AGARFA — A soldier chews on a leaf of khat, a mild stimulant, and spits it on the ground. "Hey you, ferenji, how much do you want to take me with you to Italy?" he asks me, laughing with his comrade. Ferenji means stranger in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.
In the small, far-flung town of Agarfa, in the province of Bale, the soldier is working security at an event organized by Medical Collaboration Committee (CCM), an Italian NGO. The CCM has come to this town, which lies 280 miles away from the capital of Addis Ababa, to educate locals on the risks of illegally migrating to Europe.
Mohammed, the local imam, asks to speak. "I haven’t heard back from four of my children," he says, holding back tears. "I know nothing, they’ve disappeared. I had warned them not to go."
Mohammed’s words clearly have an effect on those attending the meeting; the women around him hide behind their hijabs or begin to cry openly.
While the European Union seeks an agreement with Libya to halt the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea, the prospect of a better life elsewhere is on everyone’s lips here in rural Ethiopia. Some have relatives in Europe, the United States, or in the Arab world; some have families stuck in migrant welcome centers in Libya; some have attempted the journey and were sent back; some cry over their loved ones who didn’t make it out; and some just want to leave.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the country’s strategic location in the Horn of Africa — the region comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti — and local political instability contributed to rising emigration from Ethiopia in recent years. There has been a growing exodus since 2015. About 740,000 Ethiopians now live abroad. Ethiopia itself is home to the largest number of refugees in Africa, housing 670,000 refugees in camps along its borders with Eritrea, South Sudan, and Somalia.
The province of Bale has one of the highest emigration rates in the country. Images of Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli are emblazoned on the tuk-tuks — known here as Bajaj — that fill the streets in the cities of Robe and Goba. People don’t seem to care that Balotelli is of Ghanaian origin and was born in Palermo; what matters is his success and the color of his skin.
"People leave because there’s no work here," says Abdulkadir Gazali, a 39-year-old father of five. "I tried going to Saudi Arabia three times, but they always sent me back."
It might appear easy to leave as long as you have money to pay smugglers.
"It costs 400 to 600 euros ($420 to $640) to reach an Arab country," says Waldayese, head of immigration at Bale’s department of social affairs.
The price for migrating to Europe is much higher. It can cost up to 4,000 euros ($4,245). The entire practice is illegal, of course.
"Young people collect the necessary funds by selling livestock or working in the fields," says Waldayese.