Experiences of Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants during the COVID-19 crisis

Staff-student discussion

Recent MA graduate Bezawit Fantu Woldeyesus and Dr Zemzem Shigute Shuka explore the vulnerabilities the Eritrean and Ethiopian community faces in The Hague.

Bezawit (B): I graduated from ISS in December 2020. For my MA research paper, I explored the experiences of Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants to the Netherlands with COVID-19. I had the opportunity to take part in a project funded by ISS under the Local Engagement Facility. Zemzem, as the project leader, can you tell me how the topic came about and how you were able to form the team that is working on the project?

Zemzem (Z): Thank you, Bezawit. As you said, this is one of the Local Engagement Facility supported projects. We started the project in May 2020. All team members are from either Ethiopia or Eritrea. At the beginning of the pandemic, project team members had informal conversations with members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean community here in The Hague. Our conversations revealed some of the vulnerabilities that community members were facing, including lack of access to information, inability to support children with online education and home schooling, and the psychological stress of not being able to socialize with friends and fellow members of their community. We wanted to explore these vulnerabilities systematically and draw up policy advice based on the findings. There are five of us in the team; Dr Binyam, you and me from ISS, and two team members who are engaged with the Habesha community1 through their work with Vluchtelingen Werk (Dutch Council for Refugees). At the start of the pandemic everybody was in panic, with members of the community unaware of what was going on and calling these two latter team members to get information about the coronavirus and prevention measures. A group of four NGOs working with migrant communities, especially those that are Arabic and Tigirigna speakers, decided to set up a helpdesk for migrants, especially recent migrants. We worked with Cultuur in Harmonie, one of the NGOs that co-founded the helpdesk and works with recent migrants.

‘We … wanted to investigate support mechanisms targeting migrant communities and further explore solidarity and support here and to the countries of origin.’

The first objective of the project relates to the experiences of this community in terms of the health, education and economic effects of the pandemic. Reports from the first lockdown indicated that the coronavirus crisis was exacerbating existing inequalities. For example, people with temporary work contracts were the first ones to be kicked out of their jobs. You can imagine the vulnerability these people faced, especially because they lack savings to tap into. Reports also showed that 7,000 children in the Netherlands lost contact with their respective schools during the first lockdown. Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of these were from migrant families or those with multiple socioeconomic problems. This motivated us to investigate the particular experiences of this community.

The second objective is related to exploring social interaction within a household and between individuals in the community. In particular, we wanted to explore how the pandemic was affecting intimate partner violence and decision-making within the household. We also wanted to investigate the existence of specific support mechanisms targeting migrant communities and further explore solidarity and support here and to the countries of origin.

We used mixed method data collection and data analysis techniques. We are now collecting quantitative data, but we already have findings from the qualitative data. Your MA research paper is based on this data so maybe you can start by telling us about the major findings.

B: One of the major impediments faced by migrants in general and in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, is language. This came up repeatedly in many of the interviews conducted with individual migrants and with representatives of various organizations in the Netherlands that support them. For example, one of the helpdesk representatives described cases of parents taking their children to school, despite the fact that schools had been closed two or three days prior. These parents had not understood the information shared in various news outlets, which is mostly provided in Dutch with an English translation on various websites. The most recent migrants especially, those with little understanding of Dutch or English, were unable to understand these briefings. They were confused, did not understand what to do, what was expected of them or what measures the government had imposed. It is situations like this that led to the establishment of the helpdesk.

Self-isolation is almost impossible for migrants who often live in very close quarters.

A striking statement made by a representative of the helpdesk is that many migrants could not differentiate between a username and a password to log in to the online system and carry out the necessary formalities to, for example, apply for unemployment benefit when they lost their jobs. They assumed the government system would know that they were out of a job and initiate the transfer of unemployment benefit automatically. They did not understand that they had to go online, fill out a form to inform the system that they were no longer working and that they are eligible for benefits. Some went for two, three months without any income, asking for financial support from various people, including the helpdesk representatives, just because they didn’t fill out the online form.

Another challenge revealed through the interviews was quarantine. Self-isolation is almost impossible for migrants who often live in very close quarters. The whole concept of isolation was impractical or even impossible. On paper, it seems very easy to implement the measures that are laid out to prevent or protect ourselves from COVID-19 but we can see that in practice the impact of the measures differs for people based on their living conditions. The situation is even worse for asylum seekers who do not yet have a permanent home and are living in camps in various parts of the Netherlands. One interviewee who lives in such a camp told us that she shares living space with seven other individuals and a bedroom with two other people. Her worry is that no matter what precautions she takes to protect herself from COVID-19, she has no idea what the other seven people are doing during the day so she can’t be sure that they won't bring the virus to her. If one person catches the virus in this kind of living situation, you can imagine how it could easily transmit to others and that quarantine is impossible.

In relation to anxiety caused by the pandemic, I must mention another significant finding. Many migrants here in the Netherlands, especially those who have made a relatively better life for themselves, who have found work or receive unemployment benefit for example, still worry about their loved ones back home in Eritrea or Ethiopia. This resonated with one of the interviewees who said he has close family members living in Mai-Ayni camp in Ethiopia2. As Ethiopia is still a developing country, you can imagine the conditions in that sort of camp. When he heard that one or two people had contracted COVID-19 in Mai-Ayni, he assumed that everybody, including his family members, would be infected immediately. Since it was the initial stage of the pandemic and there was not much clarity about the virus, he thought the worst. He explained how worried he was and how difficult it was to cope. Even though he was in a better position himself, he couldn't help worrying about his family back home. Here we can observe the layers of struggle faced by migrants. Hearts and thoughts are torn between home and the place where they currently reside. Even if migrants feel that they have managed to improve their own living conditions in countries considered ‘developed’, their hearts and thoughts remain with their families back home. The inability to travel and see loved ones and the cutting off of internet in Ethiopia due to security concerns prevents migrants from contacting their families. These factors make the experience of migrants with COVID-19 even more challenging.

'poor health conditions also intersect with poor economic conditions.'

These were some of the crucial findings of the qualitative study. Would you like to speak about the economic effect?

Z: Well, our findings show that there is heterogeneity in terms of the financial shock and effects of the pandemic, related particularly to type of work and migration status. When we look at the mainstream narrative, we hear that those with already existing medical conditions are more threatened by COVID-19. However, poor health conditions also intersect with poor economic conditions. And when it comes to the financial effects, the findings from our qualitative interviews suggests that these differ between migrants. For example, those with secure jobs faced no financial effects but those who had temporary contracts or a non-permanent job lost a substantial part of their income. Conversely, people in some specific jobs saw an increase in their income. This was particularly the case for people working in food delivery and related services.

Here I would like to mention intersectionality, the analytical framework that we used to explain the heterogeneous financial effects. The term migrant often appears to be a unifying identity, but there are differences between migrants. There are women who are single mothers, for example, and women, or men for that matter, on a low income. And we also see differences in the effect comparing those who are very advanced in their language proficiency (also intersecting with education levels) with those who are new to the language and the environment. This is reflected in the panic felt by recent arrivals when they lost their jobs and didn’t know what to do.

That is what I can say in relation to the experiences related to the economic effect of the pandemic on this particular community. When it comes to social capital, as you have already mentioned, there was an effect on the social interactions within the household as well as with other members of the community. Can you say a little bit more about this Bezawit?

'cases of intimate partner violence ... increased during the COVID-19 lockdown'

B: Sure. I would like to specifically touch upon the experiences of women. As you said, migrant women are not homogeneous. There are married women, single women, working mothers and those who stay at home and are commonly referred to as ‘housewives’. The experiences of these various types of women differ. For example, working mothers had to take on extra tasks, in addition to their work in the home. During the coronacrisis, paid childcare and schooling moved from the paid economy, such as nurseries, schools or day-care, back to the unpaid economy of household chores, usually to be taken care of by the woman. Many women explained that this was a very difficult time for them with not enough hours in the day to carry out all their tasks.

In relation to intimate partner violence, our findings show that cases of intimate partner violence have always been reported by Eritrean migrants, but that these increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. This could be due to financial stress on families at a time when neither the man nor the woman was able to work. Or it could be that spending so much time inside in small closed confines increases tensions and arguments. One of the victims of intimate partner violence, a female, called the helpdesk as she couldn't take the abuse anymore. She was advised to report her case to an entity in the Netherlands that investigates such cases. When she made the call of complaint, however, she was told that they could not come to her house to investigate because of the COVID-19 regulations. We can thus see how COVID-19 has impacted the different situations even in terms of legality: the legal protection that is supposed to be provided to victims of abuse could not be provided. These are the main findings in relation to the experiences of women. Would you like to add to this?

Z: In relation to what you mentioned about the transfer of the burden of care from the paid to the unpaid economy, this was also seen when parents were discussing the experiences of their children with home schooling or online education. Here again, we see the intersectionality of the economic conditions and educational achievement of parents. Experiences were not only related to the language barrier, but also to limitations in terms of providing enough equipment for children. You can imagine the panic if a family has, say, two or three children, and there is only one computer to serve them all for their online education. And some parents on a low income did not know about the possibility of getting support from municipalities to purchase equipment for their children to facilitate online education. The helpdesk played an important role in contacting municipalities on behalf of parents in need of such support.

Another identifying factor relating to children's experience of the pandemic was the status of their parents' education. Parents who were educated, either in the Dutch education system or who had a good understanding of the language, were able to help their children with online education. For some parents, especially during the ‘honeymoon’ or initial stage of the pandemic, this was reflected positively as they were able to spend more time with their children. However, as can be expected, children from recent migrant families fell behind and had to attend summer school to catch up.

Our findings also show some support coming from the Dutch government. And there was also solidarity and self-help during the pandemic. Bezawit, would you like to say something about this support?

'... many said that even though they're receiving benefits from the government, they still have to dip into their savings.'

B: Sure. I would specifically like to talk about the support provided by the Dutch government. This was uniform to all individuals who were eligible to obtain the specific benefit, but it was accepted differently by different members of the migrant community. It was uniform in the sense that business owners received one-off financial support from the government when their businesses were shut to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Individuals who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 could get unemployment benefit. People appreciated this support because they understood that the situation was much worse in their countries of origin, where the government could not afford to support or pay people who lost their jobs. Nonetheless, almost all the people we spoke to confirmed that the financial support they received was not enough and that they had to make a lot of adjustments to their spending patterns. And many said that even though they're receiving benefits from the government, they still have to dip into their savings. For example, I spoke to a man who has a family of six including himself who said that the monthly unemployment benefit provided by the government is barely enough to cover everything that is required for the family. Business owners especially are very irritated and highly discouraged. They are highly demoralized by the current situation because what they obtain from the government is much less than they used to make. They want to work and don't want to be dependent on the government. So even though they appreciate what the government is doing, they feel that it's not enough. I could sense their despair when speaking to them. Zemzem, would you like to continue about the support and solidarity provided by migrants to each other?

©Alexas Fotos via Pixabay

Z: Yes, we have interesting findings related to solidarity movements here in the Netherlands and outside. For instance, the helpdesk was established by a group of organizations led by settled migrants. You can call it an initiative of ‘migrants to migrants’. The group initially raised its own funds and recruited 40 volunteers who answer calls from newcomers and provide COVID-19 related information to newcomers. As we discussed earlier, the motivation to set up the helpdesk was to provide timely and correct information in Arabic and Tigrigna to newcomers. The helpdesk extended its work to help recent migrants access various forms of government support and services. One example is the help it provided in relation to healthcare services. At the beginning of the pandemic, when going to healthcare facilities was discouraged, people needed to explain serious health problems by phone before getting an appointment. Recent migrants were unable do this because of their lack of Dutch (and English) language skills. Volunteers at the helpdesk called hospitals to explain the serious cases and get appointments. Language also formed a barrier to accessing benefits related to unemployment and support to business owners. Volunteers at the helpdesk guided people in filling out forms and getting the benefits.

The other solidarity movement worth mentioning is the financial resource mobilization among the diaspora community to support the fight against the pandemic back in their countries of origin. To mention an example here, the Ethiopian embassy and the Ethiopian Professionals Network mobilized close to €28,000 to support the fight against the pandemic in Ethiopia. The money was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia to aid the purchase of ventilators, masks and other PPEs. A similar effort was reported by the Eritrean community, including purchasing and sending sanitizers and masks to Eritreans in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. The weak health system and the need to strengthen the health sectors in the countries of origin were identified as the main reasons motivating this financial resource mobilization. Between individuals living here in the Netherlands, of course, there was help in terms of grocery shopping and even lending money to vulnerable community members. The very common culture of people helping each other seems to have continued even in a foreign land. Our findings also show an increase in the frequency of telephone calls between community members due to the need for updates on wellbeing.

‘people in the world are riding the same storm, but they are doing so in very different boats’

I would also like to mention the NGO Pharos, which reached out to vulnerable communities through what it calls ‘cultural mediators’. These are selected community members who work on disseminating information on healthcare (including COVID-19) to various migrant communities in different languages such as Tigrigna, Arabic and Farsi.

The findings that we have discussed today are not conclusive in the sense that we are still waiting for the findings from our quantitative data. I expect a lot to come out from the quantitative information, especially from the data collected during the second lockdown. There are things that are peculiar to the first lockdown compared to the second one and that is what I expect to be reflected in our quantitative data analysis. Is there anything that you would like to add before we finish our discussion for today?

B: Just a final point that seems to be confirmed with every finding in this research, which is the difference and inequality in the way individuals and nations are experiencing COVID-19. On the surface, the virus appears to be uniform and universal in the way it has infiltrated the entire world; even the richest nations are not exempt. Yet as our findings show, and as Norman (2020)3 nicely articulated, ‘people in the world are riding the same storm, but they are doing so in very different boats’. COVID-19 has not only revealed vast inequalities among nations and individuals but also accelerated deeply entrenched injustices.  

Z: Thank you so much; I look forward to the discussion.


  1. Often used to refer to members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora.
  2. A hosting camp for Eritrean refugees.
  3. Norman, J. (2020) 'Gender and Covid-19: the immediate impact the crisis is having on women', British Policy and Politics at LSE.

Zemzem Shigute Shuka is Assistant Professor of Global Health and Development

Bezawit Fantu Woldeyesus is a recent MA graduate. She wrote her research paper on the experiences of Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants in The Hague during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This conversation is based on 'Exploring the experiences of recent Habesha migrants to the Netherlands during the COVID-19 crisis', a research project carried out under the auspices of the Local Engagement Facility set up to encourage and formalize collaboration between ISS and other societal actors in the city of The Hague


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