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Ethiopia’s migrants flip to intercourse work as pandemic sends them residence

Yemisrach hid her injured face behind dark glasses and said she was brutally beaten the night before by a client who refused to pay her and then turned violent.

“I just want to get out of this dirty job … It does more harm than good,” said 28-year-old Yemisrach, who asked to be identified by her first name in the largest red light district in the Ethiopian capital.

“I’m staying at work because I have no other options,” she said.

More than 15,000 migrant women have returned to Ethiopia since April 2020, according to UN data, and some like Yemisrach have become sex workers – putting them at increased risk of violence or human trafficking, local charities warned.

The migrants – some deported, others voluntarily repatriated after losing their jobs – have been helped by the government and charities to return to remote villages and towns in the vast Horn of Africa.

But many returnees have chosen to stay in Addis Ababa – ashamed of returning empty-handed to families who have sometimes taken out loans or sold real estate to fund migrants’ trips as they usually send part of their income home.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of Ethiopians travel illegally to the oil-rich Gulf States every year to find better-paid jobs. Many are exploited as maids or on construction sites.


Solomon Hagos, program director of a local charity that helps sex workers – the Bethsaida Restoration Development Association – said COVID-19 may have pushed more returning migrants into the sex trade, despite a lack of official data.

He said lockdown curbs had made it harder for activists to get in touch with sex workers, fearing some destitute ex-migrants might be lured back overseas by brokers or human traffickers.

“Returnees will try all possible means to return to the Middle East,” he said.

The capital’s informal red light district, Sebategna, is close to Merkato, the city’s largest market. Hundreds of women rent tiny rooms in the neighborhood for up to 300 birr ($ 7.48) a day and only earn 50 birr for sex.

Yenenesh Tilahun, a former migrant worker who runs a beauty salon near Yemisrach, said she has seen an increase in the number of sex workers since the pandemic. Many customers have told her that they used to work abroad.

“It has grown so much. There are no more rooms to rent. Most women are standing on the asphalt road,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she straightened the hair of one of her sex worker clients.

“These days, Arab countries are closing their doors … These women have no other alternative to feed themselves when they come back than to get into sex work,” she said.

“It hurts you”

Sex work is widespread in Ethiopia and an estimated 210,000 women are sex workers, according to the government. Some use it to save enough money to pay smugglers to take them to the Gulf or Europe in search of a better life.

While prostitution is not illegal in Ethiopia, four sex workers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were often molested, beaten, robbed by customers and felt looked down upon.

Two of the women said that after their return last year, despite promised support, they felt abandoned by the state. Most charities stopped their activities at the beginning of the pandemic and left them to fend for themselves.

A ministry of labor and social affairs spokesman said he could only comment on legal migrants, not irregular ones, and referred questions to ministries of peace and foreign affairs that were not immediately available for comment.

For Ikram, who has been selling sex in Addis Ababa since his deportation from Yemen a year ago, home remains a distant dream.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back because my father spent a lot of money on me,” said the 25-year-old, declining to give her full name.

“It hurts you psychologically when parents invest a lot in you and expect a return, but you come back empty-handed. You can’t even survive on your own, let alone support them … That’s why we end up here.”