The lines of people seen at the gates of the Main Department for Immigration & Nationality Affairs tell a historical story. That history certainly involves a large proportion of women.
Women, exiting in flocks to Middle Eastern countries, make up the core of this history, which is often marred by dreadful stories of death and bodily harm.
Lately, however, this physical abuse and the death toll have both risen. There is rarely a day that passes without a major story of migrant abuse, from one of the Arab countries, hitting the Internet. Social networking websites are full of footage of the abuse and mistreatment of migrants.
Many citizens are seen waiting their turn to take part in this dismal phenomenon, with little information about the situation in the host countries. Many of those waiting for the chance are women, with minimal education. Their skill base is also very low.
If there is any place where the migrant out flux is not initiating a stimulus, it is within the policy circle. There is rampant passivity within the circle, with more attention being placed on the return of human capital. Beyond passivity, indifference is also typical of the local policy sphere.
In abolishing exit visas, immediately after assuming power, the EPRDF-led government seems to have embraced the theory of free human capital mobility. This rightly fits into its Boserupian population policy, which treats population as a resource. Yet, the whole premise falters, as it relies on the job creation capacity of its own economy.
At the base of the migration saga sits an economy that cannot generate jobs as quickly as the increase in working age population. No doubt, there would be pull factors at the other end of the spectrum, which range from higher wages to better social security, that also attract migrants, but the impact of the former weighs over the latter.
Despite the rapid expansion of the national gross domestic product (GDP) over the last nine years, job creation has remained dismal. As of 2007, the size of the working age population stands at 25.3 million. Certainly, such is the burden that, an economy with annual job creation of not more than one million, will have to shoulder it for decades to come.
Government, then, has both the economic and social initiative to push for the freer mobility of individuals. It is on the regulation of this mobility that the debate lies. Even then, the debate is not about the lack of a proper regulatory framework, but about the effective implementation of the existing legal instruments.
Laws, enacted in 1998 and 2009, rightly provide the necessary regulatory mandate to the government over migration to Arab countries. Ensuring that all migrants, destined to Middle Eastern countries, are adequately skilled, for the tasks they will be performing, is the duty of the state. Of course, the role of overseer is entrusted to licenced employment agencies.
Yet, the reality is far from what the laws dictate. Neither the state nor the employment agencies it has licenced, make sure that migrants are adequately informed or skilled. This is a failure that is happening, whilst, simultaneously, the trepidation of death and injury continue to rise with each passing day.
As if to serve the law with a lip service, the state provides a half-day briefing for migrants. Employment agencies also employ a similar method. Both seem to settle for a short cut approach.
Measured by any standard, such a briefing would not provide enough information or skills supplementation for migrants to be competitive, in a labour market saturated with migrants from countries, as varying as; the Philippines and India.
Costs related to uninformed and unskilled migrants are huge. Unskilled migrants earn lower wages. As a result they remit less money back home. Their lack of information also makes them more vulnerable to attack, by their employers. They do not even know where to go to get the information that they require.
A simple cost-benefit analysis would show that the forgone benefits of unskilled migration are immense. Therein lies the tangent point for a policy shift.
It is all avoidable, though, and the battle front is here, at home.
Creating an institutional structure that could effectively implement the existing laws could change the whole story. Additionally, this change could be made favourable for all stakeholders, from the state to the migrants, and further, onto the employment agencies.
Certifying the skills of migrants could ultimately solve the problem, and for good. It could also reduce the casualty on human capital.
Certification could bring about a positive return. Well-informed and skilled migrants would, obviously, have the competence to secure better wages. An increase in income of migrants would manifest itself in the real economy, in the form of increased remittance. There is no denying that such an improvement would mean a lot for a capital constrained economy.
Beyond the direct economic benefits, certification could also reduce the human cost, for it would enhance the analysis capacity of migrants. Migrants could be taught about the ways to deal with harassments and physical attacks. They could also be trained on methods of accessing information and communicating with host country authorities and Ethiopian embassies. Certainly, this would save lives.
The necessity, for the Ethiopian government, is, then, to put in place an integrated migrant skills certification system. The responsibility of overseeing the whole system, as the law rightly puts, ought to be vested to the government. Yet, the certification could be outsourced to the private sector.
Indeed, the private sector has the right incentive to train the migrants. What seems to be lacking, in the current reality, is the legal enforcement of the training, and that is where the state could play an important role.
Under proper licencing and oversight, private training institutions could provide effective skills training for migrants, at an affordable price. Both the migrants and the institutions could benefit through the process. By doing so, the government could rightly discharge its legal mandate.
In such a system, the government could enforce a standard curriculum. It could also monitor training providers against market-oriented quality indicators. This, at a broader level, could enable it to insist for effective minimum wage negotiations with host country governments.
All indications are that it is high time to put in place such an institutional solution for the worsening migration problem. As much as human mobility has to be left free, it ought to be beefed up with alternative ways to be competitive, within the globalised labour market.
At stake for the EPRDF-led government is the ability to live up to the expectations of the current laws, both at home and institutionally.