Faced with the lack of options for safe and legal migration opportunities, thousands of Ethiopians leave the country every year using irregular channels to reach destinations in Northern Africa and Europe, the Gulf States and Southern Africa. These journeys are often risky, with thousands of Ethiopians believed to have died or gone missing, whether due to violence, vehicle accidents, shipwrecks or lack of access to medicine, shelter and food along the way.
The mothers, fathers, partners, siblings, children and other loved ones of these migrants receive little political or public attention.
The research we conducted shows how one life missing or lost can impact other lives, and that these effects can be far-reaching and last a lifetime.
The ambiguous loss experienced by people who do not know the fate of their loved ones can be crippling. As a result of their relative’s disappearance, the families we spoke to in Ethiopia indicated that they experienced a vast range of physical, psychological and behavioural issues – ranging from anxiety, depression, hopelessness, stress, sadness and loneliness to sleep disturbance, inability to focus, loss of appetite and paralysis. Some also reported having family members who attempted suicide following the disappearances or deaths of their relatives on migration journeys, overcome by the regret of having encouraged or even pressured them to take risky journeys.
While such experiences are common in other situations in which people disappear (such as in disasters or conflict), we also learned about impacts on families that are more specific to the context of international migration.
There are significant financial impacts of having a missing migrant relative. Poverty and a lack of employment opportunities were cited as important factors as to why young Ethiopians choose to migrate in the first place. In situations in which they go missing or die, families confront costs associated with the search, as well as managing the remains (if found) and often the remaining debt to brokers and smuggling networks. The responsibility to continue paying off this debt often falls on women – the wives left behind. The general livelihoods of many families are also impacted, as they were often depending on the economic support that their migrant relatives were expected to provide had their journeys been successful. These losses are compounded when deaths or disappearances involve multiple children in a single family.
An Ethiopian father of two missing sons recalled:
“My sons were my hope. One died during an earlier migration [journey]. The second went to search for him and also to try his luck and reach South Africa. He went missing as well. It was last year when he called after arriving in Malawi. He never called again. I am dying twice: [because] I lost them and [because] I lost hope. They used to help me till and farm the land. They were my pride. They were my hope. I am getting older and weaker. I can’t work. I rely on my relatives for agricultural labour, but they can only help me after finishing with their own farming…In the village, children change their families’ lives through migration. They buy new houses for their family. They buy oxen to plough the land. Everyone’s life changed here after migration to South Africa [started]. But look at my life, which is becoming hell. I cannot even pay the money lender. I am living with debt. My wife is already bedridden.”
In all the countries where we spoke to people with missing migrant family members, including Ethiopia, people were neither silent nor passive victims. In the absence of state-funded bodies to adequately address their needs, the families themselves push their cases forward and develop their own networks and support structures to search for the missing – and in the process, cope with the grief and the social, legal and economic hardships.
In Ethiopia, we noted that families of missing migrants find support in existing social groups. For example, Community Coalition Care Groups (CCCs), which commonly operate in villages in the country, have been effective in mobilizing psychosocial and economic support for people who have relatives missing during migration journeys in southern Ethiopia. This includes training in technical and vocational skills and helping them start small businesses, as well as raising funds to cover school fees, supplies and uniforms for children whose parents are missing. CCCs also advocate for families with migrant relatives to be included and prioritized in various government livelihood improvement programmes such as the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP).12
Without specific state processes for filing missing migrant cases in Ethiopia, families also used another type of diaspora and community-based association, known as Iddir, to address some of their economic and social struggles. Iddir rely on contributions from their members, who pool money to minimize the adverse effects of sudden shocks or crises, including the disappearances or deaths of family members. In the Hadiya Zone, the research found that following the deaths of Ethiopian migrants in South Africa, local iddir often covered the costs associated with the repatriation of the person’s remains. Usually, iddir members in the place of origin also support the families of missing and deceased migrants by taking care of children and older family members, by hiring people to till agricultural plots or by pulling together a community labour force during the time of the harvest. The families of missing migrants we interviewed also relied on their iddir network in the search for their missing loved ones, as members often have contacts with smuggling facilitators and can help try to determine whether the person was detained by authorities, kidnapped or possibly died en route.
Church-based women and youth associations in Ethiopia’s southern region of Hadiya can be another source of emotional support, such as through prayer services and gatherings for families of missing and deceased migrants.
The mother of a missing migrant described how she finds comfort in her church:
“Our fellow church members are the ones who persistently comfort me. They arrange a prayer programme frequently. They always advise me to keep praying. The pastor of our church has also told me that nothing bad will happen to my son. He also said that my son will come back sooner or later. When they prayed for me and I heard such words, I felt completely relieved. They always advise me to think [positively] and hope for the good.”
Still, these community groups and informal search mechanisms are filling a gap left by the state, who is ultimately responsible for investigating missing persons cases and supporting families in their search.
For meaningful action in this regard, there needs to be a shift to a more humanitarian understanding of the issue of missing migrants in public and policy discussions, as well as new forms of cooperation across borders to search for information about those who go missing or perish. One concrete step would be for countries along migration journeys to grant visas for family members with missing migrant relatives to search for their loved ones and seek closure.
As it stands, the opportunity for Ethiopian nationals to travel to Libya and other countries where their missing sons or daughters might be, whether to search for information about their whereabouts or to visit their final resting places, is simply not there.
More than 150 countries, including Ethiopia, have committed to the Global Compact on Migration. While all 23 objectives of the Compact cannot be achieved immediately, more action on Objective 8 “to save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants” is urgently needed.
With the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) is carrying out a qualitative research project in four different countries with people who have relatives who went missing along migration routes. Our goal is to better understand how relatives cope with the uncertainty and tragedy while actively seeking answers, and to make recommendations over how governments and other actors can better support their efforts. One of the countries of the project is Ethiopia. This blog provides an overview of some of the main impacts of having a missing migrant family member and how those left behind benefit from existing community-based support systems to cope. The full country report will be published in the first quarter of 2021.
The authors note that the COVID-19 pandemic and the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that erupted in October 2020 are exacerbating the issues discussed in this blog and that were found through the project’s research. The pandemic has had disproportionate (negative)effects on people already in vulnerable situations, including those with missing migrant relatives. Furthermore, community groups may not be able to meet and support each other as much as they could previously, such as when this research was conducted. The violence in Tigray has meanwhile driven tens of thousands of people from their homes, resulting in potentially more risks of family separation or decisions to take dangerous migration journeys to other countries.