, three women from worlds away – two smartly dressed Ethiopian visitors from the capital city, Addis Ababa – and even stranger, myself, come all the way from London. “Hello how are you, what is your name?!” they shout, before laughing uproariously and running back into classrooms.
The view over the valley surrounding the region may be idyllic, but conditions of life here are hard, with few opportunities for formal employment even for those who complete secondary education. Seeking opportunities abroad is common, and most local families expect to send one or more daughters to the Gulf States or the Middle East as domestic workers despite the Government of Ethiopia’s ban on labour migration that was in place for five years, 2013-2018. Thus, for the pupils we meet at the school – particularly the classroom full of girls aged 12, 13 and 14 – migration is a likely next step. So what is important for them, and thus the focus of the training and support they received from the Freedom Fund’s local implementing partners, is how to plan and execute their migration plans safely, to maximise the chances of a positive experience and minimise the chances of coming to harm.
My colleagues from Addis Ababa University and I have come to speak to these and other pupils, as well as local village women, representatives from district authorities, and traditional and religious leaders, about their experiences of participating in activities funded by the Ethiopia hotspot program, and their understanding of what is “safer migration.” We also go to other villages that have not been covered by the program yet, to find out whether there are noticeable differences in migration-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviours in communities that received hotspot support compared to those that did not.
This visit is one of many conducted over three years as part of the process evaluation conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The research team tracked implementation of the hotspot program, to see whether it was delivered as planned, reached the kinds of people most likely to benefit, and learn how people felt about the program activities – did they find them relevant? What were the most useful components? What could have been improved? We visited two program sites every six months, alternating between Addis Ababa and Amhara, conducting observations, interviews and group discussions each time.
Schoolchildren were among the most enthusiastic. Girls particularly expressed how they felt that their participation in discussion groups and skills-based after-school clubs helped bolster their self-esteem and confidence, which are recognised to be personal attributes that increase assertiveness and resilience in difficult situations, such as those that might be faced as a domestic worker. One 14-year old girl told us, “My participation in this program has helped me become independent and has enabled me to fully trust myself. I’ve also been able to develop my skills.” A local religious leader who visited a school during an event held about safe migration noted, “I was really amazed with the girls’ level of awareness, they really surprised me while they were discussing the issues related to illegal migration. It almost seemed like they had a better understanding than most of us who have higher education.”
Other community responses also highlight how the hotspot’s multi-pronged approach helped communities better distinguish between “safer” and “unsafe” migration, providing concrete examples for how prospective migrants can prepare themselves. As one participant from a “Community Conversation” explained, “The experience was very good. … it focused on practical training. Training that will enable me to become more successful in what I will do when I go to the Arab countries.” Another said, “What I loved is the fact that they educated us on how we should migrate, and how to migrate legally and safely. … Before I took part in the training, society only talked about migration when praising a returnee for leaving and changing her life. But now, I know how to do it properly, legally and safely.”
But from a research perspective, what people don’t say can be just as important. For example, it seemed to be much more difficult for our respondents in communities without hotspot activities to articulate what “safe migration” might mean, or to distinguish between “legal migration,” undertaken when there is no government ban in place and through registered agencies, and “safe migration,” which implies a higher level of protection, including safeguards such as checking paperwork, understanding contractual obligations, and understanding one’s rights in terms of labour, personal safety and dignity. A local administrator from an area without Freedom Fund told us, “There is not much awareness about [safety requirements]. So they [migrants] are still exposed to [exploitation by] brokers. In my opinion, the challenge is brokers. They [migrants] lose their life and their money by brokers. … there is a lot to do in creating awareness about it.”
We also heard ideas about how to improve the hotspot program. Community members identified program weaknesses and found some activities less useful than others. For example, the focus on women and girls was considered too narrow by many community members, who pointed out that men and boys also leave for undocumented work abroad, often travelling the most dangerous routes by sea from Somalia and then overland through war-torn Yemen. Others described how while they valued the vocational training and business start-up loans provided to returnees, the economic climate in Ethiopia made it difficult to secure a sustainable livelihood. As in any complex social programme, some unforeseen logistical challenges prevented hotspot partners from realising all their plans.
Our final evaluation report has now been published, and, alongside baseline and midline findings, it presents a clear picture of what the Ethiopia hotspot achieved in its first three years, particularly in relation to who was reached, and how they felt about the activities. Some early lessons have been identified about what works to improve the kinds of knowledge, personal attributes and practicable skills known to increase the chances of safe migration experiences. As the Freedom Fund moves into its next phase of programming in Ethiopia, it can draw on these to build on existing successes and fill remaining gaps.
Joanna Busza is an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the lead on the evaluation of the Ethiopia hotspot.
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