ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia announced plans to repatriate about 70,000 of its citizens who have been living in poor conditions in Saudi Arabia.

It said the repatriation, the third of its kind since 2018, will start this month and target “Ethiopians who are in a difficult situation.”

It may be the noblest thing to do in rescuing its stranded citizens, but it poses a humanitarian problem to a country struggling with displacement of populations by local conflicts and from neighbouring countries.

State Minister Birtukan Ayano said the repatriation, the third such programme since 2018, will target “Ethiopians who are in a difficult situation”.

It will not be cheap. Although the government in Addis did not formally announce the actual cost of the programme, Ms Birtukan said “necessary budget, logistics and shelters should be prepared for the returnees”.

Tayba Hassan, director-general of Refugees and Returnees, the Ethiopian agency charged with managing displacement in the country, said regional administrations are expected to ensure the returnees resettle in their native home areas. Ethiopia has in the past relied on donors to resettle nationals rescued from squalor abroad.

Julieta Valls Noyes, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, visited Ethiopia. Ideally, the US and other donors expect Ethiopia to provide “critical support” to the displaced, especially from neighbouring Sudan, where war has raged since April last year.

“It was shared poverty and shared humanity. And I thought that that was an excellent way of describing how both Chad and, for that matter, Ethiopia are responding to their respective refugee situations,” Ms Noyes told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday, visiting Ethiopia and Chad, two of the Sudanese refugees host countries.

The US has been the biggest donor for humanitarian services in Ethiopia. In 2023, it sent $1 billion to Addis, mostly via the World Food Programme and Unicef. It has sent in some $89 million so far this year “to provide life-saving support for refugees, asylum seekers, the internally displaced people …and others who are affected by conflict, drought, food instability.”

Ethiopia is hosting 50,000 Sudanese refugees who fled their country over the last 11 months.

Ethiopia currently hosts about 917,000 refugees from neighbouring countries and four million internally displaced persons from its own conflicts and environmental hardships, according to the Ethiopian Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS). Its refugees come from Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Eritrea.

There have been funding cuts meant for these groups, however. On March 22, RRS and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gathered stakeholders in Addis Ababa “with the intent to reach common understanding on the rising fund cut for the refugee operation in Ethiopia and to stand together to respond to the crises thereon.”

They said they were “urging partners and donors to contribute the much-needed fund to respond to the burning needs of refugees and asylum seekers.”

With over 4 million internally displaced people, including those who fled Tigray during the internal war and haven’t returned, Addis Ababa’s repatriation of 70,000 people will mean they add to the budgetary constraints of resettling them. That resettlement has been delayed, for Tigray, especially since the infrastructure that was destroyed during the war (which ended in November 2022) has yet to be rebuilt.