By the time Dawit arrived in Ethiopia aged 29, he had been twice arrested and imprisoned by the Eritrean government. We met Dawit in a refugee camp called Adi Harush in Northern Ethiopia, where he had settled nine months earlier, hoping to build his future in the host country. Despite being a qualified health professional, his hopes were quickly dashed by the limited employment options in Ethiopia. He could not find a way of supporting himself, let alone his ageing parents back in Eritrea.

Ethiopia is a leading country of asylum in the region. Dawit is one of more than 700,000 refugees in the country. Western governments are eager to keep them there and are increasingly using aid to prevent or reduce irregular onward migration.

These days, Dawit dreams of going to Europe where he has Eritrean friends. He has heard that they are allowed to work and study. Having applied for resettlement, he feels disillusioned. Others who applied later than him have been accepted, but his turn has not yet come. 

The Resettlement Obsession

Resettlement programmes, which relocate refugees from temporary camps to Western host countries, have a number of objectives. On the one hand, they protect vulnerable refugees, on the other, they can be seen as a measure to prevent irregular migration. Given that it is not possible to apply for asylum before entering a country, resettlement is one of the few legal channels available to Eritreans to get to Western countries. As a virtually cost-free option, it has become the ultimate lottery for many. Yet those who apply end up paying a heavy price in other ways.

The dream of resettlement - known as buufis in the Somali language - is a common state of mind for many refugees in Dadaab camp in Kenya. A psychological condition created by a longing or desire for resettlement that becomes a constant preoccupation, it creates a toxic combination of hope and disillusionment among Somali refugees in Kenya. The state of limbo has been known to cause adverse psychological effects when resettlement hopes are not realised.

The same can be said of Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, who dream of leaving through resettlement. While sacrificing other options, such as moving freely and potentially working in urban areas, refugees get stranded indefinitely in camps, waiting for the outcome of their resettlement applications.

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Resettlement shapes the way people think about their futures, but it also shapes their aspirations. For instance, Negesti, who is 34, arrived with her children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2013. Her husband had left before them, but she has not been able to find him. Now on her own, she is worried about her children's education and struggles to earn enough to feed them and meet their basic needs in the expensive Ethiopian capital, where refugees have few rights. She has applied for resettlement but without fully understanding the procedure. While waiting without a timeframe, the young mother is left with more questions than answers. Every day she wonders why she has not been called for an interview.

Scarce opportunities

Despite the hopes of many like Negesti, resettlement rates for Eritreans are extremely slim, with some data suggesting that only one in 100 gets accepted. A mere 1 percent of refugees in Ethiopia - the largest refugee hosting nation in Africa - were resettled last year.

When all options, including returns and local integration become intractable, resettlement becomes a de-facto option for unaccompanied minors, youth, single men and women, families and the elderly.

 

The United States - which resettles 97 percent of Eritreans according to recent estimates, resettled only 1,783 individuals in 2015. With President Donald Trump's January 27 travel ban, refugees were temporarily barred from entering US soil. Despite Eritreans not being included in the ban, refugee resettlement interviews have been put on hold in the region, including those for refugees of all nationalities in Ethiopia in anticipation of further policy changes.

By offering the possibility of a different future, the hopes of resettlement compels people to stay put for long periods of time. Based on our interviews with single mothers it may also lead women to compromise their wellbeing, for the sake of their children's futures. We found that many mothers made the choice of resettlement so that their children would not have to grow up in a refugee camp, without rights to employment and further education in Ethiopia.

Women refugees are also aware that migrating to Europe through irregular means often involves extortion and physical and sexual abuse along the way, including detention and torture in transit countries such as Libya. On the other hand, if they remain in Ethiopia, their children will not be able to attend school. Left with little choice, they pin their hopes on being resettled in a safe, third country.

Desperate choices

While aspirations of resettlement can initially prevent irregular migration, the effect dissipates over time. Our research found that as refugees fail to migrate through formal channels, the idea of irregular transit becomes more tolerable, and often the only available means.

While fully realising the risks of crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean, one interviewee, Yacob, reflected on the options available to him: "I would have preferred the legal way, but it is becoming difficult. Resettlement is scarce," he explained. Although he plans to persist with the legal routes for the time being, he admitted considering irregular alternatives.

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Limited or lack of access to legal migration options can push refugees in Ethiopia into taking irregular options. Our respondents confirmed that people are increasingly opting for clandestine routes to Europe, as they realise they have no viable future in Ethiopia.

People told us that they consider the resettlement process unfair, with specific nationalities and demographics receiving preferential treatment. During our interviews, many complained about alleged corruption in the resettlement allocation process, with some cases being expedited.

"They are not fairly distributing the resettlement opportunities so some refugees risk their lives by leaving the camp and going on secondary movement," one of the respondents who wanted to remain unnamed, told us.

The way forward

There are a number of measures that can pave the way for safe and official means of migration for Eritreans, who will probably continue to leave in significant numbers regardless of their statuses and classifications under international asylum laws.

First, policy measures should recognise the diversity of Eritreans living in Ethiopia, who are in need of durable solutions. When all options, including returns and local integration become intractable, resettlement becomes a de-facto option for unaccompanied minors, youth, single men and women, families and the elderly. 

Second, legal pathways, like resettlement, should be developed, not restricted. Resettlement programmes serve a vital protection function by offering safe passage. Beyond resettlement, humanitarian visas, study scholarships and special categories for women and children should be expanded.

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Third, information about resettlement should be made clearer and more accessible. In our research, we found that people are often uncertain about how resettlement works, particularly in relation to timeframes and the rates of acceptance. A more transparent process, and clear information about procedures and applications would allow asylum seekers to make informed decisions, based on realities.

This, in turn, would minimise the mental stress that many like Dawit experience when their lives are suspended "in limbo", and they lose the most formative years of their lives, during which they should be building their futures.

Nassim Majidi is the founder and co-director at Samuel Hall, an affiliate researcher at Sciences Po's CERI, and a Research Associate at the African Centre for Migration and Society - University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Jessica Hagen-Zanker is Migration Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, where she leads the migration research.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.