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Over 5,000 Eritreans are fleeing their country every month. Are they escaping a land “ruled by fear”? | The World Weekly

In an unfolding tragedy hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their homes and land for the prospect of freedom and security in other countries. Today the country's people are the second largest group of people, after Syrians, attempting the desperate, hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea to safer shores. The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 357,000 Eritreans live outside their country - with more than 5,000 people fleeing the country every month - from a population of just 6 million.

“Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country,” reports the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights. “In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety. They risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers.”

Why are Eritreans fleeing their homeland?

The UN report slams the Eritrean government for numerous human rights violations against its own people and for a system of surveillance, including spy networks, that suppresses any dissent: “Information gathered through the pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety… It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear”.

The report lists human rights failings that include forced labour, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. The Eritrean people, the report says, live in constant fear of arbitrary arrest, detention without trial and even disappearance at the hands of the Afewerki government and its oppressive security apparatus. As a consequence the UN is calling European governments not to send Eritreans back to their country.

According to journalist Thomas C Mountain, who has lived in Eritrea since 2006, the UN report does not reflect the reality on the ground. He points out that the 550 migrants interviewed in the report are unnamed and argues the report is not therefore credible. He also says that Norwegian and Danish politicians have enjoyed positive recent visits to Eritrea, with the Norwegian justice minister, Jøran Kallemyr, said to have described conditions in the country as “satisfactory”. There are suggestions the Norwegian government is considering sending some Eritrean migrants back to the country.

Eritreans vote in the independence referendum in 1993 that split the country from Ethiopia.

The legacy of war

Eritrea was born from a long and violent struggle for independence and the country has been involved in almost constant conflicts of one kind or another ever since. Like Somaliland and, briefly, Ethiopia, Eritrea was an Italian colony until it was seized by the British in 1941. Once Ethiopia re-emerged as the regions dominant power, it laid claim to Eritrea. After fighting broke out the UN attempted to broker peace and in 1952 declared that Ethiopia and Eritrea should act as a federation. It didn't last long. The Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, demanded the full annexation of Eritrea prompting a 30 year war. Remarkably Eritrea won its independence; but decades of fighting has come to define the country's governance and institutions.

The Afewerki  government currently enforces national service, which though it is only meant to last a year, often turns into indefinite conscription. Any man under the age of 50 can be called up at any time. As a result around one in 20 Eritreans now live in desert barracks and are often made to work on infrastructure and housing projects for which they are paid just $30 a month.

Meanwhile the conscripts' lives can be extremely dangerous because the government insists borders are tightly policed. While Ethiopia won the fighting in the last war between the countries (1998-2000), Eritrea won in the international courts. The consequence an international border agreement, signed in 2002, that neither side appears to adhere to and along which skirmishes constantly break out.  

“The struggle for the independence of Eritrea is recorded in history as a major feat of a people’s fight for self-determination,” the UN commission acknowledges. “The commission finds that the current situation of human rights in Eritrea is the tragic product of an initial desire to protect and ensure the survival of the young state that very quickly degenerated into the use of totalitarian practices aimed at perpetuating the power of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and its successor, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).”

Dangerous bedfellows

President Isaias Afewerki, sometimes known as ‘Gedli’, led the EPLF, a Marxist-Leninist movement, to victory in 1991 with the support of Cuba, China and Libya. Renamed the PFDJ in 1993 it remains the only legal political party in Eritrea. No elections have been held since independence.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has had far-reaching consequences and the government has been accused of supporting militant Islamist organisations in Somalia, including al-Shabaab, in an effort to undermine Ethiopian influence following the latter's invasion of Somalia in 2006. 

According to political commentator Glen Ford, founder of the Black Agenda Report, it is however unlikely the government supports al-Shabaab. Pointing to the delicate balance between Muslims and Christians in Eritrea he argues the safest form of government possible in Eritrea is secular and that it would be “utterly insane” for Eritrea to support radical Islamist movements that risk not only regional stability but social cohesion within Eritrea itself.

In 2012, a UN Monitoring Group report stated that it had found “no evidence of direct Eritrean support for al-Shabaab in the past year”. In spite of pressure from China, Russia and South Africa, the UN has so far resisted calls to lift sanctions imposed three years previously.

Social development

While Eritrea has faced international condemnation over human rights abuses the government and its supporters claim it's approach  has been misrepresented. While its state-led approach to social and economic development has led it to be dubbed the “Cuba of Africa” by some and “Africa’s North Korea” by others it can claim some notable achievements.

In 2012, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country had dropped to just 0.8%. This was not only lower than other African countries like South Africa - where the rate is 18%  - but even Washington DC, where 3%  of citizens suffer from the debilitating virus. Life expectancy in Eritrea is also higher than in Ethiopia, while the mortality rate for children has nearly halved since 2000.

President Afewerki has described his ultimate aim as the  creation of “a rich Eritrea without rich Eritreans” but his utopian vision faces serious obstacles. Five years of drought have devastated the country's agriculture while state industries have been squeezed hard by international sanctions.

According to Thomas C Mountain, the reason most Eritreans leave the country is for work. With the economy squeezed by UN sanctions, employment opportunities are desperately limited so Eritrean migrants claim persecution to gain asylum status abroad. “If they say they came for work or school, [they would be] denied entry,” Mr. Mountain told the World Weekly. “So, of course, everyone says they are persecuted by the government.” A recent Danish government report supports this view, imposing much tougher criteria on Eritrean asylum seekers having concluded that international reports of up to 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea are "difficult to harmonize with the reality on the ground".

International response

Rusted out, Soviet-era tanks and trunks sit abandoned in Asmara's 'tank graveyard', a monument to the wars, on July 20, 2013

Meanwhile the Eritrean government has become increasingly reliant on the earnings of the diaspora through a recovery and reconstruction tax of 2% on their income. In the UK, the Eritrean embassy is currently being investigated by the Metropolitan Police following allegations it refuses consular services to expatriates who don't pay the levy.

In a recent BBC interview Yemane Ghebreab, a friend of and political adviser to the president argued the diaspora tax is an obligation of Eritrean citizenship. When asked if Eritreans who do not make the payments can return, Mr. Ghebreab said, “they can come back, but they cannot ask for their rights here. They need a plot of land to build a house. They cannot do it because they have not done their obligations.”

Nevertheless European governments appear to have diminishing sympathy for Eritrean migrants.  In March 2015 the EU proposed a $340 million development package for the country in effort to dissuade economic migration through job creation. As recently as 2013, the UK granted residency to 90% of Eritreans who reached the country and lodged an asylum application. The refusal rate has risen to 23% this year.

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