"I tried migrating three times and lost my brother on the last attempt," says Birtukan from Ethiopia

Migrating illegally across borders is fraught with danger. Twenty-six-year-old Birtukan recounts how the boat she, her younger brother and a group of friends were travelling on overturned following a strong wave. Tragically, some of the passengers drowned, including her beloved brother. 

Speaking of about the event, Birtukan’s eyes fill with tears. “I can’t get that picture out of my head. I left him like I would leave something useless. My family keeps asking me what happened to him, but I don’t have the heart to tell them the truth,” she says.

Birtukan is just one of a huge number of international migrants leaving their countries each year. Ethiopia has joined the growing list of African countries currently facing alarming economic migration. One of the major reasons for leaving is, of course, the prospect of finding better paying jobs further afield to support families at home. 

SINCE (Stemming Irregular Migration in Northern and Central Ethiopia) is an EU-funded programme implemented by the Embassy of Italy in Ethiopia. It aims to make a contribution toward reducing irregular migration in five regions across Ethiopia – Addis Ababa, Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and the Southern, Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region [SNNPR] – by improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable, namely would-be migrants and returnees. The ‘Job Creation for Potential Migrants in Addis Ababa’ offshoot of the SINCE programme is led by People in Need together with partner NGOs Concern World Wide, International Volunteer Service for Development (VIS) and the Organization for Child Development and Transformation (CHADET).

Scraping for food in dumpsters

Birtukan Chifera tried migrating to the Middle East three times in search of better working opportunities before deciding to cut her losses. The first time, her agent legally connected her with a family in Dubai who needed a housemaid. Only on arriving did Birtukan discover she had been lied to:

“The family my agent said I would be working for were different from the family that received me. But I went with them anyway.” Birtukan describes the many hardships she faced as a result.

“I never once received a salary during my year-long stay with that family. I wasn’t allowed to make phone calls and would constantly find myself scraping for food in nearby dumpsters. I had to hide in the bathroom after hours to eat what I had scavenged.” 

Stabbed in the chest and leg

For all the suffering Birtukan endured, none of it compared to the encounter that would lead to her eventual dismissal and return home. “One day, I summoned the nerve to ask the mother of the family for my salary. Outraged by my demand, her response was to stab me in my chest and on my leg and bang my forehead against the nearest wall,” recalls Birtukan, whose scars remain visible.

Birtukan made her way home only to try her chances again a few years later. Unfortunately, her second trip was no less challenging than the first. She decided to head to the Middle East again, and was faced with similar difficulties.

  “I felt there wasn’t much for me to work with at home, opportunities looked slim, so I decided to try again. My new employer was just as cruel to me as the previous one, but this time, I didn’t have the patience to tolerate it. I didn’t stay long before deciding to escape to a neighbouring city in search of a better working environment”. Before long, Birtukan was caught by officials and was immediately sent back home.

Regardless of her failed attempts, Birtukan was still not convinced that she could work, grow and transform in her home country, which is what led her to try approaching migration a different way this time – a dangerous way. On her third attempt she decided to take her hesitant little brother with her, this time migrating by irregular means. While crossing the Red Sea en route to the Saudi Arabian border, their boat was capsized by a strong wave. Of the fourteen passengers on board, three drowned. Birtukan’s younger brother was one of the victims.

“The people I was travelling with kept insisting that I move on and not look back. I was on the verge of losing my mind,” says Birtukan. “I tried migrating three times and lost my brother on the last attempt,” she adds. Ultimately, Birtukan and the rest of the group were caught crossing the border and sent back home.

I´m going to beat irregular migration - it won´t beat me

After much contemplation and heartache, Birtukan decided to remain at home together with her husband to work and support her soon-to-be born child. Not long after, she found out about the SINCE programme through her local district committee. She didn’t have to think twice about applying. Fitting the criteria as a recent returnee, Birtukan was selected to join the programme.

Birtukan spent the first three months of the programme learning how to make leather footwear at Misrak Polytechnic College, after which she graduated to an apprenticeship programme at the Kangaroo Shoe Factory. Since Birtukan was in the third trimester of her pregnancy, the shoe factory attended to her needs to make sure she would feel comfortable enough to complete her tasks efficiently.

When asked how the programme might improve her situation, she gave us this touching response: “Nothing good comes of irregular migration. I lost so much trying to work in someone else’s country. My face, my body, my teeth are all ruined. But above all I lost my brother. So I want to use this opportunity to grow my skills in the hope that one day I get a job that will change my life. I’m going to beat irregular migration – it won’t beat me”.

We asked Birtukan’s direct supervisor Selamawit to assess her performance so far. “Birtukan is a unique person. Not only is she an eager learner, she has a very impressive work ethic. Even in her pregnant state she continues to work hard. Her enthusiasm is undeterred.”

With such positive feedback, we’re certain Birtukan will succeed in completing her apprenticeship and soon find a suitable job with employers who appreciate her many talents.


Author: Melikte Tadesse, PIN Ethiopia Communications Officer