ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – When Ethiopia started repatriating its citizens living illegally in Saudi Arabia last month, 30,000 people were expected to return.
Today, four times that amount have been repatriated – with numbers still swelling daily – straining agencies to support one of the largest human airlift operations in recent history.
"We really need support. It's a very big challenge returning over 120,000 people in less than a month... It's an emergency," said Sharon Dimanche of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is assisting the government-led repatriation program.
"We have to save people's lives," she added.
IOM said $13.1 million (9.5 million euros) is currently required to support returnees.
Ethiopia expects 150,000 to return, but has been repeatedly forced to scale up its predictions as the returnees continue to flood back. Thousands – some pregnant, traumatized or sick – continue to land daily, many with tales of abuse and mistreatment.
"To live in Saudi is to cry every day," said Kamer Hajji, 36, who worked as a carpenter in the oil-rich kingdom for the previous four years.
"We are trying to keep ourselves together, but that's not how it really is, we are broken inside," he said, speaking near a bustling airport warehouse where thousands were searching for their luggage.
"They took our money, they took our belongings and there are people who have died," he said.
Ethiopia started repatriating its citizens in November after a 7-month amnesty period for undocumented immigrants expired. Ethiopia said three of its citizens were killed in clashes with police as migrants prepared to be sent home.
Large numbers of Ethiopians move to the Middle East each year seeking work as domestic servants or menial laborers to earn money to send home.
But many face harsh working conditions, physical and mental abuse, low pay and discrimination, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Ganzeb Tefera, 30, said she went to Saudi Arabia ten months ago to make some fast money to send to her child in Ethiopia, but instead said she waited seven months to be paid.
"I was expecting a very good life, I thought I would get a decent job and would get paid well and would come back to Ethiopia with money and support my family," she said, sitting in a health clinic at the arrivals center, surrounded by pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Instead, Ganzeb said she was thrown on the street when she complained of her workload, and was soon after picked up by police.
"At the jail, I saw people who were there for five months or a year, some committed suicide, some went crazy. The treatment was really harsh," she said.
Ganzeb is among many fleeing harsh economic conditions back home.
Unemployment in Ethiopian cities is 20%, according to the ILO, and most of the country's 91 million people earn less than two dollars a day.
Lure of a better life
Overseas employment agencies – many illegal – are rampant in the Horn of Africa country.
"There are challenges with poverty, people are poor, but that is not the only reason why people are moving, we have traffickers, we have smugglers, who are taking advantage of these poor people," the IOM's Dimanche said.
Ethiopia has said it is committed to addressing the root cause of mass migration – poverty – with ambitious plans to boost employment.
Illegal migration has long plagued the Horn of Africa, with tens of thousands risking their lives each year to move abroad.
The lure of earning lavish salaries overseas draws most people abroad, but the reality on the ground is often different.
Toyeba Yassin, 25, returned after working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years.
Her employer made her clean several houses and cook, but when she complained, her salary was docked.
"They took my money, they didn't even give me food to eat. I didn't get enough sleep because I used to work at many places," she said, speaking after leaving the plane. "Thank God I am here now."
Ethiopia now faces the task of absorbing returnees, many of whom are empty-handed, having had their savings and belongings confiscated.
"We anticipate that there will be quite a number that will remain in Addis Ababa or the major cities in Ethiopia because they can't go home," said David Murphy, Ethiopia chief of the International Rescue Committee.
But despite the harsh treatment many faced, some say they would move abroad again since employment opportunities at home are still scant.
"I have not finished paying the money I borrowed," said Ganzeb, referring to a loan she took to pay her way to Saudi Arabia.
"If I don't get a job here I would like to go back... to pay back my loan and support my child." – Rappler.com