Nachricht vom

While the first part of this series focused on the theme “corona and religion”, Günther Schlee this time spotlights corona in the context of migration, both internal migration within Ethiopia as well as international migration between Ethiopia and the Gulf countries. It draws on reports sent from his students from three different research locations.


Writing from Pawi in the Metekel Zone of Beni Shangul-Gumuz State of Ethiopia, Yahannes Yitbarek expresses his concern about the socioeconomic effects of the measures taken against the spread of the coronavirus. These measures comprise restrictions of mobility at all levels, like travel bans or regulations limiting the number of passengers in vehicles to at most 50% of the vehicle capacity. His diary notes describe the speed and rigidity with which the Ethiopian government has responded to cases of infection with the virus:

“Around mid-day [of Friday, 17 April], four corona cases are reported. All of them are Ethiopians. Two of them are from Addis Ababa and the other two are from Bahr Dar and Addis Kidam cities, in Amhara Region. Immediately after this announcement, Benishangul Gumuz and its neighboring areas from Amhara Region – Chagni, Kosober, Addis Kedam, and Bahar Dar – were under strict lockdown for two weeks to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The two regional governments instructed their respective Zonal and Woreda [District] administrators to prevent the spread of COVID 19, closed down all but the most essential business, and halted inter-regional transportation. […] In Metekel, the regional police force and members of the defense force – those who stationed to keep eye on the security of the wider region – including the renaissance dam [a giant hydro-electric dam under construction on the Blue Nile], were tasked to ensure the execution of the rules and regulations decreed in relation to the pandemic.”

Yohannes’s interest is in the effects these measures have on the local economy, especially on the lives of people in precarious employment and of the self-employed. In the second part of our series about the effects of the corona virus on Northeast Africa our focus is on mobility, especially the forms of mobility implying longer distances, called migration. We shall deal both with rural-urban migration and with international labour migration.

Mistrusted Returnees: Urban-Rural back Migration

When the Federal Ministry of Science and Higher Education ordered all university students to go back home on 24 March 2020, Solomon Erjabo went back to Hosana in Hadiya in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State. A day before, the Ethiopian government had declared a lockdown for all land transportation that connects Ethiopia with outside countries. This had caused alarm in Hosana and increased public tension:

“I observed that many people, especially youths have been migrating to their homelands and destinations. In my locality, I saw many youngsters who were living in Addis Ababa and other major cities. They told me that they are returning due to the fear for corona. On 30 March 2020, the Ethiopian government announced the lockdown of public transportation in the country. From different social media I learned that regional states and their lower administrations’ public transportations are also cut down following the national declaration. It was a sudden decision; many people away from their living areas found themselves in trouble due to lack of access to transportation access.”

Many small traders and hawkers who had been living in different parts of the country faced problems. Those who managed to get back to Hosana did not fare better. Their livelihood is is highly dependent on this small-scale trade. As I observed, these vendors were removed from the streets by the police forces. This challenges their mere survival. Many of them have come walking, and some could afford a motorcycle taxi, travelling by night because this form of travel had been forbidden.

Although local people were lax in following instructions about hygiene and social distancing, they were fast in blaming the return migrants. Their attitudes about the migrants were full of fear and suspicion. I observed that local people talking about the migrants: “My neighbour warned me about a particular migrant. ‘Oho, this guy has come from Addis Ababa. Do not get anywhere near him!’” People blame migrants for just hanging around and suspect them of being thieves.

Transnational Labour Migrants Coming Back: Unwelcome Guests at Home

Saleh Seid reports from a region where transnational labour migration to the Gulf States has become an existential part of the livelihood of young peole and the families that depend on them. This is South Wollo. At the destination, it also becomes an essential component of domestic and public lives of Arab households. However, the corona pandemic both has multidimensional implications for migrant workers at both ends: the countries of destination and the country of origin. Here we focus on the othering of returnee migrants by their own society of origin. This has become a shared experience for many returnee migrants in South Wollo. They were seen as a threat to society and treated as such.

Migrants from Wollo to the Arab peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean tend to work in the informal sector. This makes them vulnerable. Since COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Ethiopian government, 30,087 have returned home as of 20 July. The majority are young women working as maids from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Lebanon.

Many returned voluntarily as there is no work while others were dumped by their employers at the Ethiopian embassies in the respective counties. Deportation by the government of the countries of destination was a common situation in South Wollo. This is despite the resolution passed by the United Nations and African Union that states that movement restrictions are crucial for controlling the pandemic and recommend helping people wherever they might be – and not moving them.

The spread of the virus in Ethiopia was slow and insignificant until Dubai and Saudi Arabia started to deport migrant workers in early May 2020. During the first two weeks of May 2020, all the people who test positive were returnee migrants from Dubai and Saudi Arabia. As a result, the public started to develop suspicion and mistrust towards returnee migrant workers. Soon after, returnee migrant workers from the Gulf States were seen as “importers” of COVID-19 into the country. This labelling resulted in segregation, stigmatization, and the feeling of otherness among returnee migrant workers in their hometowns. The usual warm reception and welcome are gone starting from the airport and quarantine centres to their houses.

Government decrees did nothing to alleviate this situation. For instance, the Ministry of Health announced on 23 May 2020 that they had launched a free hotline call centre “8335” where people should report to the ministry if they know someone who has returned from the Middle East. The public was concerned about the return and every single movement of returnee migrants. Besides the hotline, social media was used for reporting and warning both local authorities and the public about new arrivals. Consequently, many people in the village began to consider return migration from the Middle East a “symptom” of COVID-19 infection just like fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Therefore, returning migrants were confronted with stigma and in some cases physical abuse.

Personal Disillusions

For the migrants, this often was a continuation of the hard experiences they had just made in the Arab countries. Physical and verbal abuses of stranded migrants by the police of countries of destination were frequently mentioned in casual conversation by returnee maid workers. In some cases, their employers even refused to pay the salary. However, the unexpected situation of othering and stigmatization by their relatives and friends at home is more devastating and painful than the challenges in the Middle East, which they had expected anyhow. Halima, 24, a returnee domestic worker from Qatar says “all the mistreatment and abuse in Qatar is expected but the two weeks I spent here after returning is painful and unexpected for me. I feel like an unwelcome guest at home, misplaced and being betrayed by my people blaming me as a source of their insecurity towards the virus.”

Halima continued comparing her previous return to the village and the reception she had before with the current one:

"[T]he last time I returned to the village was two years ago. There was a warm reception [where] everybody gathered in our house. Some brought gifts like milk, fresh grain, and local drinks for me and I also had brought clothes, smartphones and other gifts for them. It would be a feast for a week. I think this time it is not only the fear of the virus that keep them away but also since they know I am deported, they are sure that I did not bring any gift for them."

As we have seen from Solomon’s account above, such experiences are not only made by transnational migrants. Also return travellers from Ethiopian cities to the local villages also share this experience of otherness, though to a lesser degree. This is because for the villagers not only big cities represent a hotspot for the spread of the pandemic. This is factually true. Saleh takes himself as an example for the othering of return travellers: “Recently, I have travelled from Addis Ababa to the local village with my family. When we arrived at the village, the local young boys, who usually helped me with my luggage, refused to help me. As one of them tried to help me, his mother shouted and warned him in front of me not to do so. This is because I had just arrived from Addis Ababa. Hospitality is replaced by hostility. Local authorities start to show animosity and aggressiveness towards the returnee migrants even at the quarantine centres. In the name of ‘safe distancing’ returnees were segregated putting signs on their houses and calling them names that were normally used for social outcasts and deviant personalities."

Real Risks and Risk Perceptions

The otherness of returnee migrants in the eyes of their close relatives and friends is the derivative of the belief held by the Ministry of Health and the Ethiopian public health institute officials underpinning and publicly promoting the idea that COVID-19 is imported from outside the country by transnational labour migrants. Subsequent alarmist announcements were made by the government and measures targeting returnee migrants were taken, depicting them as “carriers” of the virus. These measures comprise the hotline mentioned above.

However, this may not be bizarre and one cannot dismiss these cautious measures by the villagers as needless and unnecessary. Around 85 per cent of the cases during the first two weeks of May 2020 were transnational labour migrants from the Gulf States.

On the other hand, the local people start to believe that COVID-19 is only the problem and concern of the rich countries (see the first part of this series). They argue that the virus will not attack us Ethiopians, and even if it does, it will not kill us. According to them, this is because “we eat spicy foods”, “our bodies haves already been tested by severe diseases”, “COVID-19 is like a flu for us”, and so on. Some also insist that it is a punishment from Allah for the West and for those Arabs who have committed spiritual transgressions. This kind of reasoning, however, is not applied to return migrants, who after all are Ethiopians, eat spicy foods, and, if they come from Wollo, frequently are Muslims. Instead, these return migrants seem to have taken over characteristics of “the Other”.

Looking at the genesis and the spread of the virus in Ethiopia, it is easy to label it as an imported health catastrophe. Nevertheless, the government inefficiency in controlling contagious diseases like COVID-19 should not be ignored by only blaming returnee migrants and other travellers. Criminalizing migrant workers and their return home during COVID-19 cannot be a cover for the government’s failed preventive measures and unpreparedness. Migrants were heroes of their family and the village as they journey away taking risks to make things better for themselves and their loved ones. However, the general assumptions in times of COVID-19 about returnee migrants result in segregation, stigmatization, and alienation from their community and identity. Considering the implications of all these assumptions on migration imaginaries of potential transnational labour migrants in post–COVID-19, the future of transnational labour migration as a primary source of income for many households is at stake.