Don's diary: raw face of forced migration in Ethiopia

January 23, 2003

Monday

The sign over the (very imposing) main university entrance reads: "Get an Addis Ababa University Degree, not an HIV/Aids certificate".

In Ethiopia, as in many other African countries, Aids is a pressing problem and one that is only just being addressed.

I am here on a British Council-sponsored visit to launch Forced Migration Online, the internet portal we have developed on worldwide refugee issues.

The big news here is that the university's president and two academic vice-presidents resigned three days ago in protest at government pressure over the evaluation of academics. Today the university administration is paralysed.

There is apprehension among staff: academic freedom is not a given in a country that has had democracy for only ten years or so, and the new government-made appointments will not necessarily be made on academic grounds.

According to the local press, the government views the university as a "hiding place for subversives".

Tuesday

We give the British Council a (very slow) presentation on Forced Migration Online - communications are a state monopoly from which the government apparently makes a great deal of money, which it does not reinvest in infrastructure.

The general view is that the government controls telecoms so it can censor debate and discussion, which at the moment are centred on the drought.

Millions are at risk from what could be the worst famine ever. Many people are expressing the belief that the causes are rooted in government policies, not in the weather. This is the first time that there has been such open discussion, but dissent is still dangerous, as the events at the university have shown.

Our hotel, the Hilton, is an oasis of luxury compared with the city around it. However, it has become a politically correct hangout for local aid workers because it is not nearly as opulent as the Sheraton.

On the way there, our taxi driver treats us to a tirade against western opinions of Ethiopia: he says it is much more than just a place of drought and famine. He is vehement in his criticism of the government's handling of the situation. The experience is curiously similar to an encounter with a London cabbie.

Thursday

Arrive at the university in good time for our main presentations on Forced Migration Online. Have even brought CDs in case we cannot get on the internet. But one basic necessity is lacking: electricity, which is off for the whole day. We do the best we can with laptops running off batteries.

The new president of the university is announced. According to the local paper, the appointment "is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound" as he is a government lackey who "has lost every little bit of credibility he had to begin with". Senior academics are resigning in droves.

Friday

As we return to the university from our hotel, beggars surround us at every traffic light, banging on the windows and yelling "food" and "money". They are pouring into the cities from the countryside now that their crops have failed. This is forced migration in the raw. I am used to dealing with it as an academic study. It is something of a shock, and I wonder if online resources are really going to do anything to improve the lot of these people.

Marilyn Deegan is director of Forced Migration Online, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.Details: www.forcedmigration.org

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