from Africa in Transition

Eritrea’s Humanitarian Crisis and Mediterranean Migration

July 2, 2015

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This is a guest post by Amanda Roth, a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a recent graduate from the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied international security policy

According to the International Organization for Migration, 23 percent of the 170,100 refugees that arrived in Italy by sea last year were from Eritrea. In a country of only 6.3 million, the United Nations estimates that approximately five thousand people flee every month. Eritrea has been largely ignored internationally, but increasing numbers of refugees, a growing diaspora community, and the regime’s involvement in instability in the Horn of Africa may mean that it is time to take a closer look at the police state that has been called the “North Korea of Africa.”

Earlier this month, the UN released a report illuminating the country’s horrific conditions and accusing the Eritrean government of “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.” The report is only the latest to condemn the government of President Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled the country without elections for more than twenty years and exerts control over nearly every aspect of daily life.

One of the primary reasons that Eritreans are fleeing is the forced national service that all Eritrean men and women must complete. Citing the country’s violent conflicts with Ethiopia (from whom it gained independence in 1993) and other neighboring countries, the government maintains one of the largest armies in sub-Saharan Africa. Men and women are forced to serve indefinitely with little or no pay. One study found that the average length of service among former conscripts was six and a half years, although some served twice as long. Entire families go hungry because potential breadwinners must choose between forced conscription and fleeing the country.

The UN report also outlined “widespread use of torture” and “ubiquitous” arbitrary detention. There is no free press, and Afwerki’s government operates a system of mass surveillance, with government informants everywhere.

There is a severe shortage of food and basic goods. Because so much money and manpower is devoted to the military, there is very little internal capacity to meet people’s needs. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that the UN High Commission for Refugees counts more than 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, approximately 6 percent of the country’s population. Even the Afwerki regime’s alleged "shoot to kill" policy on the border does not dissuade thousands from fleeing.

However, even if individuals do manage to escape, they are not safe from the government’s reach. There have been reports that Afwerki supporters working as translators in Europe inform the Eritrean government about the private statements migrants make during asylum hearings. Eritrea uses extortion and threats of violence to exact an involuntary tax from the diaspora. The government also allegedly tortures and punishes deserters’ families that remain behind.

As Europe continues to debate how to respond to the migrant crisis along the Mediterranean, there are repeated calls for the European Union to attempt to address the “root causes” that lead tens of thousands of migrants to flee. The UN report, which states that the Eritrean government may be guilty of crimes against humanity, casts a harsh light on some of these root causes in one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. Countries and international organizations seeking to address Mediterranean migration should take notice.