Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Jehonathan BEN, Deakin University

Migration from countries in the Horn of Africa to Australia has increased considerably over the last couple of decades, and includes many migrants who have resettled in Australia under its Refugee and Humanitarian Programme. While finding gainful work is crucial to migrants’ welfare, Horn of Africa migrants in Australia continue to face various challenges in this arena, including high rates of unemployment, concentration in certain low-status, low-paid industries and occupations, and discrimination. In an attempt to elaborate and enrich the scholarship on these topics, I engage with some of the personal work histories and stories that shape migrants’ contemporary circumstances and experiences with work in Australia. I discuss changes to work trajectories over time and the significance of work and ideas about work for understanding migrants’ working lives. This paper draws on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, centred largely on ongoing conversations and in-depth interviews with 18 highly educated Eritrean migrants who live in Melbourne. It aims to break away from the strong, sometimes exclusive focus on early resettlement in Australia that characterises much of the literature on this topic, by looking at pre-migration work experiences and careers – both in Eritrea and during years-long journeys through Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and elsewhere – as well as at transformations to work long after resettlement in Australia. Finally, by directing attention to Eritrean migrants’ actions, I aim to expand the limited space currently given to their dilemmas, decisions, plans and aspirations in relation to work and in the face of rapid changes and constraining local conditions.