A group of 147 Ethiopian migrants detained in Zambian jails for between one and five years returned home last week, with the help of IOM.
The migrants, who included 11 children, started their journeys at different times over the course of 2011 and 2015.
Most of them were headed for South Africa, where they were hoping to find employment and join family members already living and working there.
With the help of smugglers, they travelled from Ethiopia through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia – a journey of approximately 4,000 km – which took between two to three weeks.
The migrants reported having paid between USD 4,000 and USD 5,000 to smugglers.
“My brother and my father paid the smugglers 90,000 Ethiopian Birrs (USD 4,000). They then gave me around USD 200 pocket money, but the ‘bosses’ (smugglers ‘appointed’ in each country) took my money and gave us little food and water during our journey. When we were in Tanzania we didn’t eat for two days. Sometimes we had to sleep in the forest, on the wet ground,” said Tamrat Desalgn, a 23-year-old migrant from the southern part of Ethiopia.
Undocumented migrants in Zambia normally receive a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for “consenting to be smuggled”.
Migrants are mostly unaware they are at risk of imprisonment once they cross the Zambian border from Tanzania.
“When the day of our court hearing came, we were all given 15-year sentences. I was shocked….I couldn’t understand why 15 years. That day we all sat under a tree and cried. We cried under that tree every day for a week. We were worried about our future,” said Desalgn.
Following intense advocacy by the Ethiopian government, UN and NGO partners, the 147 migrants were pardoned by President Edgar Lungu on 24 December 2016.
Immediately after the pardon, IOM Zambia conducted an assessment of the migrants and found them to be all eligible to be returned home to Ethiopia under IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program.
With the help of the Zambian government and the Ethiopian embassy in Harare, identification documents were provided to all the migrants, together with food, clothes, air tickets to Addis Ababa and a travel allowance of approximately USD 40 per each migrant.
“We are very satisfied with how swiftly we were able to assist the migrants return home following the pardon by the Zambian President. By working closely with the Immigration Department, the Zambia Correctional Services and the Ethiopian embassy in Harare, we ensured the safe return of people, many of whom had lost hope of returning home after spending a long time in prison,” said Abibatou Wane, IOM Zambia’s Chief of Mission.
On 26 January 2017, the migrants boarded a plane from Lusaka, Zambia, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they spent the night at IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Returnees’ Transit Centre before travelling to their homes.
The 11 children were taken to a children’s shelter where IOM, in partnership with UNICEF, is currently assisting them with family tracing.
The operation was funded by a pool of donors including the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, IOM’s Global Assistance Fund and IOM’s non-profit US Association for International Migration (USAIM).