Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis

Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis

African migrants were rescued by a Maltese patrol boat after their dinghy started taking on water.
African migrants were rescued by a Maltese patrol boat after their dinghy started taking on water. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

One of the leading sources of refugees in Europe is the impoverished east African nation of Eritrea. Many fleeing describe chronic human rights abuses.

Last updated September 16, 2016 8:00 am (EST)

African migrants were rescued by a Maltese patrol boat after their dinghy started taking on water.
African migrants were rescued by a Maltese patrol boat after their dinghy started taking on water. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)
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Tens of thousands of Eritreans have arrived at Europe’s shores in recent years seeking asylum. They make up a significant share of the unprecedented stream of migrants and refugees making their way to the European Union, undertaking dangerous journeys while challenging the bloc to find a collective response consistent with the protection principles embodied in international law.

Five thousand Eritreans leave the country each month, the UN commission found.

Many more Eritreans reside in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, bringing the diaspora to about half a million, and making the country of six million people “one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The scale of the migration has heightened Western interest in conditions inside one of the world’s most closed countries, where those who have fled describe a long-standing system of forced labor, among other human rights violations, that a UN commission said “may constitute crimes against humanity.” 

How is Eritrea governed?

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Eritrea, Africa’s second-newest state, came into being in 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) broke away from Ethiopia after three decades of guerrilla struggle. Its independence was codified in a 1993 popular referendum backed by the UN. Isaias Afwerki, a guerrilla leader, became president and remade the EPLF as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The PFDJ remains Eritrea’s only legally sanctioned political party.

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Political Transitions

Eritrea’s political culture was forged in the liberation struggle, when the guerrilla movement had little international backing and considered any dissent a threat to its survival, according to the International Crisis Group. The one-party system, a holdover from Eritrea’s tumultuous birth, became entrenched as the military and ruling party refused to relinquish their privileged positions, citing external threats to the young country’s survival. National development, rather than democratic governance, was the first priority for the economically ravaged country. Though the country’s rulers convened a legislature, which ratified a draft constitution in 1997, the legislature remained without authority and the constitution was never implemented. Nor were promised national elections ever held.

A UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry established in 2014 characterized the regime’s methods as "rule by fear." According to the UN inquiry and rights groups, the country has widespread networks of informants, coerced by the state, and those suspected of treasonous behavior are subject to arbitrary arrest, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture. Individuals who run afoul of the authorities are often held in harsh conditions in makeshift prisons. Citizens face restrictions on internal movement and speech, and domestic media is controlled by the state.

The Eritrean foreign ministry called the report’s allegations "totally unfounded," and said they were part of a "politically motivated campaign to undermine the political, economic, and social progress the country is making." The state of exception, Eritrea says, is necessitated by the extraordinary external threats it faces, including Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrean territory and UN sanctions.

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In its 2016 follow-up report, the UN Council’s commission recommended that the International Criminal Court consider the matter for prosecution, but the UN Human Rights Council instead took the softer measure of requesting that the General Assembly forward its findings “to all relevant organs of the United Nations for consideration and appropriate action.”

Is Eritrea at war?

No, but residual tensions from a 1998–2000 border war with Ethiopia remain, experts say. That war, in which tens of thousands were killed, ended with the Algiers Accord in 2001, but Ethiopia does not recognize the border demarcated under the agreement. Eritrea considers some territory that remains under Ethiopian control as illegally occupied (Ethiopia rejects that claim) and there have since been smaller border clashes between them. The ongoing state of hostility, which the Eritrean regime characterizes as one of “no war, no peace,” fostered a siege mentality that provided Afwerki with a rationale for entrenching the police state, experts say.

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In 2009, the UN Security Council sanctioned Eritrea for its alleged support of al-Shabab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, as a means of undermining the much larger and more powerful Ethiopia. The UN measures include an arms embargo and travel bans and asset freezes for designated individuals. By 2012, UN monitors found that Eritrea had stopped supporting al-Shabab, but said the country continued to lend support to Ethiopian antigovernment militias.

This finding raised pressure for the Security Council to rescind the sanctions, but the veto-wielding United States has opposed such measures and the sanctions remain in effect. This U.S. position stems, at least in part, from its close security ties with Ethiopia. Watchdog groups have recently called attention to a declining human rights situation in Ethiopia, and some experts say that if the United States were to temper its support for Ethiopia in response to rights concerns, it might change its stance on Eritrea.

Why are people fleeing the country?

Conscription in the national service program is the factor most commonly cited by asylum seekers who have fled the country. The state has justified the mass mobilization with the need for national development and to foster a common sense of national identity. A statutory requirement of eighteen months of military or civilian service was extended in 2002, following the war with Ethiopia, so that it has become, in practice, indefinite. Many adults reportedly serve the state into their fifties. Conscripts have reported earning less than a subsistence wage.

The UN commission of inquiry found that national service often entails “arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, absence of leave, and the [sic] ludicrous pay,” calling it “an institution where slavery-like practices are routine.” For many, leaving national service is only possible by deserting the military and fleeing the country, the commission found.

Eritrea has little foreign investment, but the extractive industry, one of its few exports, has raised concern from Human Rights Watch. The Canadian mining firm Nevsun Resources has contracted with the PFDJ-owned Segen Construction Company to build infrastructure around a mine it operates. Nevsun faces a lawsuit by Eritrean refugees in Canada alleging its complicity in forced labor. The company has denied the allegations.

“The Eritrean government pushes strongly for these companies to contract work out to state- and party-affiliated contractors, which themselves make heavy use of forced labor through the country’s national service program,” says Christopher Albin-Lackey, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who wrote the report. 

How many people have fled?

Five thousand Eritreans leave the country each month, the UN commission found, making it one of the world’s top producers of refugees. The government has taken an ambivalent stance toward the outflow, the International Crisis Group reports, in part because it benefits from the large diaspora. Through consulates or party affiliates overseas, it collects a 2 percent income tax from many émigrés, reportedly on the threat of denying them consular services, like travel documents, or services to family members who remain in Eritrea. In 2011 the UN Security Council called on Eritrea to “cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud, and other illicit means” to collect this tax, which yielded $73 million for the state from 2010 to 2013, the UN monitoring group found in 2014.

Eritreans in the diaspora also contribute to Eritrea’s economic survival by sending their families remittances, which provide the country with foreign reserves and keep families afloat. (The UN Development Program ranks Eritrea 182 out of 187 countries and territories for human development, but limited access for humanitarian agencies and organizations means there is little reliable information.) Yet the UN commission, among others, has also reported on border guards acting on a “shoot-to-kill” policy toward those caught trying to flee.

Where do the refugees and asylum-seekers go?

A quarter million Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers have settled in refugee camps and cities in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan. A shortage of services and few educational and employment opportunities there, as well as protracted and seemingly indefinite stays in refugee camps, cause some to take the risky journey to Europe. “Deprived of any prospects for a better future and feeling that they have nothing to lose, many fall prey to unscrupulous smugglers,” the UN said, calling particular attention to a rise of unaccompanied minors.

The major route to Europe takes asylum seekers through the Sahara Desert to war-torn Libya, where they board often-unseaworthy vessels bound for Italy. The UN refugee agency reported 11,564 Eritrean arrivals in Italy in the first seven months of 2016, representing 12 percent of arrivals there—second to Nigeria. (In 2015, a full quarter of arrivals in Italy were Eritrean.) In the same period, another 2,692 migrants were reported dead at sea along that route.

During that period, EU countries, including Italy, fielded 17,810 asylum applications from Eritrean nationals. In 2015, the top recipients of asylum applications from Eritrean nationals were Germany (10,990), Switzerland (9,965), the Netherlands (7,455), and Sweden (7,230). (EU countries grant asylum to more than 90 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers, and there have been reports of Ethiopian migrants in Europe claiming to be Eritrean in order to receive asylum.)

Another oft-traveled route goes through Egypt to Israel. In the Sinai Peninsula, Eritreans face torture, extortion, and rape at the hands of traffickers—at times with the collusion of police and military, Human Rights Watch reports [PDF]. From Sinai, they cross into Israel, where some thirty-three thousand Eritreans reside, the country’s interior ministry said in August 2015. But Israel does not recognize avoidance of military service as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum, says Sigal Rozen of the Israel-based aid and advocacy group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. Rather, Rozen says, the predominantly young men who constitute most of the arrivals are seen as “work infiltrators” and initially face detention. Several thousand have been returned to Eritrea or third countries, like Rwanda, where they often face unsafe conditions and lack legal status, she says. 

What are the EU and U.S. policies toward Eritrea and Eritrean asylum seekers?

Eritreans have prima facie designations from the UN refugee agency, meaning they are presumed to have legitimate asylum claims. Eritrea denounced the designation, saying it misrepresented national service as forced labor and made the UN an “unwitting catalyst” of the exodus, putting it in league with the country’s adversaries.

“In refugee law, it can be tricky to draw the line between an economic migrant and someone who is fleeing persecution,” says Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea is the best example of that,” he says, noting cases of minors who have fled the country. Many are anticipating conscription, though they have not yet served. They raise the question of whether they are fleeing the abuses of forced labor, or an apparent lack of work opportunities outside of the national service program.

It can be tricky to draw the line between an economic migrant and someone who is fleeing persecution.
Felix Horne, Human Rights Watch

U.S. refugee policy prioritizes those Eritreans seeking protection on the basis of religious persecution. In its October 2015 report to Congress, the Obama administration called attention to what it says is Eritrea’s repression of those subscribing to evangelical sects, as well as government control of state-sanctioned Christian and Muslim denominations. In all, the United States admitted 1,488 Eritreans in FY 2015, just over 2 percent of its total refugee admissions.

In December 2015, the EU concluded a five-year aid program worth 200 million euros ($214 million) with Eritrea—nearly five times what it had given it in the previous five years. By easing Eritreans’ economic plight at home, it hopes to reduce the migrant and refugee outflow toward Europe. Meanwhile, some Africa experts call for ending Eritrea’s isolation, which they believe could allay the ruling party’s sense of siege and begin a process toward domestic reforms. Others prioritize the normalization of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations. That would allow Eritrea to step back from its war footing and invest more in non-military spending. 

Editor’s Note: This Backgrounder is part of a series related to global migration issues.



London South Bank University's Gaim Kibreab and Human Rights Watch consider conscription in the national service program as forced labor.

The UN Human Rights Council's 2015 Commission of Inquiry report includes a torture survivors' illustrated testimony. Its 2016 follow-up report found “no improvement with respect to the most critical human rights violations.”

The monitoring group of the UN Security Council's sanctions committee on Eritrea and Somalia examines Eritrea's foreign policy and political economy.

The University of Manchester's Tanja R. Müller argues in World Politics Review that international isolation has hardened Eritrea's sense of siege and given Ethiopia little reason to accept the internationally demarcated border.

The Wall Street Journal makes a rare visit to Asmara, as well as a refugee camp across the border in Ethiopia.

The Horn of Africa regional organization IGAD reports on human smuggling and trafficking networks.

The New Yorker profiles an Eritrean Catholic priest in Lampedusa who tends to African migrants at sea and their families. 

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