ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Ethiopian migrants expelled from the Middle East and African countries are being quarantined in universities in a sign of the strain placed on vulnerable nations by mass deportations amid the coronavirus crisis.
Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Somalia and other countries have deported more than 5,000 illegal migrants to Ethiopia since April 1, according to the U.N. migration agency.
Health minister Lia Tadesse said Ethiopia was providing for the migrants - 13 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19 - and acknowledged concerns about spreading the virus to villages by sending them home.
“We are taking care of them and will continue to take care of them although, of course, it’s demanding in many aspects,” Tadesse told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The U.N. has warned that mass expulsions of illegal migrants by Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia risks spreading the virus and overwhelming quarantine efforts.
An internal U.N. memo seen by Reuters said Saudi Arabia was expected to deport some 200,000 Ethiopian migrants in total.
Tadesse said that no migrants had been deported by Riyadh in the past week.
Ethiopia, which has around 110 million people, has only recorded 133 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths but experts say its public health system could swiftly be overwhelmed.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopians are estimated to migrate illegally every year in search of better-paid work, mainly to Gulf Arab nations, where many end up exploited in homes as maids or on building sites.
Many of those now returning endured trauma and require medical attention. Tadesse said that medics and therapists were offering support.
Last month, a U.N. source told the Thomson Reuters Foundation hundreds of migrants who had recently returned from Djibouti were turned back by regional authorities after undergoing quarantine in the eastern city of Dire Dawa.
“There were some concerns among the regional governments about the quarantined returnees ... but this is now being handled through education and regional leadership,” Tadesse said.
Over 1,000 migrants who were quarantined for 14 days and who did not present symptoms were sent home this week, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“There has always been the fear that migrants are purveyors of disease, but the evidence does not bear this out at all,” said Maureen Achieng, IOM’s chief of mission to Ethiopia, adding the agency was trying to combat stigma surrounding coronavirus in the region.
“We are trying to ensure that ... people begin to dissociate the disease from migrants.”
Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org