“We projected the initial number to be 10,000 but it is increasing,” foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told AFP, adding that the final total once the mass airlift ends is now expected to be around 80,000.
Ethiopia started repatriating citizens living illegally in Saudi Arabia after a seven-month amnesty period to formalize their status expired on November 4, sparking violent protests between Saudi police and Ethiopian migrants preparing to leave the country.
Riyadh governor Prince Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz said the clampdown was aimed at undocumented migrants, and not any “specific group”, according to BBC news.
“We will continue these campaigns until we ensure all residents in our country are staying legally,” he is quoted by al-Riyadh newspaper as saying.
The Ethiopian government said three of its citizens were killed in clashes. However, Saudi authorities say only two foreigners have been killed, along with three Saudis.
Mufti said Ethiopia is spending $2.6 million on the repatriation program to bring citizens home, the majority of them women. Saudi authorities say they are trying to reduce the 12 percent unemployment rate among native Saudis.
Although, reports of mistreatment of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia has sparked outrage in Ethiopia, the African country said that relations with Saudi Arabia remain “sisterly,” with Mufti saying the government’s main priority was to bring citizens home.
“We are focusing on the repatriation… we have not evaluated that one, we have not assessed that,” he said, referring to Ethiopian-Saudi ties.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) said many migrant workers face physical and mental abuse, low pay, discrimination and poor working conditions.
In an emotional speech this month, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said the government was in “around the clock crisis management” mode trying to bring citizens back.
With 91 million citizens, Ethiopia is Africa’s most populous country after Nigeria, but also one of the continent’s poorest, with the majority of people earning less than two dollars a day.
Large numbers of Ethiopians – often women seeking domestic work – travel to the Middle East each year looking for jobs. According to newspaper Arab News, migrants often took the low-wage manual, clerical and service jobs that the kingdom’s own citizens shunned.
Around 200,000 women sought work abroad in 2012, according to Ethiopia’s ministry of labor and social affairs.
Around 27 percent of women and 13 percent of men in Ethiopia are unemployed, according to the ILO.