The questions no one is asking about Eritrea

Reports on Eritrea tend to ask why so many are fleeing the country. The more relevant question is: Why are so many fleeing the country now?

Overlooking Asmara, capital of Eritrea. Credit: Andrea Moroni.

Overlooking Asmara, capital of Eritrea. Credit: Andrea Moroni.

In one of the latest major media reports on the large numbers of refugees fleeing Eritrea, the BBC followed in the footsteps of many of its predecessors.

In the ‘Exodus from Eritrea’ radio discussion, the BBC World Service began by asking why so many Eritreans are leaving the country. In response, the discussants mentioned the usual suspects: the country’s indefinite national service; UN sanctions over outdated reports of Eritrean assistance to al-Shabaab; Ethiopia’s occupation of the disputed town of Badme; economic collapse; and human rights abuses.

The programme then asked what can be done to stem the flow of refugees. On this question, the idea of enhancing international engagement with Eritrea on issues of trade and investment was proposed as well as greater support regarding border demarcation and increased aid. Attention was drawn to the fact that isolation and punitive measures aimed at the ruling PFDJ has so far failed to bring Eritrea “in from the cold“.

Like many a video or article before it, this BBC discussion helped fill the large gap in public knowledge about the Red Sea state. However, also like its many counterparts, the show followed a tried, tested and tired format, covering the same old issues and leaving many more pressing questions unasked and unanswered.

Why now?

Most media reports on Eritrea ask why so many people are fleeing the country. But the more relevant question today ought to be: Why are so many people fleeing the country now? According to the UN refugee agency, the number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe tripled in 2014 compared to the previous year. Why the dramatic spike over the past couple of years?

Framed in this way, the explanation of ‘indefinite national service’, which has existed for decades, is clearly inadequate. Instead, new questions arise such as: Has there been a profound change of conditions within Eritrea recently? And are the Eritreans now arriving in Europe coming directly from their homeland, or have they spent considerable time in camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, only deciding to come to Europe more recently?

Another under-explored avenue regards the ages of Eritrean migrants and refugees. Recent coverage has suggested that the age of those leaving the country has been reducing, but few have questioned why this might be. Is this trend reflective of a changing pattern of movement? If so, why are families sending children aged under-10 out of Eritrea? Could it be to begin the children’s linguistic and social integration elsewhere as early as possible?

In the BBC’s Newshour report which dwelled on this topic briefly, Feruz Werede suggested that more Eritreans were leaving in their early-teens to pre-emptively escape conscription. But this does not explain why many of the children reported to be on the move are not yet even of secondary school age.

Typical media coverage also tends to presume that thousands are leaving the country “despite the best efforts of the government to man the borders“. Eritrea has undoubtedly had a ‘shoot to kill’ policy in the past, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this has not necessarily operated effectively over the past few years. This begs the question as to whether the Eritrean government at this point is actually opposing individuals’ exodus from the country.

The PFDJ knows it cannot accommodate the youth within existing political or economic structures, even without the large numbers of individuals the government claims it will soon demobilise from national service. Some Eritreans suggest that tacitly allowing a proportion of youth to flee may constitute a welcome safety valve for the regime in Asmara.

It is also worth noting that the force policing the borders in Eritrea is primarily composed of the same demographic that tends to flee. Are more individuals therefore leaving now because the government does not have the capacity to block the borders or punish their families if they do? Does the success of those who leave strengthen the resolve of those contemplating fleeing? What is the relationship between those leaving, and those − voluntarily or not − staying behind?

Says who?

Another broader area that recent coverage has also left under-explored regards the apparent signs of transformation in the country. Much of the rationale for international re-engagement with the country relies on three main ‘landmark’ events, which are used to suggest that the government is changing. First, President Isaias Afewerki announced in 2014 that discussions around implementing the Constitution should be restarted. Second, the president announced that the process of demobilising national service recruits would be re-initiated. Third, Eritrea is widely cited as having made “positive and unique” progress in achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those related to health.

These are taken as indications of change happening, but to what extent can we take any of these at face value?

It is interesting that the PFDJ is choosing to publicise itself to an international audience, but there has been little justification amongst certain observers as to why signs of change should be taken seriously. There are certainly indications that some new policies are afoot in the country − such as the replacement of the national currency, the Nakfa, and a seemingly more open attitude towards foreign journalists − but the willingness of some observers to trust the PFDJ’s new narrative in the absence of reliable evidence has not been sufficiently explained.

It is notable that in a recent UN report on ‘Innovations Driving Health MDGs in Eritrea’, for example, researchers unable to gather data themselves due to restrictions on expatriate travel within the country had to rely almost entirely on government surveys and Eritrean employees. What repercussions does this have for the reliability of the data?

Similarly, one interviewee on the BBC discussion commended Eritrea’s achievements in health but pointed out that she had been unable to garner the population’s perspective on this while visiting the country. With people too anxious to talk, at what point does the latter shed doubt on the former? And what is the relevance or relationship of improved service provision to people’s right to leave their country?

Reporting on all these issues is clearly immensely challenging. However, journalists and academics have managed to document certain issues, such as human rights abuses, at length through speaking with those leaving the country. This methodology has its shortcomings too of course, but it suggests that opportunities do exist to probe a little deeper and on a more nuanced set of questions.

Answering the same old questions about a little-known country does have some limited value, but exploring the more pressing, current and complex questions outlined above would help shed light on the most recent − and historically unprecedented − dynamics of individuals exiting Eritrea today.

Valerie Frank is completing a PhD exploring aspects of Eritrea’s foreign policy from Independence to 2009. She recently conducted fieldwork within the country. This article is based on observations and informal discussions conducted whilst she was there.

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16 thoughts on “The questions no one is asking about Eritrea

  1. Very interesting but did you also know that when the special rapporteur first gave a report, her first recommendation was that EU states should gave automatic asylum to all Eritreans setting foot in Europe her rationale was Eritrea’s ‘indefinite’ national service. As the result that most of the EU countries made a very dangerous guideline for asylum in their countries. That meant that every Eritrea that’s a life and comes from Eritrea must be accepted as an automated refugee. Well, the Eritrean government really doesn’t bother of how many leave because the government can not help outside its capacity. President Isaias Afworki said it numerous times live in EriTv but of course you must have missed it…he said if someone doesnt want to live in this country because he thinks life in tough and wants to room in the streets and caused mayhem and corruption then he/she might as well leave if thats what they believe is good for them..he said that live in EriTv couple of times.

    Regarding the new arrivals, most of them were in Ethiopia and Sudan in refuge/concentration camps. For example the ones in Ethiopia were being promised resettlement and had being waiting patiently to be transported to the ‘1st world’ but with lengthy of time many in north ethiopia demonstrated for the lack of resettlement two years ago and that was reported in VOA properly. New opportunities come and that was do not waste your time waiting to be airlifted from Ethiopia and would be better to just take the sea’s since the Europeans are giving blank asylum as soon as you arrive.

    That encouraged many to take the sea route with the a big chunk of the 90 Million Ethiopians getting mixed with the Eritreans and requesting to get the blank asylum.

    NB: One of the main factors for some of the European countries to change their misguided asylum is because they where being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who they claim to be Eritreans and the Europeans realised that they just opened the door for the 90 Million Ethiopians to start this journey in which Europe can not handle let alone 5 Million Eritreans. If you have heard Yemane Gebreab’s interview with Channel4 he said Eritrean number is a drop in the ocean comparing it to the rest of refugees from Horn and west Africa. If the Europeans thought they were going to hurt Eritrea, everything back fired and Eritrea stayed resilient and is wining and will certainly win against poverty, illiteracy and bad governance.

  2. Thanks Valerie for the interesting comments on the BBC panel discussion (in which I participated).

    I chose to Eritrea in March of last year for the exact reason that you mention: I was perplexed by the spike in refugee numbers that was occurring just as the government in Asmara appeared, for the first time in many years, to be re-engaging with Europe and re-evaluating the constitution and the National Service Program. The increased number of people fleeing suggested a significant worsening of the situation on the ground, but there wasn’t any evidence of it – quite the contrary.

    The government says that the increase in refugee numbers has nothing to do with the situation in Eritrea – that is caused, in fact, by external “pull factors,” most important of which has been the de facto policy of European countries to grant automatic asylum to anyone from Eritrea. I do indeed think there is some truth to this claim, but it’s hard to say how much, because access to the country is so limited.

    We do indeed have access to people from the diaspora and to refugees, but they can be biased or unwilling to talk. You mention that human rights agencies have “documented” abuses, but the standard of research used there is very low — particularly in the case of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry. Anyone searching to meet generally-accepted academic standards of research will have more trouble. Even those of us who have ready access to the country have been confined to camera-ready places like Asmara, Keren, Bisha and Massawa. I hope that will change soon, but in the meantime, I feel reluctant to make pronouncements on what’s really happening. But I do harbor many of the questions that you’ve raised!

  3. So the author wants to question the work of dozens of UN sand WHO staff, Western doctors and hundreds of Eritrean doctors who all say Eritrea has reached 6 out of 8 UN millennium development goals? Where i’m from, that’s called blind arrogance.

  4. An obvious reason as to Why?
    Dear Valerie,

    I really appreciate you for doing your studies on Eritrea, and if it was done free of any one intervention it will be a reference for years to come.

    Everyone can have views but there are facts that we cannot deny why they happen and what are the consequences for those actions?

    From my own experience being an Eritrean, educated, served the regime and left the country.

    I will take you through a series of incidences that lead to this stage, if one cannot understand the past 20 years it is very hard to understand the situation right now in Eritrea. There are many people from Diaspora who support the regime and have no clue what happened and what really is happening aside just repeating what the officials and the ERTV is saying.

    1. Immediate after Eritrea is independent after 1993 ….. the Jehovah witness were persecuted due to their stance on the referendum. Although I don’t support their view but what happened to them is an abuse and were left country less. These people flee the country in masses and no one is dare to speak on behalf of them at that time.

    2. On 1994 the disabled war veterans from May Haber were complaining about their living conditions and the conflict escalated and when they try to come to the capital city to report their issue to the head of stat Isayas Aferweki they were confronted by military personnel and several of them were shot to dead. No one is daring to ask on behalf of them.

    3. From 1994-1997 there was continuous improvement of several business people from Asmara and other cities. No proper judicial system was done and they rotted in prisons.

    4. From 1995 to 1998 the 5th round were servicing under the national service although they complain for being kept outside the 18 months agreed according the National service proclamation , they were there for several years. No one talked about their issues.

    5. 1998 the Border war with Ethiopia (who initiated leave it for the time being) the Eritrean regime got a good excuse to openly rule the country militarily, continuous round ups, collecting young people to take them to the military training. Continuous house to house search for young people who absconded or are not registered to go to the military training.

    Let me note this: this house to house search is a very series abuse by the regime, the soldiers enter the house check each bed, under bed , each cabinet each wardrobe every store everything you have. If someone is saying this is normal you must be living either in Eritrea or North Korea.

    6. In 2001 some University students resisted the school break camping work , their argument was they need to help their families in the rainy season and also collect some money to help them cover some of their living and other expenses during their while studying. This was taken as a series offence and the regime took step to collect all University students and took them to an area harsh to live in. In there two students died due to severe conditions. Many people do not understand why the students protested against and no one was there to talk about them.

    7. In 2001 several people who were imprison in ADi ABeyto for no reasons protested inside the prison, the prison fence wall collapsed and then the military opened fire and killed several of them. No one is there to talk.

    8. In 2001 many Journalist imprisoned all the private newspapers closed and the regimes high officials were imprisoned without any trial.

    9. Many young people started to flow out of the country especially in 2002, and for that reasons the regime tries to deter it by introducing families who fled their children from the military camp or from the other designated locations to pay for the regime 50,000Nakfa as a substitute of their child being absconded. Many families who have money paid and those poor were imprisoned for months. Most of the young people fled from the camp and rather it is the family who should have asked the regime to bring their children back home not vice versa. No one is there to talk about this abuse.

    10. A school students were rounded up in the streets and were taken to military camp, the age of the teenagers were from 14s . in several middle school the regime sent his officials and they check each class and ask the age of the teenager who look above 17 years of age and if they feel they’re they just take them to military camp. In otherworld’s they’re saying any late starter cannot study in the school. Many families re forced to run to the schools with the birth certificate to show their children are not above 18 otherwise they will simply be taken.

    11. From 2003-2005 the regime started to persecute engineers and contractors and many new homes under construction was stopped. Many imprisoned many left the country. No one is still to talk on behalf of these people.

    Let it be enough now as there was a lot of this that happened but these incidences that came every year pile up to the extent the people not to trust the regime and leave the country.
    So my view is that the UN is too late to decide to intervene to investigate the situation in Eritrea, they come up to the decision only after remarkable number of refugees started to flow like river out of the country.
    The border demarcation issue shouldn’t be brought as justification to do this all crimes on your people, and this argument should be nullified at all.

    Although some may see the UN report politically but who do you think will talk on behalf of those imprisoned and victims of this all if there is no such a body?

  5. It is not that complicated, if people living in poverty gets an opportunity like Eritreans are getting in Europe, they would be stupid not to take it. If you tell them, all they need to do is cross the desert and the sea to get a access to eternal prosperity in the West, even if the chance of making it is 50-50, people will take it. Not to mention that the entire cost of the trip is paid by your relatives living in the West, what do people have to loose? It is that simple.

  6. There is no Human Rights abuse in Eritrea ,There is an endless National Service due to border dispute with Ethiopia. There is Economic crisis , There is a pull factor in Eritrean case for Resettlement in Western countries, There is a big human smuggling by Ethiopian gvt to weaken Eritrean military for that , sure when anybody new refugees cross to Ethiopian border they will tell u WELCOME U R GOING soon to west aka ( wichi ) in Ethiopian language. And the Eritrean Regime is relaxing for that .,….for Economic benefit in long term whether short term. Because Eritreans love to send MONEY to send home. Additionally some families of the political prisoners (G 15) r demanding UN ICOI to revenge Iseyas @ proxy war in the Heague. A t last as I am a witness ,

  7. Ms. Frank, as most people well know Eritrea has been targeted and continues to be targeted simply for one reason: it will not kneel down to the West. From the very beginning, Eritrea made it clear that she was determined to gain her independence and did so after a 30 year struggle. After independence, Eritrea again made it clear that she was going to build herself up and has and continues to do so. Thus lies in the problem…an African nation that dared to stand on her own two feet and say no to modern colonization and financial aid that has proven to only enslave other African nations. Fabricated lies have been written and spread about Eritrea and I’m sure they will continue to be written and spread by those who wish to see Eritrea fail but this is nothing compared to all the atrocities that have been committed again Eritrea and her people by colonial powers and other governments (such as Ethiopia) that are puppets of the West. However, no matter what comes her way what the West fails to realize is that Eritrea has never and will never kneel down to anybody but God! We have overcome much and we will continue to overcome. So in sum, I say if anyone isn’t willing to support Eritrea in her nation-building efforts and her focus on continuing to be a self-reliant nation, then they should just simply leave her be.

  8. Economically too it may also make sense for Isaias to allow young migrants to leave the country and attempt to reach Europe. If they succeed his regime can levy the two percent tax on thousands of them. Although I’d be interested in whether he and many other leaders of developing countries, eg Somalia, Ethiopa are concerned about the political influence diasporas can exert if some of them organise themselves into opposition movements.

  9. Valerie,

    You are asking a valid question – but as the responses indicate, it’s not as if Eritrea was a paradise before and has suddenly turned into hell overnight. There is a long history of misery. One factor that you have not mentioned may be corruption: the regime seems to have become much more self-serving recently than it was before – maybe because of the temptations of easy money from mining.

    I recently tried to look at this a bit more deeply:

  10. Ms Valerie
    You are yet another example of the Western duped victims of the EPLF-PFDJ.We had many of those back in the seventies and eighties and when the EPLF took power. Duped to the hilt.How can you believe that dictator Isayas will let a Constitution appear? You totally missed why anew Nakfa is needed. You see Valerie you need to resist PFDJ brain washing and deal with the brutal reality. Isaias and the PFDJ have failed totally. The people are fleeing for their lives. Do not whitewash the crimes and respect the blood of our people.

  11. The case of Eritrean refugees is perhaps one of the most misreported and enormously distorted stories of the century. The fact is the bulk of those registered as “Eritrean refugees” are actually Ethiopian refugees, who choose to apply for asylum as “Eritreans”, because Europeans say the latter is “bad” and Ethiopia is “good”. I wrote a piece back in September, here is a link, where you can see the line of my argument:

    So, I know this is like swimming against the current, but the truth is that Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes are dictators to equal extents. So, you can allocate those who claimed to have come from Eritrea to the two countries in direct proportions of their population. After all that is the way it is if you look refugee statistics arriving in Yemen. Ironically, the war in Yemen barely abated Ethiopians migrating to a war thorn country. What does this say about the situation in Ethiopia?

  12. Eritrea have the most truth full president, and all the problems in our country happened not because of our leaders. Our main problem is external influences with American and western Europe interfering to implement their double standard system. So our country pass through so many challenges to overcome sovereignty.

  13. Whilst there is undoubtedly a surge in Eritreans fleeing, another factor for the sudden increase that can not be underestimated is the increasing number of people from other countries falsely claiming to be Eritrean upon their arrival in the European Union. The almost unilateral granting of asylum to Eritreans means that for many in the region, claiming to be Eritrean provides the best opportunity of remaining in Europe.

    For example, I know for fact that a large number of persecuted Ethiopians (most notably those from the Ogaden region) are travelling under the Eritrean nationality because their plight is less recognised internationally.

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