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Refugees in Ethiopia Grow Impatient for Right to Work 

FILE - Eritrean refugees sew cloth during training in the Hitsats refugee camp in the Tigrai region of Ethiopia, Nov. 9, 2017.

Bethelihem Tesfatsion is a successful businesswoman who has sold thousands of hand-stitched Eritrean dresses worldwide, but she operates in the shadows, waiting for Ethiopia to make good on its promise to allow refugees to work.

As an Eritrean asylum-seeker, Bethelihem, 29, is not eligible for a work permit, so she got an Ethiopian friend to put his name on the business license in 2017 when she opened her shop in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

"It doesn't feel like the brand is mine," said Bethelihem, who left Eritrea five years ago to get treatment for a kidney problem and never returned — like tens of thousands who flee the tiny Horn of Africa country every year, citing political repression and lengthy military conscription.

"You always fear you do something that you're not supposed to do, that someone from the government is going to come after me."

Home to Africa's third-largest refugee population, Ethiopia won praise in January for passing a law giving 700,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers who have fled conflict, drought and persecution the right to live outside 26 camps where they are currently hosted.

'Very disappointed'

But 11 months after the Refugee Proclamation was announced — allowing refugees and asylum-seekers to work, open bank accounts, legally register births and marriages, and attend primary school — Bethelihem is frustrated Ethiopia has yet to pass further legislation to bring it to life.

"I am very disappointed," she said, as her sister and aunt busily packed a traditional white cotton dress with colorful edging to send abroad, while passers-by glanced in at the elegantly dressed mannequins in the window.

"We are sick of [waiting] because we have the capacity [to work]."

FILE - Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session of Parliament in Addis Ababa, Oct. 22, 2019.
FILE - Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session of Parliament in Addis Ababa, Oct. 22, 2019.

Politics may be preoccupying Ethiopia's leaders. Deadly clashes and protests have erupted following democratic reforms introduced by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since 2018, which lifted the lid on long-repressed ethnic tensions.

"The government has certainly not backed away from its commitments but it's not a top priority," said one aid worker who declined to be named.

"They have a lot on their plate," he said, adding that allowing refugees to work could add to the strain, amid high unemployment.

Eritreans struggling

As the U.N. readies for the first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva on December 17 — which aims to identify best practices to support refugees and get donors to make pledges — Ethiopia is seen as exemplary for seeking to boost refugees' self-reliance and ease the burden on host nations.

Eritrea, a country of 5 million people, is the world's ninth-largest source of refugees, with 500,000 registered. One in three Eritrean refugees lives in Ethiopia, one of Africa's poorest countries despite impressive growth.

Many of the 20,000 Eritreans in Addis Ababa find it hard to survive as they do not have the right to work and rely on informal jobs where they risk being exploited, a study by Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre found.

"Some of them are really struggling," said Bethelihem, who makes half of her sales online, mostly via Facebook and Instagram, to Eritreans in the United States, Europe and Australia who spend up to 9,000 birr ($299) on outfits for special occasions.

"They engage in child labor to support themselves [and] prostitution."

FILE - Eritrean nationals Goitom Tesfaye, 24, left, and Filimon Daniel, 23, are pictured at their garage in Mekele, Tigray region, Ethiopia, July 7, 2019.
FILE - Eritrean nationals Goitom Tesfaye, 24, left, and Filimon Daniel, 23, are pictured at their garage in Mekele, Tigray region, Ethiopia, July 7, 2019.

The U.N. allows Eritreans to live in the capital if they can prove they have financial support from friends or family. But remittances are not a reliable source of income and many Eritreans in Addis Ababa work as poorly paid waiters, hairdressers or plumbers, Bethelihem said.

"Family members in the diaspora are desperately wanting the refugees to take care of themselves," said Bethelihem, whose sisters work with her in the shop, having also left Eritrea to escape indefinite national service, which Human Rights Watch has said includes hard labor and physical abuse.

‘Remaining tasks’

Refugees can already register births and marriages, open bank accounts and buy mobile phone SIM cards, said Addisu Kebenessa, deputy director general of the government's Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs.

"Most of the [Refugee] Proclamation is already implemented," he said, adding that work and residence permits are the two "remaining tasks," with a long-term goal of ending refugee encampment by 2030.

Addis Ababa's Nefas Silk Polytechnic College offers a hopeful vision of a more inclusive world, as donors struggle to provide for record numbers in need of aid and U.S. and European hostility to refugees and migrants grows.

Dozens of refugees and Ethiopians learn cooking, sewing, welding and other skills at the college, which is supported by GIZ, a German development agency.

"We treat the refugees as regular students," dean Melese Yigzaw said.

One of his students is Ayda Gebremichael, who left Eritrea with her husband and three children five months ago. They plan to build a life in Addis Ababa if they can find decent work — with a dream of moving to Canada in the future.

"Sometimes, I forget that I am a refugee here," said Ayda, 28, as she took a break from her sewing class.

Reduction of tension

Bringing the two groups together to study can also reduce tensions that often erupt when large numbers of refugees arrive, overwhelming local services — a problem faced from Germany and Jordan to Brazil and Kenya.

"We have to make sure both refugees and host communities benefit from our interventions," said Moges Tamene, a program manager with DanChurchAid, which works with refugees throughout Ethiopia.

"So far it has never been the case," he said, highlighting camps in the western Gambella region where South Sudanese refugees outnumber locals and receive clean water, while Ethiopians a few kilometers away drink from a river.

Ethiopia has promised to create 30,000 jobs for refugees as part of its industrialization drive, but Bethelihem is not interesting in working in a factory where garment workers earn about $26 a month, according to the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

"Nobody will go there," Bethelihem said. "We have the capacity to be self-reliant and even to support the host community."