Why thousands of asylum-seekers are fleeing Eritrea and risking their lives in the Mediterranean

Thousands of Eritreans are among migrants and refugees trying to escape to safety and a better life. EAP/Cesare Abbate

We have become accustomed to headlines about migrants in the Mediterranean. Most recently it was reported that the Italian authorities rescued nearly 7,000 migrants off the coast of Libya over one weekend. Often, tragically, we read instead of thousands drowning.

Last year more than 170,000 migrants arrived by boat in Italy last year. Many, as you would expect, are refugees displaced by the fighting in Iraq, Syria and, most recently, Libya itself. But a significant, if under-reported, group among the multitudes seeking safety or a better life in Europe are fleeing Eritrea.

When, in May 1991, the 30-year struggle for independence against Ethiopia and its Russian sponsors came to a successful end and 99.9% voted in the 1993 national referendum in favour of independence, the future appeared to be set fair for Eritrea – and its acceptance in the United Nations as an independent state in May 1993 appeared to back this up.

One of Eritrea’s former international friends, the late Abdul Rahman Babu, a Tanzanian politician and scholar, who visited the liberated areas during the independence struggle in a paper titled “Eritrea: its present is the remote future of Others”, expressed his unbound sense of optimism and indicated that the Eritrean revolutionaries were setting trends which provide fresh hope for the rest of the continent.

Others felt the same way – towards the end of the 1980s, the American journalist Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post:

On a continent of millionaire dictators, where broken promises of democracy dovetail with collapsing living standards and unpayable debts, Eritrea’s revolutionaries hold out the possibility of an efficient, self-reliant African nation, run by Africans who have had 26 years to learn from the failures of independent Africa.

These testimonies would sound incredible to anyone who is only familiar with Eritrea’s current plight. Contrary to all rational expectations, in the vital areas of international relations, human rights, rule of law, democracy, justice, human security and freedom of speech and association, there is little that distinguishes the post-independence Eritrean government not only from the regimes that held Africans to ransom in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, but also from the very regime – the Derg – it fought for decades to get rid of.

The million-dollar question is: what went wrong in a country, which most analysts and observers expected to “break the mould”? A fitting answer is difficult in such a short article.

History lessons unlearned

Ironically, the sorry state Eritrea and its people are in at present is largely due to the fact that the government has dismally failed to draw lessons from Africa’s past failures. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – now known as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice – has broken every promise it made during the war of independence and in the immediate post-independence period. Instead of learning from the failures of African leaders, the Eritrean leadership has been emulating the failed policies and contemptible behaviour that drove the continent into abject poverty, dictatorship and indebtedness.

Most of the blunders and failures that are blighting Eritrea and its citizenry are similar to those, which wrecked the lives and aspirations of their brethren in the rest of the continent in the 1960s and 1970s. It was most peoples’ hope that Eritreans as latecomers to statehood would be spared from autocracy and the follies of the incompetent and intolerant post-independence African state.

Most Eritreans inside and outside the country are unanimous in who is responsible for the woeful state the country is in. Every Eritrean blames president Isaias Afwerki and his tightly knit inner circle. Not only has the EPLF and its successor, the PFDJ, and the government, betrayed the endless promises made during the war of independence, but also the two multi-party elections that were promised never took place and no explanation was given. The ratified constitution was suspended with no explanation and now it is declared dead and buried by the single utterance of the president.

President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in 2011. EAP/Tim Clary

The government’s anti-civil society stance and its undemocratic and intolerant nature have driven aid agencies and NGOs out from the country. Despite the fact that about 66% of the population lives below the national poverty line and the country suffers from recurrent droughts, the government stopped the distribution of food aid in September 2005 on the alleged grounds that food hand-outs undermine its misplaced policy of self-reliance.

The private sector has almost collapsed due to hostile policies and the ruling party’s dominance of the economy. The private sector’s suppression has stifled the development and of the middle class and businesses owned by members of the ruling party dominate the fragile economy of the country. The civil service has been dismantled to pave the way for non-institutionalised patrimonial administration based on patron-client networks in which the positions of government officials and employees depend on political loyalty to the president and his arbitrary rule.

The nationalisation of land, the stifling of the private sector and the phasing out of food aid have undermined the livelihood systems of the majority of peasants, pastoralists and the rest of the population.

Armed camp

Eritrea is one of the most militarised societies in the world. Most able-bodied citizens between 18 and 50 – including womenare conscripted into the open-ended Eritrean national service. In 2012, the government introduced the people’s army comprising citizens between the ages of 50 and 75 years old. National service conscripts receive subsistence pay, people’s army nothing at all.

After the disastrous outcome of the border war against Ethiopia (from May 1998 to June 2000), a reform movement under the leadership of some ministers, high-ranking military officers and their followers demanded that the president and the leaders of the central office of the PFDJ account for their follies. After initially appearing willing to compromise with the Group of 15, many of whom were important figures in the independence struggle, Afwerki rounded up the group and their followers in September 2001 using the excuse of 9/11 for his actions.

He also closed down all private newspapers and detained all the journalists who worked for the papers. Since September 2001, thousands of citizens have been held incommunicado in detention without being charged. Nobody knows whether those who were detained in September 2001 and after are dead or still alive, languishing in the thousands of dungeons in the country.

Available evidence suggests there are about 10,000 prisoners in the country. Prisoners are subjected to torture and inhuman treatment. One former detainee in an underground cell in Wi’a told Amnesty International:

We couldn’t lie down [in the underground cell]. It’s best to be standing because if you lie down, your skin remains stuck to the floor. The floor is terribly hot.

His is only one of many such reports. It makes for deeply distressing reading.

Disaster unfolds

Long way from home: Eritrean migrants in Calais in 2014. EPA/Etienne Laurent

The national service whose duration was originally 18 months has become open-ended. The government’s justification is Ethiopia’s refusal to be bound by the Algiers peace agreement, arguing that in view of Ethiopia’s intransigence, war may break out at any time and hence Eritrea cannot take the risk of demobilising its conscripts.

Contrary to all expectations, post-independence Eritrea has become one of the region’s major producers of refugees. The indefinite national service – which has over time degenerated into forced labour, savage repression of political dissent and free speech and the collapse of the public service and the private sector coupled with the nationalisation of land, are driving Eritreans in their tens of thousands to seek refuge.

The UNHCR reported recently that 22% of boat arrivals in Italy were Eritreans – some 34,000 people. While the UN and the wider international community sits by and does nothing to put pressure on this is developing into a full-blown humanitarian disaster.