January 31, 2008

Oromo: When Migration Results in Degradation

Because of a denial of basic human rights Oromo’s flee their country to escape persecution and violence. They continue to live in poverty and encounter hardship.

Because of a denial of basic human rights Oromo’s flee their country to escape persecution and violence. They continue to live in poverty and encounter hardship.

Below is an article published in the Yemen Times:

A young man proudly stands behind the Oromo flag in a small room where Jamal Abdu Wadai often spends hours discussing the social affairs regarding Yemen’s Oromo community. Wadai claims to be the leader of the Oromo community in Sana’a.

The word “Oromo” is written boldly on the wall of another room where three mothers sit with their small children. On the other wall of the room is a poster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A medium-sized television in the corner broadcasts Oromo programs.

The Oromos gather in the first room with the flag after the second becomes too crowded and likely has no window for ventilation, which reflects their poor conditions. They begin speaking about their life and the problems they face in Yemen.

Wadai explains that the Oromos are the largest refugee group in Africa, dwelling in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa and Somalia. Some have sought refuge in the United States and Europe, while there are more than 40,000 Oromos in Yemen.

He continues, “We used to have our own independent state, but Ethiopia besieged our land 120 years ago. When the Ethiopians – whom we call Abyssinians – occupied our country, they changed the name of our capital, Finfinne, to Addis Ababa. Our country, Oromia, was rich in agriculture and natural wealth; thus, it was a land of blessings.”

Oromos are an indigenous African ethnic group found in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent in Kenya. With a population of 25 million, they are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia. Oromo nationalists established the Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF, in 1973 to promote the Oromo people’s self-determination against the Ethiopian government. 

Wadai was an active member of the OLF, for which Ethiopian authorities detained him several times. Four of his fellow inmates died from torture, but he survived. “The last time I was imprisoned in 2005, I got out only after my relatives bribed the guards with $1,000,” he recounts, noting that he immediately came to Yemen.

Hailing from a strong family that has struggled alongside the OLF for a long time, Wadai maintains that approximately 45 of his family members have died in the struggle for liberation since 1994.

With three wives and four children, the eldest of which is a 21-year-old son, one wife lives in Djibouti while the other two remain in Ethiopia. “Because of my support of the OLF, my daughter, who is 17, was refused permission to study in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian authorities even threatened her with death and detained her mother for a month before releasing her on bail,” he recounts, describing how he misses them, “My eagerness to see them is immeasurable, but I’m helpless here.”

He explains his badly injured left thigh, which has left him crippled, saying, “Ethiopian forces shot me when I joined the OLF in 1977.”

Besides translating Arabic into Oromo back in his home country, Wadai also sold Harari qat – Ethiopia’s best – to Yemeni officials. “I sold qat from our qat fields to Yemeni officials through Yemen’s embassy in Addis Ababa, selling between 20 and 25 kilos per day. The Yemeni Embassy then transported it to Yemen by air, with each kilogram costing $50,” Wadai recalls.

Illegal immigrants

Oromos began flowing into Yemen in 1991, the same time Somalis were fleeing to Yemen due to war in that country. While Yemen is a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it only grants automatic refugee status to Somalis. Other African migrants, including Oromos, are regarded as illegal immigrants and therefore, not granted refugee status. Only in exceptional cases does Yemen’s branch of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, grant Ethiopians and Eritreans refugee status.

According to Ministry of Interior statistics, there are 800,000 African immigrants in Yemen, mostly Somalis. However, UNHCR estimates 113,000 Africans – again, mostly Somalis – registered in Yemen through the end of 2007; and, in fact, it says the number is even more because not all Africans entering Yemen register. More than 29,500 arrived at Yemeni shores in 2007 alone, with more than 1,400 dying or still missing – and presumed dead – while making the hazardous journey.

“Oromos keep coming to Yemen, particularly after the Ethiopians defeated the Islamic Courts and entered Mogadishu,” Wadai notes. According to him, 380 Oromo migrants arrived to Yemen Jan. 27 on smuggling boats and 120 died when their boat capsized offshore.

He maintains that the main reason Oromos come to Yemen is persecution by Ethiopian authorities, adding that Yemeni authorities arrest many of them and deport them back to Ethiopia. “When Oromos are deported, Ethiopian authorities treat them harshly, torturing them even harsher than Israeli forces torture Palestinians,” he claims.

Oromos living in Yemen have menial jobs, with some working in sewage works and women working as house cleaners. “Very few of us have good jobs, such as translators or medical lab specialists,” Wadai laments. Oromos also work in qat fields, particularly in Al-Beidha governorate.

Hardships and trampled rights

The biggest problem the Oromo community faces in Yemen is that they aren’t granted refugee status and, unlike Somalis, they don’t possess refugee cards. As Wadai explains, “When they [Oromos] seek work, they are asked to show their refugee card, which they don’t have; thus, they lose out on many job opportunities.”

Further, he indicates that Oromo women also face problems in Yemeni hospitals because of not having a refugee card. “When a woman is sent to a government hospital to deliver a baby, health workers request to see her marriage contract and if she doesn’t have one, she’s arrested and accused of prostitution. In such cases, we intervene by obtaining a letter from the Yemeni leader of her neighborhood, affirming that she’s married. However, many married Oromo women don’t have a marriage contract,” he notes.

For this reason, Wadai says many married Oromo women prefer giving birth at home rather than hospital deliveries.

He cited another example of an Oromo woman who encountered problems on the job due to not having a refugee card, recounting, “Beginning in 2007, one Oromo woman worked as a maid for a Yemeni family for about a year. She received her monthly salary regularly, but they procrastinated giving her money during the last four months. In the end, she resorted to shouting outside their house, demanding her money, so they took her to a Sana’a police station.”

He continued, “Because she had no employment contract, police jailed her, but then released her on bail shortly thereafter. However, when her husband went to file a complaint against the family at another police station, they jailed him and took his refugee card, which had been issued by UNHCR. They demanded he pay $100 to get his card back and it remains there until now.”

Wadai claims that the members of his community don’t enjoy their full rights because they aren’t recognized as refugees. “Getting a job is contingent upon a refugee card, the obtaining of which increases the chances of getting a job,” he explains.

Renting a house is another problem for those without refugee cards, which only five or six out of every 100 Oromos in Yemen have, Wadai indicates.

Oromo children can’t attend public schools in Yemen for the same reason. “Children are left home alone while their parents work or look for work. Their parents tie them up like dogs to ensure that they stay in the house. What kind of a life is this?” he asks.

Despite all of these hardships, Wadai is exceedingly thankful that the Yemeni government at least has allowed those Oromos already in the country to remain.

However, concluding his comments, he declares, “We call on international and local charities to assist us, in addition to Yemeni businesspeople to support us.”