A ban on Eritrean refugees working in Ethiopia is hampering efforts to reduce illegal “secondary” migration, with tens of thousands risking violence and drowning in pursuit of a better life, the Overseas Development Institute said on Thursday.
"Ethiopia is a vital country of asylum, offering the prospect of freedom and security," said the British think tank, but it added: "Refugees are not allowed to work in Ethiopia, making it hard to build a future in the country."
Hence, it said, most Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopian camps wanted to escape to a third country in the hope of winning work, security and a settled life.
About 5,000 refugees flee Eritrea each month to escape poverty, political persecution and the prospect of potentially indefinite military conscription.
Some 155,207 currently live in neighboring Ethiopia, home to nearly a million refugees - the second largest refugee population in Africa - thanks to its open-door asylum policy.
But in 2014, 84 percent of Eritreans interviewed in Ethiopia said they planned on‘moving to another country’, while around two-thirds pursued so-called secondary migration in 2015, according to Amnesty International.
"People tend to give life a go in neighboring places – Sudan, Ethiopia – and only turn to options further afield once they realize those situations aren’t tenable in practice," Richard Mallett, one of the report's authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many are then destined for Europe, undeterred by increasingly restrictive immigration policies, with Eritreans forming the fifth largest group of irregular arrivals on European shores in 2016.
Most crossed from Libya, the most dangerous route over the Mediterranean, exposed to violence, torture by smugglers, and the deadly risk of the sea itself, according to a report by Medicins Sans Frontieres published last month.
According to the ODI report, those who embark on the often perilous onwards journey from the Horn of Africa do so despite the promise of comparative freedom and security in Ethiopia, and the livelihood support policies, such as loan and training programs, offered by NGOs there.
Because Eritreans are prevented from legally accessing the Ethiopian labor market -- in contravention of the right-to-work enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention -- any skills and capital they acquire through such programs cannot be put to full use, the report said, causing frustration and hopelessness.
Under Ethiopian law, refugees are prevented from engaging in formal employment, regardless of whether they live in camps or cities, though some find casual labor or bend the rules.
The evidence suggests that many people will be more inclined to stay in Ethiopia if refugee labor rights are enhanced, the report said, since informal work is often insecure, badly paid, and exploitative. For women it can mean prostitution.
The World Bank, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and other international organizations have highlighted the success of nearby countries, such as Uganda, which offer refugees extensive employment rights.
It said Ethiopia’s refugee policies were counterproductive.
“The support that is being provided by such programs is for the most part overshadowed by refugees’ lack of access to decent work – work that is reliable, adequately paid and that draws on their skills,” the report said.