By Javan Latson
Nestled along the coast of the Red Sea lies the small, secluded state of Eritrea. Often called the “North Korea” of Africa, few outsiders have ever been to the nation due to the strict censorship and control that the government enforces. However, the tiny African nation is a major contributor to the greatest refugee crisis since World War Two with about 5,000 people leaving each month.
The story of Eritrea is one of conflict and a desire for freedom. Africa’s second newest state has been constantly subjugated by larger powers. Following 52 years of Italian Colonialism, the British took over in 1941 beginning an eleven-year occupation. Partial freedom was granted in 1952 when Eritrea was declared an autonomous province of Ethiopia by the United Nations, but only ten years later the small nation was annexed by Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. This sparked a vicious 30-year war, which claimed thousands of lives and displaced many. The result was Eritrean independence in 1993 that placed the victorious PFDJ party in control of the nation, and a deep distrust of Ethiopia for fear of a future invasion. This concern would eventually become a reality in 1998 when a border skirmish led to a two-year war that led to the death of 80,000 people. Peace was established only after an agreement was signed in Algeria giving an international organization the right to clarify the borders of the neighboring states. Although peace was secured, it has been more of an uneasy stalemate between the two nations.
The Eritrean government has seized on this paranoia to obtain a strong grip on its citizens. Much like Cuba and China, Eritrea is a single party state that can’t in any sense be called a democracy. For the last 23 years the nation has been under the leadership of “president” Isaias Afewerki and his PFDJ (ironically stands for: People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) party. During this time, the regime has strengthened its power and has greatly limited the freedoms of the people, and as a result of its policies 5000 people flee the country each month. This mass exodus places Eritrea second to Syria in terms of refugee production, in what is the greatest migration crisis in 70 years.
Many of the freedoms taken for granted in the west are non-existent in the East African nation. Although a proposal for democratic reforms was presented in 1997, it was never adopted. President Afwerki has announced that elections would be postponed for 30 to 40 years or even longer because they “polarize” society. Freedom of expression is virtually nonexistent as there is a great deal of government censorship. The regime controls all media outlets, and all publications must receive approval before being released. An overwhelming amount of the people lack access to the Internet with less than 1% of the population being able to get online, and websites such as YouTube and those run by exiles are blocked. Emails are also monitored, and due to the poor infrastructure and lack of outside information, the nation is very insular and uniformed about events outside of their country. Foreign journalists are not allowed to freely enter the country and those that are permitted entry are closely monitored and pressured into portraying the government in a favorable way. The conditions are not conducive to free reporting and there are currently 16 journalists in prison. The government’s tight leash on the media has caused them to be ranked last for eight consecutive years in the World Press Freedom Index.
Individual rights are also frequently violated, especially religious freedom. To be
“legitimate,” religious denominations must register with the government, and as of now there are currently four legal religions (Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Lutheranism). Members of unrecognized religions, mainly Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, face severe persecution. They can be thrown in prison, tortured, or pressured to forsake their beliefs. The government especially targets Jehovah’s Witnesses, barring them from obtaining government employment and stripping of them of citizenship. There are 3,000 people are currently in prison because of their religious beliefs, where they are kept in abysmal conditions. Arbitrary arrests are common and prisoners do not have to be informed as to the reason for their incarceration. Those in custody are held indefinitely and without the guarantee of a trial, in overcrowded, underground cells or in shipping containers. Torture of prisoners is common and water and food are not regularly supplied. Juveniles and adults serve time together and according to most estimates there are 10,000 political prisoners in the country.
Perhaps the most egregious policy of them all is the national service requirement. Established in 1995, citizens between the ages of 18-40 are required to serve 18 months in the military, but in reality the program lasts for decades. Military training is mandatory for all children prior to their completion of school and many of the conscripts are used to work on construction sites and government farms. Females often face sexual abuse and harassment from their commanding officers and the salary of $43 dollars a month (before deductions) is not enough to support most families. Human rights groups have slammed this practice as forced labor on a national scale and some have compared it to slavery. The government meanwhile defends their policy, stating that it is necessary in order to defend the nation against Ethiopia.
The gross violations of human rights and the dire economic situation have caused thousands to flee. Since 2004, more than 200,000 Eritreans have escaped to refugee camps in neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia. This has prompted the government to enact a “shoot to kill” policy for anyone that attempts to cross the border without permission. The two primary destinations for Eritreans are Israel and the European Union. Ten percent of migrants to the EU hail from Eritrea and, as of 2014, there were 80,000 Eritrean citizens residing in the EU. The EU grants ninety percent of Eritrean asylum requests, with Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland being the top destinations. Those that decide to make the dangerous trip must trek through the Sahara Desert to Libya, where they board poorly made boats and cross the Mediterranean to Europe. This is a perilous journey that has resulted in many deaths. During the first half of 2015 alone, 2,703 migrants died attempting to cross the sea from North Africa, many of whom were Eritrean. In addition to this, there are dangers from terrorist groups like ISIS; in 2015, ISIS in Libya kidnapped 88 Eritrean Christians from a smuggling caravan.
The other route to freedom for these refugees requires going through Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Those that make this trip are exposed to torture, rape, and extortion at the hands of smugglers or even local law enforcement. Upon arrival to Israel (which is home to 37,000 Eritreans) they face some very harsh treatment from Israeli authorities. Israeli policy towards East Africans is not lenient as the government rejects 99.97% of asylum claims on the grounds that Eritreans are not refugees but rather economic migrants. Israel has been accused of seeking to coerce migrants to leave the country and it gives them three options. They can either be given a sum of money and sent to a third country in Africa, go back to where they came from, or be detained indefinitely in Israel. Many of those that go back to Eritrea are branded as traitors and are put to death or sent to prison.
With the number of refugees in Europe increasing and given the recent history of terror attacks, some European nations have begun taking a stronger stance against immigration. The UK has begun declining Eritrean asylum seekers on the grounds that the UN has drastically overblown the human rights situation in the country. Meanwhile, the US policy under the Obama administration prioritizes Eritreans fleeing because of religious persecution and 1,488 Eritreans entered the United States during the 2015 fiscal year. Many EU countries have attempted to stem the flow of people from Eritrea by attempting to normalize relations between the regime and neighboring Ethiopia, with the hope that this will help reduce tension in the area. There have also been financial deals created in order to increase economic development in Eritrea in an attempt to improve standards of living. However, they have also been condemned by human rights advocates as solidifying the government’s control over the people. It is hard to tell what the effects of these policies will be, but until the situation in Eritrea changes, the exodus will continue.