Diasporic Ethiopia: Migration and Exile


5:00 PM – 7:00 PM (UAE Time)
Session 8
Film Screening: Va’ Pensiero – Walking stories



Moderator & Discussant
Dagmawi Woubshet - Ahuja Family Presidential Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA

‘Ahun Lene’ - The Praxis Between Agency and Discipline in Ethiopian Women’s Repeated Migrations to the Middle East
Sehin Teferra – Founder of Setaweet Movement, PhD Gender Studies, SOAS, London, UK

One of the first actions taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the early days of the Political Reform process was traveling to Middle Eastern countries to negotiate the release of numerous Ethiopian citizens serving prison sentences for overstaying their permits. Despite the headline-grabbing stunts of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the political reform—often painful and confusing—has not addressed Ethiopians’ international migration and exile in a meaningful way. Ethiopian women and men continue to migrate in large numbers, legally and illegally. The International Organization for Migration estimates that around 1000 Ethiopian women travel to the Middle East every day with Saudi Arabia as the most common destination. Although there is much talk in international aid circles around trafficking and ‘modern-day slavery,’ most of the migration undertaken by Ethiopian women is voluntary, based on what Bina Fernandez terms ‘the will to change.’ Migrant women continue to travel to the Middle East in large numbers, despite widespread awareness of the dangers and the ill-treatment of Ethiopian women by their employers, and some make several trips in order to fulfill their ambitions and goals for a better life for themselves and their families.

In this panel on Diasporic Ethiopia: Migration and Exile, the paper will argue that Ethiopian women navigate their stay in their host countries, and often make repeat trips to the Middle East by applying personal agency and self-discipline, which come together in the form of performed docility as articulated by Saba Mahmood. The analysis will engage with the Foucauldian notion of discipline, which Ethiopian migrant women self-apply to survive in their roles as marginalized, Othered, and often invisible ‘housemaids.’ The title of the author’s talk – ‘Ahun Lene’ translates from Amharic as ‘This time, for me,’ and it is a quote by a returnee migrant in Wollo, Northern Ethiopia, who was planning a second trip to the United Arab Emirates in 2016. The respondent explained that she is planning a trip to make money ‘this time for me’ as her previous stay, difficult as it was, earned her enough money to make a difference in the lives of her immediate family. Other respondents in the research explained that repeat migrants fare better because they know how to dress, behave, and speak, in an example of self-discipline, preformed docility and personal agency.

Ethiopian Labor Migration to the Gulf Countries: Motivations, Recent Trends, and Policies

Asnake Kefale – Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

The rate of Ethiopia’s international migration (0.7%) is lower than the sub-Saharan African average (2.5%). There has been, however, a significant rise in outward migration from Ethiopia in recent years. The dominant cause is economic—the desire to have better economic opportunities abroad. The country has a high annual rate of population growth (2.36%). The country’s population structure, which is highly dominated by youth, also contributes to the growing trend of outward migration. In addition to socioeconomic issues (demographic pressures and unemployment), political instability, violence, and conflict all lead to outward migration.

This paper focuses on Ethiopian labor migration to the Arab Gulf countries. The migration is both irregular (undocumented) and regular (documented). The paper examines four interrelated issues: (1) motivations for migration to the Gulf countries (2) historical and recent trends in migration (3) socioeconomic impacts of migration and (4) implication of migration policies. First, the motivations for outward migration from Ethiopia are examined by the proverbial push and pull factors. Some of the major push factors that are examined in the paper include poverty, cultural and attitudinal factors, peer and family pressure, unemployment and landlessness, low wages, and advances in information and communication technologies. On the other hand, the pull factors include social, political, and economic factors. Second, historical and recent trends in Ethiopia’s outward migration are examined. Among other things, this part historicizes labor migration from Ethiopia to the Arab Gulf countries and considers recent developments. It, moreover, briefly discusses the distinction between irregular/regular migration and its routes. Third, the paper considers socioeconomic and gender impacts of migration. Fourth, the paper examines the impacts of policies that have been adopted by the Ethiopian government to contain irregular/illegal migration and also regularize labor migration to the gulf countries.

Narrating migrant stories, whose perspective?

Dagmawi Yimer – Filmmaker and co-founder, Archivio delle Memorie Migranti (Migrant Memory Archive)

  ‘’Our films predominantly reflect on people who become identified as immigrants rather than emigrants.’’

  The view of the immigrant, engaged in narrating migrant stories still lacks a certain perspective: in fact, the artist is conditioned by the audience to whom those stories are addressed. The artist mainly neglects the audience from which he/she comes from: the African audience.

  For some years now I have been developing a strong feeling that forces me to look back to that audience which my works don’t necessarily aim to reach. The migrant filmmaker is absorbed by the entire process: from the idealisation of the subject, to the production and distribution, it strongly depends on the audience to whom the films are addressed. This question comes from my previous film making experiences as well as from observing many African filmmakers operating in Europe. Our films predominantly frame immigrants and not emigrants, twisting the whole perspective and the focus of the stories.


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