ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia has flown home over 50,000 citizens in Saudi Arabia after a crackdown against illegal immigrants in the oil-rich state, the foreign ministry said Wednesday.
"We projected the initial number to be 10,000 but it is increasing," foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said, adding that the final total once the mass airlift ends is now expected to be around 80,000.
Ethiopia started repatriating citizens living illegally in Saudi Arabia after a seven-month amnesty period to formalise their status expired on November 4, sparking violent protests between Saudi police and Ethiopian migrants preparing to leave the country.
The Ethiopian government said three of its citizens were killed in clashes.
Dina said the government is spending $2.6 million (1.9 million euros) on the repatriation programme to bring citizens home, the majority women.
Ethiopia has said relations with Saudi Arabia remain "sisterly", with Dina saying the government's main priority was to bring citizens home.
"We are focussing on the repatriation... we have not evaluated that one, we have not assessed that," he said, referring to Ethio-Saudi ties.
Large numbers of Ethiopians -- often women seeking domestic work -- travel to the Middle East each year looking for jobs.
Around 200,000 women sought work abroad in 2012, according to Ethiopia's ministry of labour and social affairs.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) said many face physical and mental abuse, low pay, discrimination and poor working conditions.
Reports of mistreatment of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia has sparked outrage in Ethiopia.
In an emotional speech this month, Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said the government was in "around the clock crisis management" mode trying to bring citizens back.
With 91 million citizens, Ethiopia is Africa's most populous country after Nigeria, but also one of the continent's poorest, with the majority of people earning less than two dollars a day.
Around 27 percent of women and 13 percent of men are unemployed, according to the ILO.