As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Ethiopia, and traffickers exploit victims from Ethiopia abroad. Some families and brothel owners exploit girls from Ethiopia’s impoverished rural areas in domestic servitude and commercial sex within the country, while some businesspeople exploit boys in forced labor in traditional weaving, construction, agriculture, and street vending. Brothel owners exploit girls in commercial sex in Addis Ababa’s central market. Labor recruiters frequently target young people from Ethiopia’s vast rural areas with false promises of a better life; increasingly, traffickers are replicating legitimate app-based recruitment tools to illegally recruit vulnerable populations and exploit them in forced labor. Local NGOs assess the number of internal trafficking victims, particularly children exploited in commercial sex and domestic servitude, exceeds that of external trafficking; experts report a lack of research hinders a more complete understanding of the extent of the crime as well as the government’s response.
Since November 2020, ongoing internal conflict in the Tigray region has resulted in more than 63,000 Ethiopians seeking asylum in Sudan, where protection services are limited; this population is increasingly vulnerable to trafficking as displacement, food insecurity, and lack of economic opportunity continue. International organizations increasingly report armed actors, including Eritrean forces, regional forces, the ENDF, and the TPLF are reportedly responsible for committing human rights abuses and gender-based violence and gender-based violence against women and girls in Tigray, including potential trafficking crimes. Observers report unspecified military personnel and other officials force women to have sex in exchange for basic commodities and humanitarian assistance. Unaccompanied children in the conflict areas may be vulnerable to recruitment by non-state armed groups in areas where armed conflict is continuing. As of January 2021, an international organization reported there were more than 1.9 million IDPs in Ethiopia as a result of internal conflict and drought; individuals in resettlement camps or otherwise affected are increasingly vulnerable to trafficking due to a lack of access to justice and economic opportunity. Ethiopia hosts more than 814,000 refugees—the majority of whom are from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan—in 26 camps; international organizations report the Hitsats and Shimelba camps closed after being destroyed as a result of conflict in the Tigray region during the reporting period. Refugees without economic opportunity and those further displaced by camp closures are increasingly vulnerable to trafficking. Cuban medical professionals working in Ethiopia may have been forced to work by the Cuban government.
Trusted community members, known as manamasas, recruit and groom vulnerable youth on behalf of local and international human trafficking syndicates by exaggerating the advantages of working abroad. Scarce economic opportunities and dire poverty, coupled with familial encouragement, compel thousands of Ethiopians, including a substantial percentage of unmarried individuals under age 30, to transit out of Ethiopia via three main routes, where they are vulnerable to trafficking. Irregular migrants primarily take the northeastern route via Djibouti or Somalia, to Yemen and onward to Saudi Arabia and Europe. The southern route often involves individuals taking illegal border crossings into Kenya and onward to South Africa in hopes of finding work or to connect to onward flights. The northwestern route, the most dangerous and least common, has traditionally been taken by men through Sudan to Libya and onward to Europe; however, during the reporting period, observers reported an increase in women using this route to reach Khartoum, where they apply for and receive visas to Lebanon. Observers have not been able to discern how these women acquire visas or if the process is legitimate. Across all three of these migration routes, traffickers exploit Ethiopian migrants, who often begin their journeys voluntarily, in commercial sex or forced labor in transit countries and in their intended destinations. In 2020, use of these routes reportedly decreased due to pandemic-related border closures and travel restrictions. Additionally, international organizations reported the number of Ethiopian returnees significantly increased compared with the previous year due to pandemic-related economic impacts; more than 73,000 Ethiopians returned in 2020, many of whom likely faced increased trafficking vulnerabilities in their destination country, along their route, and once back in Ethiopia. Families continue to play a major role in financing irregular migration, and they may force or coerce their children to go abroad. An international organization assesses most traffickers are small local operators, often from the victims’ own communities, but well-structured, hierarchical, organized crime groups also facilitate irregular migration and likely exploit individuals, who may consent to smuggling, in forced labor or commercial sex.
Saudi Arabia remains the primary destination for irregular migrants, representing 80-90 percent of Ethiopian labor migration; observers report approximately 400,000-500,000 Ethiopians reside there without valid travel documentation, which increases their vulnerability to traffickers exploiting them in forced labor or commercial sex. Some Ethiopians arrive in Saudi Arabia through licensed Ethiopian employment agencies but are susceptible to trafficking by employers or illegal employment agencies. The kafala sponsorship system—common in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—binds domestic workers to one employer and prevents their freedom of movement. Some families in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries exploit Ethiopian women working in domestic service and subject them to physical and emotional abuse. Ethiopian women who migrate for work or flee abusive employers in the Middle East are also vulnerable to sex trafficking. Ethiopian men and boys migrate to Gulf states and other African nations, where traffickers exploit some in forced labor. As a result of the pandemic, Ethiopians abroad—especially in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia—face increased stigmatization and abuse, leading to loss of employment and potential deportation. In Lebanon, employers forcibly removed Ethiopian domestic workers from their homes, leaving them trapped in the country due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, border closures, and economic scarcity; unable to find new work or a safe way home, these individuals are increasingly vulnerable to trafficking. During the reporting period, thousands of Ethiopians—including domestic workers and migrant laborers who lost their employment due to the pandemic and migrants pushed out by Houthi attacks in Yemen—faced increasing vulnerabilities to trafficking after being placed in abusive detention centers in southern Saudi Arabia. Some families and pimps exploit Ethiopian girls in domestic servitude and commercial sex in neighboring African countries, particularly Djibouti and Sudan. Some business owners, families, and criminals exploit Ethiopian boys in forced labor in Djibouti as shop assistants, domestic workers, and street beggars, in addition to forcing children to take part in criminal activities. Traffickers exploit women and children in forced begging, sometimes via organized begging rings, in Saudi Arabia.