Feature Articles

Blinded by Hope: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices…

Ethiopian migrants on their way to Saudi Arabia rest at Haradh, on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Photo credit: Samuel Aranda/Panos

Blinded by Hope: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Ethiopian migrants

June 11, 2014. Written by: Bram Frouws / RMMS


“If only they knew what was waiting for them, they would never come.” This is the common cry of those who read about the perils migrants face in Yemen and elsewhere and those who work in programmes to protect migrants.  “We need to implement outreach programmes to the communities to warn them,” is often the response.

But a new study by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), somewhat shockingly, shows that these assumptions are probably wrong. The findings point to a surprisingly high level of risk-taking by migrants who are so blinded by hope that they believe they will make the journey without too much damage and be numbered among the very few who can claim their migration outcomes were as good as, or better than, expected.

Ethiopian migrants constitute the largest group of mixed flow migrants in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region. Every year thousands of Ethiopians, many from poor and rural areas, embark on dangerous overland journeys and sea crossings in order to reach Yemen and eventually Saudi Arabia or other rich Gulf states. In fact over 300,000 have made the journey in the last eight years.

While transiting through Ethiopia, Djibouti, Puntland and/or Somaliland, and inside Yemen especially, they face many risks, including dehydration, severe physical abuse and murder by smugglers and brokers, sexual abuse and arbitrary arrest, detention, expulsion and deportation by authorities. Previous publications by RMMS and other agencies, such as the recent Human Rights Watch report: Yemen’s Torture Camps, graphically detail the risks. Despite this many migrants are repeating the journey for the second, third and even fourth time. To what extent are migrants aware of all these risks, and if they are, why would they still go? How do they feel about migration and how do their expectations compare to actual migration experiences? Did they attain their migration goals and would they migrate again? Are they simply too blinded by hope to care?

DRC Yemen and RMMS recently carried out research on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of Ethiopian migrants which answers these and other questions. In total just under 400 Ethiopians were interviewed. Some highlights from the findings follow:

Migration drivers and decisions: a strong culture of migration

Starting with the obvious, economic factors are the most common migration drivers for all Ethiopian migrants, followed by (and somewhat related to) a sense of responsibility for their family. A mix of misinformation by brokers and smugglers, as well as migration success stories and political reasons were also significant for all migrants but not the leading drivers. Related to what is called a ‘culture of migration’, family, peers and the community put pressure on young Ethiopians to migrate. There exists a strong positive perception towards (irregular) migration, which is seen as the only viable option for escaping poverty. This perception is held also at any cost and despite all evidence that the chances of failed expectations are high and the chances of being robbed and hurt are even higher.

Overall – despite the risks – potential migrants (those who are still in Ethiopia) preferred irregular migration over regular migration. They mentioned lower costs (even though the facts tell a different story, as regular labour migration is supposed to be cheaper), the expectation that irregular migration will give them better jobs, the availability of ‘brokers’ who facilitate irregular movement and the low accessibility of regular channels as reasons for this preference.

A substantial proportion of current migrants and returnees say that, now that they experienced the risks, they would opt for the regular route next time. However, because male migrants have few options of migrating through regular labour channels to the Gulf, the hope of migrating regularly ‘next time’ may be unrealistic. In fact, in recent months many of those who were among the 160,000 Ethiopian migrants deported from Saudi Arabia as part of a massive crack down on irregular migration were detected trying once again to enter Yemen and Saudi Arabia irregularly. 

Actual experience of risks and violations

Nevertheless, when taking into account the huge risks and actual violations that migrants experience, it comes as no surprise that those who recently went to Yemen initially say they would opt for regular migration next time. The study shows a dramatic scale of abuse experienced and/or witnessed by migrants as they pass through Ethiopia, other parts of the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For example:

·              Exhaustion, dehydration, starvation and deprivation of sleep was experienced and/or witnessed by the majority in both Ethiopia (65%) and Yemen (93%).

·              Mild to moderate physical abuse like slapping, beating, punching, whipping by brokers, smugglers and traffickers was experienced and/or witnessed by many in Ethiopia (37%) and Yemen (80%).

·              Extreme physical abuse, including burning, gunshot wounds, suspension by feet for days by brokers, smugglers and traffickers was experienced and/or witnessed by few in Ethiopia (10%) but many in Yemen (70%).

·              There was minimal criminal kidnapping for ransom in Ethiopia (15%) but this was experienced and/or witnessed in Yemen by a very high number (75%).

·              Extortion and robbery was present in Ethiopia (34%), but far more common in Yemen (74%).

·              Sexual abuse including rape was witnessed and/or experienced in Ethiopia by an alarmingly high number of migrants (19%) but by a much higher number in Yemen (49%).

·              Additionally, returnees claimed to have witnessed and/or experienced forced prostitution or commercial sexual exploitation in both Ethiopia (10%) and Yemen (38%).  

Risk awareness

The most dramatic findings of this survey are those that illustrate the level of awareness and advance knowledge migrants have of these risks and violations. Strikingly large proportions of migrants have knowledge about very serious protection risks they may face during migration. In fact, compared to other knowledge about migration to the Gulf such as the routes, costs and duration, potential migrants even consider they have the best information about the type and degree of risks and obstacles they might face. Over 80% of potential migrants reported they have heard about extortion and robbery, exhaustion, dehydration, starvation and deprivation of sleep, mild to moderate or extreme physical violence, criminal kidnapping for ransom and degrading treatment and verbal and sexual abuse. Being well aware of the risk of sexual abuse, 59% of female returnees stated they had taken contraceptives in preparation of their migration.

Additionally, almost all potential migrants and returnees in the survey believe that the risks have increased in prevalence and severity over the past few years, which is consistent with findings in most reports, which indicate the level of abuse against irregular migrants in the region is rising. 

Yet they continue to go. It is often assumed that migrants, while aware of all these risks, downplay the chance it might actually happen to them. The survey results show that this is not true. Over 80% of potential migrants either said they expected to experience these violations or said it might happen to them. Only 18% stated that they do not think they would be subjected to these risks. Moreover, the survey results show that many seem to be prepared to endure these risks. Almost half of the potential migrants think the benefits of migration are worth the protection risks – an acceptable price to pay when compared with alternative options?

In their decision to migrate, migrants thus attach relatively more weight to the perceived benefits of irregular migration than to the risks involved.  In short, it seems the migration drivers are simply stronger than the fear all these risks might evoke.

The implications, of course, are that informing migrants about the risks in awareness raising campaigns may not act as a deterrent. Mere awareness raising campaigns on the protection risks of irregular migration will only instil fear and apprehension, but that fear is generally not strong enough to make them stay at home or opt for safer and regular migration (although this option is often not even available).

Another powerful finding from this new research was that so many migrants continue to go, even though many previously experienced migration failures. Many returnees (70%) state they did not achieve any of their goals by migrating. None said they got a better job than expected. Only 4% said they achieved most of their goals - a remarkably low success rate.

Yet new data suggests that after a sudden fall in numbers of Ethiopians going to Yemen and Saudi Arabia at the end of 2013 (coinciding with the Saudi crackdown) Ethiopians are once again arriving in significant and increasing numbers along this route. Even those who suffered so much in the past, who did not even succeed the first or the second time and who were deported by Saudi authorities, were right back on the April and May boats crossing the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to Yemen. They know they might walk straight into abuse and they know the chances of succeeding are very limited, yet they continue to leave Ethiopia.

Share this article


Feature Article

Contact Us

Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat
DRC East Africa & Great Lakes
Lower Kabete Road
(Ngecha Road Junction)
P.O.Box 14762, 00800
Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254 709867 000


Subscribe to our monthly email alerts with mixed migration summaries, maps, feature articles and other new RMMS publications

Follow RMMS



Our Donors


The RMMS is primarily funded by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss government and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development , with support from other donors for specific projects.