Lifelong Refugees Ethiopia Is the Ultimate Destination for Many Fleeing Home

Only a small percentage of the world's refugees ever reach Europe. Most never even leave the continent they are originally from. Some of the world's poorest nations as hosts to millions of refugees, including Ethiopia.

Maheder Haileselassie

By Sophia Bogner and Paul Hertzberg


Mupenzi Nkera has spent his entire life as a refugee. As a child, he was forced to leave his homeland of Congo when civil war broke out. Today, Mupenzi is 24 years old and lives in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. It is a place he never thought he would end up.

He's not doing too bad: He has a small apartment and a job repairing televisions. He could easily stay here. But if it were up to Mupenzi, he would continue his journey.

Ethiopia - A Stopover for Most

There are 68.5 million refugees around the world, more than ever before. Most of them never manage to reach Europe or some other stable region. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 85 percent of them end up finding refuge in developing countries that are themselves neither prosperous nor crisis-proof.

One of those countries is Ethiopia, a poor place in an even poorer neighborhood. It is home to almost a million refugees, with almost no other country in Africa having taken in as many people. They come from Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, and for most of those who arrive here, Ethiopia is intended just a stopover. They want to continue their journey to the West, to Europe. And ultimately, the number of these people who will actually set out across the Mediterranean depends heavily on whether Ethiopia succeeds in integrating them.

Mupenzi has lived in Addis Ababa for two years, but he's finding it impossible to learn Amharic, the national language. When he speaks about Congo, he does so in English. He says almost apologetically that he forgot French during in his years as a refugee. Mupenzi is a small man, so polite that he bows when he shakes your hand. He really wants to tell his story, but he's already bursting into tears by the second sentence. "They shot my mother," he says. "The enemies came in the night and killed her." Mupenzi doesn't even know who those enemies were, though he presumes that they belonged to an enemy clan. "Run!" his mother had shouted. He was 11 years old at the time. He heard the gunshots as he fled through the darkness with his father.

A Safe but Hard Life

A few months later, Mupenzi's father was also killed -- and again, he doesn't know for sure who did it. Mupenzi fled together with his brother -- first to Uganda and then to Kenya. In 2010, after four years of flight, they reached Ethiopia, where he and his brother were taken to a camp, as happens with almost all refugees here.

A total of over 900,000 people live in the camps, which are located at the borders. They are run by the UNHCR together with the Ethiopian government. Several people live in each tent and they are provided with necessities like medicine, drinking water and a place to sleep. Food rations, which include a sack of rice, flour, and a can of oil, are distributed weekly. Hundreds of thousands of people spend their days searching for firewood, and at night, the air is filled with the smoke of tens of thousands of cooking fires.

Mopani and his brother stayed here for seven years until they received permission to leave the camp in 2017 and they've been living in Addis Ababa ever since. Mupenzi says he's happy to be here -- the Ethiopians have taken him in and he feels safe. But, he adds, "life is also hard here." He has very little money and no chance of getting an education. Every Sunday, he prays for a better future. "God willing," Mupenzi says, folding his hands as if in prayer, "I will make it to Europe, maybe to Scandinavia."

Working and Living Outside the Camps

"This dream of the West is the biggest hurdle to integration," says Mahlet Kinfe. "No one can build a new life in Ethiopia if they're just waiting to move on." Mahlet works for ZOA, a Dutch NGO that offers integration and training courses for refugees. Some 90 percent of the refugees still live in the camps and take almost no part in everyday life in Ethiopia. But that's about to change. In January, the country's parliament passed a new law that will allow refugees to live and work outside the camps in the future. This law is considered one of the most progressive in Africa, but it also means that Ethiopia may have to integrate almost a million people. "It's an almost impossible task," says Mahlet.

If it should be easy for anyone to establish a new home in Ethiopia, then that person ought to be Samar Murat. She escaped from Yemen to Addis Ababa four years ago. Samar is 23, a young woman with a headscarf sitting straight in her chair, a small handbag on her lap. She also happens to be half Ethiopian. She speaks perfect Amharic and her family lives in the Ethiopian capital. But Samar says she doesn't want to stay here either. Her new life is poorer and tougher than it had been in Yemen before the war.

Samar grew up in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. "We had a nice house, a garden, each of us had our own room." She says her father took care of everything. When the first bombs fell, he also ensured that the family got out of the country. At night he gathered his wife and children and took them to the sea where a boat was waiting to take them across to Djibouti. "When my father saw it," Samar says, "he protested." It looked too small and ramshackle to him. But at that very moment, shells struck only a few kilometers away and flames shot up. Samar and her family had no choice but to entrust their lives to the boat and the traffickers.

Refugees in Their Own Country

Samar's family never had to sleep in a camp -- their Ethiopian relatives provided guarantees for them. But her father wasn't allowed to work in the country and the family was assigned to a kind of social housing. Samar didn't go to school any longer, and at some point, her father went back to Yemen. Her mother seldom left the apartment. Samar was now taking care of her younger siblings. She underwent group trauma therapy at ZOA and also learned to sew there. She says she'd like to be a designer in the West, preferably in Canada. "I've heard Muslims are welcome there," she says. It's difficult for her to really say why she sees no future for herself in Ethiopia. She's safer here than she is in Yemen, but the truth is that Ethiopia is one of world's poorest countries.

"Many people in Europe believe Ethiopia is a stable country," says René Vlug, country director at ZOA. The economy is growing, skyscrapers are going up in the capital city and the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is considered by many to be a kind of African Obama. But progress has mainly been achieved in the capital. "Most areas, especially the border regions, are poor and remote," says Vlug. On top of that comes the fact that ethnic tensions are on the rise across the country. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and Somali regions are all fighting for greater power, and in the case of the Oromo, even for its own state.

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There are already more than 3 million people living in Ethiopia who have lost their homes as a result of the conflicts in their regions. These internally displaced persons (IDPs), are refugees in their own country and no country in the world has more IDPs than Ethiopia. Their situation could be further aggravated by the influx of refugees from neighboring countries. "Many refugees, especially those from Eritrea and Somalia, belong to ethnic groups that are also present in Ethiopia," says Vlug. "When more and more of them come, they change the balance of power."

'Trump Doesn't Want Muslims'

"I don't care who belongs to which ethnic group," says Nabiha Abdi, who is a refugee herself.

With her aviator glasses and black lace hijab, she looks like she could be an actress in an Arab soap opera. She's only 23, but she speaks eloquently. She spent the first 13 years of her life behind the walls of her parents' house because a war was raging outside. Nabiha grew up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. One night 10 years ago, her father came home and said: "Pack everything up, we're leaving the country." The family spent three days hiding among the goods carried by a large truck. "It was dark. We were all scared," Nabiha says. The truck was stopped and checked three times, but they were never caught. Then they reached Ethiopia.

The Abdis are now living in Addis Ababa's Little Somalia neighborhood. But Nabiha's friends are all Ethiopians. "I no longer want to have anything to do with Somalis," she says, gesturing as though she were throwing something in the trash . She has a seven-month-old son from a failed relationship and Nabiha hopes to provide him with a better life one day. Which is why she wants to leave. She has already applied five times for a visa to travel to the United States, "but Trump doesn't want Muslims." She says she'll keep trying anyway. "It'll work out someday."

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What is the Global Societies series?
The Global Societies series involves reporters reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts will be appearing in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have editorial influence?
No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.
Do other media outlets have similar projects?
Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites -- called "Global Development" and "Planeta Futuro," respectively -- that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Has DER SPIEGEL produced similar projects in the past?
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): "Expedition BeyondTomorrow," about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project "The New Arrivals," which resulted in several award-winning features.
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