/ 8 October 2023

Welcome to Addis Ababa – unless you’re homeless

Ethiopia Economy Lifestyle
Sinister: Security forces in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, recently conducted an operation to round up the poor of the city. Photo: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP

Ethiopia has a history of cleaning up the streets of the capital Addis Ababa before major international conferences. This includes the removal, by force, of the city’s beggars and homeless people.

But an operation conducted over the past few weeks by security forces appears to be more far-reaching. In the early hours of the night, thousands of poor residents in shacks and temporary dwellings were allegedly rounded up and are being held in a detention centre on the outskirts of the city.

From there, some of them are being forcibly relocated to their native provinces.

Henok Tsegaye, 27, is an engineer who got caught up in the crackdown. He came to the capital from Tigray after the civil war ended, to reunite with his family and to find employment. His family home was demolished to make way for a government project, leaving them homeless.

He was rounded up with dozens of others while he was looking for work on the streets and taken to the detention centre.

“We slept in the open air, literally next to strangers. 

“Open defecation was the norm, there were no mattresses, our safety was always compromised and water was extremely limited. I was extremely hungry,” he said.

Tsegaye feigned an illness and was transferred to a hospital, from which he escaped. 

“I am the reality of Ethiopia. I experienced war in Tigray when I could have been a productive citizen. I moved to Addis Ababa to find employment but even finding employment as a waiter became difficult. 

“And now the appearance of being poor makes me a prisoner,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said the crackdown on Addis Ababa’s indigent population amounts to a “violation of human rights”. 

It warned that conditions in the detention centre would increase the risk of a disease outbreak.

At least three civilians have already died in the detention centre, which is in Gelan Kifle Ketama in Oromia province, and many more have contracted illnesses or sustained injuries and require medical care, according to the EHRC.

“There are way too many people coming — weak and near death, with beating scars — to be discarded at our hospital,” said an administrator at the Tirunesh Beijing Hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is little we can do to help them.”

In a statement, the Oromia regional government denied the existence of the detention centre, dismissing reports as “false information” to “confuse the public”. 

The office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2019 the mayor at the time Takele Uma promised to tackle homelessness among youth in Addis Ababa. Inspired by Chinese models, the plan was to set up a rehabilitation centre to train young people and then shift them into formal employment in one of the new industrial parks that were growing rapidly.

This plan died abruptly when civil war broke out in 2020 and many foreign investors pulled their funding. 

Most significant was the US revoking Ethiopia’s benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which killed thousands of jobs in the industrial parks.

The homelessness issue was exacerbated by a wave of internal migration into Addis Ababa, when people fled conflict and were looking for economic opportunities.

Among their number is Yared Kibret, a 19-year-old vendor from Amhara province, where fighting between government forces and the Fano militia is ongoing. He sells cheap belts and wallets on the streets near Meskel Square in the capital. 

In recent weeks, many of his friends — street vendors like him — have vanished. Kibret does not know where they are, but he suspects that they have been detained. He is worried that he will be next.

“I am mentally prepared for such an eventuality,” he said. “I just wish that working, instead of begging, would be my ticket to freedom.” 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here