Dear Europe, if you really must re-engage with Eritrea, here’s how you should do it
Unless Europe demands conditions as it re-engages with Eritrea, it will simply be strengthening the very regime responsible for thousands fleeing in the first place.
For many years now, relations between Eritrea and the West have been frosty at best. The Horn of African nation is often labelled “Africa’s North Korea” or described as a “prison state” by the press in the West, where it is viewed as a pariah. Meanwhile, the Eritrean government has rarely pulled its punches in hitting back at Western governments that it accuses of conspiring against it.
At least until recently. Over the past months, this long-standing standoff has notably softened, with both sides shifting in their approach and rhetoric.
On the one hand, the government in Asmara appears to have embarked on a concerted public relations offensive to improve its international image. After refusing entry to international journalists for several years, it has invited a number of reporters, leading to certain more sympathetic pieces in the mainstream press such as the BBC’s ‘Has Eritera’s Migration Problem Been Exaggerated?’ and the New York Times op-ed, ‘It’s Bad in Eritrea, But Not That Bad’.
On the other hand, European countries seem to have relaxed their long-standing rebuke of Eritrea. The European Union is reportedly considering Eritrea as a partner in its bid to slow down the movement of people towards its shores and recently announced a multi-million dollar development package for the country.
[See: The questions no one is asking about Eritrea]
Why is Europe re-engaging with Eritrea?
There seem to be two overarching motivations behind Europe’s change of heart.
The first of these is the so-called refugee and migrant crisis. Just 25 years after Eritrean men and women put their lives on the line to secure the country’s independence in 1991, thousands are now fleeing it. According to the UN, an estimated 5,000 people leave the country every month. This means that despite having a population of just 6.5 million and officially being in a time of peace, Eritrea ranks alongside the likes of Iraq in terms of refugee-producing countries.
The reasons for this movement are well-documented, including in a recent report by a UN Commission of Inquiry, which accuses the government of crimes against humanity. The document outlines widespread incidents of torture, rape, and murder, and condemns the country’s indefinite military service.
These findings could provide a reason for Europe to double down on its criticisms of Eritrea. But with anti-immigrant sentiment rising across much of continent amidst the influx of refugees and migrants, it seems that European governments have instead become far more willing to engage with Asmara in the hope that this could help stem the flow of people.
Overlooking human rights abuses, the European Union is considering including Eritrea as a partner in its goal of “managing migration”, and in December 2015, promised the country €200 million ($225 million) over 4 years “to promote poverty reduction and socio-economic development”. The hope is that improved socio-economic conditions and efforts by Asmara could help slow down the number of Eritreans journeying north.
The second possible reason behind Europe’s change in approach could be more geostrategic. While Eritrea has been left out in the cold by the West, it has more recently been forging closer links by looking eastwards.
China, for instance, is reportedly building a science college and investing in Eritrea’s mining sector, while Asmara sent a high-level delegation to the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Meanwhile, Eritrea’s security ties with the Gulf States appear to be growing too. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are understood to have provided Asmara with cash and much-needed fuel supplies in exchange for hosting a military base for their campaign in Yemen. And Qatar, which has 200 troops in the country, has reportedly been deepening its links with government recently too.
Noticing Eritrea’s growing usefulness to the likes of China and the Gulf states, Europe may have been prompted to end its censure of the country in order to avoid losing its influence in the region.
How should Europe engage?
At the same time Europe has been softening its stance, Eritrea also seems to have been making greater efforts to improve its international image. Media efforts such as “The Other Narrative”, a flattering 25-minute documentary reportedly made by “an independent think thank [sic] organisation based in Asmara” have emerged recently. And a number of journalists have been allowed into the country, leading to articles in the likes of the BBC and New York Times that have challenged the country’s dire reputation.
There are lots of legitimate critiques that can be – and have been – aimed at the content and framing of these more positive articles. And there are many ethical questions that can be asked about Europe’s decision to build closer ties with a repressive regime in Asmara.
However, if we are to assume that a rapprochement is already in the works, it is perhaps most pressing and important here to address the practical issues that will emerge from such a re-engagement. If this is going to happen, how could it happen so that it works in the interests of both sides?
On this front, the first thing European policymakers hoping to stem migration must do is to avoid the mistake of equating an Eritrea government emboldened by a fresh aid package with a country that is more stable.
After all, in the likes of Egypt and Tunisia, the West’s largely unconditional aid served to prop up seemingly stable authoritarian governments, right up to the point that unaddressed systemic injustices and grievances exploded into revolutions. Meanwhile, it should be noted that many of the African refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe are fleeing repressive conditions in Western-backed regimes.
Unless Europe demands certain conditions from Asmara as it re-engages with aid packages and international legitimacy, it will simply be strengthening and prolonging the very regime responsible for thousands of Eritreans trying to flee each month in the first place. As well as ensuring development aid goes to socio-economic projects, European government must also therefore insist on certain reforms to address the systemic human rights abuses forcing so many to flee.
To begin with, Eritrea’s highly-criticised indefinite national service, which is often a driving factor behind people fleeing the country, must be limited to 18 months and civil service salaries must be raised.
Asmara must also release political prisoners. In March, four Djiboutian prisoners of war were set free after mediation efforts by Qatar, but there are many more political detainees still being held. These include members of the so-called G-15, a group of individuals that were jailed after writing an open letter in 2001 criticising President Isaias Afwerki; members of US embassy staff who have been detained for over a decade; and others who have expressed dissent.
Finally, the Eritrean government must show that it recognises human rights abuses have been committed – including by elements of its own leadership – and bring those responsible to justice. This set of actions would at least indicate a degree of good faith.
Furthermore, European governments must ensure that Asmara follows through on its promises, recognising that Afwerki’s government has a pattern of paying lip service to calls for reform before failing to implement them. The promises to reform national service that were made in the midst of the EU’s €200 million package negotiations, for example, have yet to develop past the stage of private assurances. In February, there was a positive sign as representatives of the UN human rights agency were able to visit Sembel prison, but observation by international bodies must be maintained and significantly extended.
[See: What we talk about when we talk about change in Eritrea – the case of education]
The ethical case for these conditions is clear from a human rights perspective. But if European policymakers have learnt anything by looking at the reasons so many people from Africa and the Middle East are fleeing their homes, the practical case should also be self-apparent.
Europe may hope that more aid and an unconditional re-engagement with Eritrea will help stem the flow of people to its shores, but it will ultimately do more harm than good if it only serves to strengthen a repressive and unpopular regime rather than reform it.
Rufael Tecle is an Eritrean-American law graduate from the University of Texas. He can be reached on Twitter at @RufaelTecle.
Great article Rufael. Love seeing educated Eritreans calling a spade a spade.
Regurgitating propaganda against Eritrea is old news. Try something else!
Great article. The notion that a government that created the migration crisis by committing crimes against humanity against its own people will reform itself upon receiving hundreds of millions of unconditional dollars is beyond ridiculous. Eritrea will continue to suffer – and its great people will continue to leave by the thousands – as long as it is led by a narcissistic dictator who has nothing but hate and contempt for his own people. To the commentator above by the name of “unedited,” I can only say I wish that the accusations against Eritrea were propaganda; unfortunately, as you surely must know if you have a kernel of intelligence, they are not only true but are regrettably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the crimes of this government. I will continue to pray for my ancestral homeland; still shocking to see how terrible the country is doing after achieving territorial independence; hopefully, one day, the people will actually achieve genuine independence and the freedom and dignity that comes with it.
Is this European(west side) of argument or African argument? Lol Please be advised!
This is an important contribution to a serious debate.
A comment to “Unedited11”: if you wish your views to be taken seriously, provide a real name.
Europe should more progressively engage the entire Horn of Africa and stop letting it be the US’ private domain. Not once did you give the advice to pressure Ethiopia to evacuate from occupied Eritrean territories. The Cold War-like state between the countries is central to Eritrea’s current situation.
Ja,eritrea is responsible country.but there is bad image which is created.so those who read that image , Eritrea is hell.but for those who go to Eritrea,like China,gulf country,ero,it is like any country in Africa,even better than.go to Ethiopia to see human rights,killing 500 even more than.what about the black matters in America.go to south Africa,see lives of blacks.
Another Ethiopian attempt to sway Eu as the US. Nope it won’t happen. Eu got to do what Eu have to do. In the mean time Us should stop Aiding Ethiopia, till Killing of Oromo stops. #OromoProtest
All you’ve done here is parrot the already discredited claims against Eritrea by Western powers. These are not “African Arguments” but more of the same crap I can read in the American media, devoid of even the barest minimum of journalistic integrity.
Eritrea is currently under occupation by Ethiopia. Occupying another country’s sovereign land is an act of war, which the UN has made no attempt to address. The figure of “5000” people fleeing every month is absurd given the small size of the country. In fact, recently European officials have admitted that many of the so-called “Eritrean” migrants are actually Ethiopians and other Africans, something that the Eritrean government has been pointing out from the very beginning.
Finally, if indeed people are fleeing because of these phantom human rights violations, then what difference would an economic aid package do to stem the flow of migrants? By proposing this aid package, European leaders are signaling that even they do not believe the claims of human rights violations causing people to flee. Anyone with common sense can see that these are economic migrants (at least the ones who are actually Eritrean). Lifting the sanctions should be a priority, which European leaders support, but is currently being blocked by the United States. The same “defenders of freedom” who are still financing the TPLF regime as the Amhara and Oromo rise up against them. Stop parroting these same tired talking points that have already been discredited and do some basic research on the geopolitical circus that currently surrounds Eritrea.
Of course the humanitarian crises in the country is obvious but their engagement in the country is to have influence in the red sea. There influence on red sea can further be strength by not only supporting Eritrea but also by cooperating and permitting Ethiopia to have access to the sea. This is the Eritrea gov’t have an inherent hate the western and America. This hate can’t be avoid by having engagement unless other partner countries are allowed to have their presence .
Some of my Eritrean compatriots are in denial. They are, of course, unlike Eritreans who live in Eritrea, free to express their opinions without fear of retribution. However, let’s not confuse opinions with facts.
(a) Eritrea has been effectively independent for more than 25 years. Eritrea has had zero local, municipal or national elections, both before and after the war with Ethiopia. This use of Ethiopia by some as an all purpose excuse for everything wrong with Eritrea is embarrassing – no one believes that garbage except for the unconditional supporters of the government (and I am not even sure they really do because it makes no logical sense).
(b) Eritrea has never published a national budget. That means its people have no idea how much money the government collects from its people and business activities (including mines), how this money is spent, who decides how it is spent, where this money is kept, etc. Surely, if they were proud of how they spent the people’s money, they would be happy to share it with the world.
(c) The country has no constitution and no independent judiciary. A sole political organization that is accountable to no one is judge, jury and executioner on pretty much every facet of life. I guess that is Ethiopia’s fault too.
(d) On a percentage basis, a greater percentage of Eritreans flee Eritrea than the citizens of any other country on earth. No disrespect intended, but you know things are really bad when they are fleeing to Sudan and Ethiopia. So, while they can’t cast a ballot, Eritreans are voting with their feet, even at the risk of death at the border by the government’s security forces. Of course, to some, since this is an inconvenient fact, so it must be a well-orchestrated conspiracy conjured by western powers and international institutions (and don’t forget the CIA) to make Eritrea look bad. As if they care about Eritrea. That is narcissistic thinking on major steroids.
(e) The country has banned any type of independent press; many journalists, including those of foreign nationality, are languishing in prisons and/or dead.
(f) While Donald Trump talks about banning Muslims, the government of Eritrea has actually banned several religions (Jehovah’s witnesses, etc.). Perhaps the GOE is rooting for a Trump victory? Is that how they will make Eritrea great again? Sorry, could not resist that one (that was humor, possibly of the bad variety, not a fact).
(g) The country hired a lobbyist to write an article about it in the NY Times. Normally, a lobbyist works hard to put a positive spin on it’s clients situation. The best this paid lobbyist could come up with was an article titled, “It’s bad in Eritrea, but not that bad.” When that is the best thing your hired gun can say about you, you know you are in terrible shape! They should get their money back.
(h) The country has imprisoned many of the heroes of the liberation struggle who called for democratic reform. Yes, people who put their life on the line for the territorial liberation of their country are in jail because they were also willing to risk their lives for genuine independence: the freedom of their people. Still can’t understand how some people justify this in their minds.
Other than that, everything is great in Eritrea.
Seriously, these are just a few basic facts. Remember, if someone can’t dispute a fact and begins to attack the messenger, that is a strong sign that the facts are true. You will notice a pattern that the government focuses on attacking motives of people, but their attempts to refute facts are embarrassingly weak.
That the EU is thinking about giving this government that much money without conditions is like giving a drug addict an unlimited supply of drugs. Madness.
First of all the notion of human rights abuses in Eritrea is propaganda. Ethiopia & it’s master USA are responsible for the negative image of Eritrea. This is not new. Before independence USA was against the independence of Eritrea. John Foster Dulles former chief foreign policy advisor of the United States of America was best known to Eritreans for stating
“From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] be linked with our ally, Ethiopia. Unfortunately that policy has continued in supporting Ethiopia against Eritrea. We were falsely accused of having troops in Somalia & flying plane load of weapons to Somalia in support of Al-shabab. These 2 reasons were what was used to put economic sanctions on Eritrea by the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG). The SEMG after passing sanctions acknowledged themselves that both reports on Eritrean troops & plane load of weapons sent Somalia were both false, but none the less sanctions remain. We were in a border with Ethiopia. After both countries signed FINAL & BINDING Agreement on border issue. Eritrea was awarded the main contention point which was the village of Badme. Border commission was blocked by Ethiopia from putting pillars on the ground to demarcate the boundary. Border commission could not wait for an indefinite period of time & decided to virtually demarcate the boundary. It has been over 15 years since the end of the border war & Ethiopia still is militarily occupying territories belonging to Eritrea. U.N., A.U., USA, EU, were suppose to oversee & guarantee the final & binding boundary ruling. They have power to sanction the party that goes against the ruling of the boundary commission. To date the world powers remain silent on the issue, since it hurts the image of their client state of Ethiopia. People will say why is military services in Eritrea more then 18 months, but fail to acknowledge that Eritrean territories have been militarily occupied for the past 15 years. Eritreans are given a green light to asylum & even President Obama said they are working with organizations & neighboring countries to get people out of Eritrea. This is more then enough pull factors for Eritreans to flee. Although we acknowledge that some Eritreans do actually flee, the amount & reasons are falsely exaggerated for propaganda reasons. Majority of Eritrean asylum seekers are actually Ethiopian & some are from other parts of Africa. The name of the game is, say you are Eritrean, government kills, rape, torture, blah blah same old repeated lies told over & over- & your asylum to Israel, Europe & USA will be granted. Majority of the actual Eritrean asylum seekers are economic migrants searching for greater pastors, just like the majority of other migrants around the world besides those fleeing conflicts like Syria. We hear a lot of recycled garbage talk about Eritrea but never actually see anything. There are plenty of camera phones to capture bad things if they were actually happening in Eritrea. You see what is happening in Ethiopia, there is no denying that, but here in the USA you never see it in the media. If the USA & other Western countries cared about human rights, wouldn’t what’s going on in Ethiopia with the Oromo & Amhara protests & the deadly reaction by Ethiopian security forces be aired on t.v. stations like CNN, if they really cared about human rights. This should shed a little light that the game is not really about human rights. It is all about national interests & who in Africa is willing to be a pawn to serve & die for the national interests of the USA & western powers. Ethiopia better yet the minority regime TPLF of Ethiopia is more then willing to play the role of a puppet & do is what’s asked of it like a good servant. Eritrea is not willing to forgo it’s national interests in order to serve foreigners national interests. Eritrea & Eritreans are unjustly being targeted for being servants of the USA & other Western powers. Eritrea only kneels down for to reasons, to pray & to squeeze the trigger on anybody plotting against our national interests.
The author’s thorough research clearly shows that the EU’s approach to solving the refugee problem in Eritrea is misguided, and that if would only add fuel to the fire.
Life is good in Eritea.