Eritrea at the Center of Europe’s ‘Clandestine’ Migrant Crisis

MediMigrants2, cc wikicommons

The 700 or more migrants who died in the Mediterranean, just as those on the opposite side of the Atlantic who every day die attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States (some 30,000 people per day) represent one of the great tragedies of our era. The problem is so large that few dare to address it thoughtfully, limiting solutions to security and border patrols. Yet the problem is enormous and it requires a global response, especially considering the UN has estimated that there could be some 300 million ‘clandestine’ migrants this year alone. The humanitarian response would be to send search and rescue vessels to help ferry the migrants to safety, but this faces harsh practical realities in the host countries, where right-wing parties are playing on fear of migrants to win votes. Security-loaded solutions, aimed at blocking sea lanes and repelling the migrant boats are mere Band-Aids which fail to address the roots of the crisis.

Libya is the place of confluence of thousands of displaced and desperate people arriving from Central Africa and beyond. It is the country where criminal organizations specializing in trafficking humans have their deepest roots thanks to the current anarchy. The migrants who survive the journey to Tripoli are from Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, as well as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and they are concentrated in dilapidated structures and deprived of basic sanitary health conditions. In Tripoli, they board – or rather are forced to embark (seeing the conditions of the barges) – and head for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa or Malta, from where they hope to find passage to such Italian cities as Rome or Milan to France, Germany, Holland and England. Immigrants and refugees from Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria also pass from Benghazi. Local traffickers have the task of collecting the distressed human cargo in Libya.

Sometimes they purchase the passengers from other criminal groups who have kidnapped them in Africa, stuffing them in crowded warehouses near Zwarah and Tripoli. Gunmen keep guard as they represent a very valuable commodity. The migrants have already paid up to $5,000 to reach Libya and they will need to pay more money later. So begins the journey of hope by sea – which costs another $1,500 – to Sicily. There, the traffickers’ accomplices organize the migrants’ escape from reception centers, sending them on their way to Northern Europe. In Sicily, the operations are entrusted to Eritreans residing in Italy, who can earn between 250 and 1000 euro per migrant to arrange their escape and transfer to a chosen destination.

Payments are made in cash, on cards or postpaid services via money transfer (Western Union and Moneygram) or by “hawala,” as ancient as it is effective. The term derives from the Arabic root “HWL” which means “change” or “transform” and it is sometimes used as a synonym of “trust,” Everything is based on trust, in fact. The customer approaches a hawala broker and delivered a sum to be transferred to a recipient that is located in another city. The hawala broker contacts a counterpart in this city of the recipient, gives the provisions on the funds and promises to pay off the debt later. A key feature of the system is that brokers do not operate in regulated financial channels.

Business is booming. Vanquish any given criminal group and who knows how many remain active, ready to exploit the army of the desperate. There are between 500,000 and one million people ready to leave from the Libyan coast to Sicily. In 2013, almost 40,000 immigrants landed in Italy for a total of 450 landings, mainly from war-torn countries such as Syria (10,851), followed by Eritrea (9,213), Somalia (3,254), Egypt (2,618) and Nigeria (2,458). In 2014 the numbers have soared: in the course of “Mare Nostrum” operations 207,000 were rescued.


How do you solve a problem like Eritrea?

The European debate on migration in the Mediterranean has taken precedence because of the increasing number of deaths of those attempting to cross. Many more will attempt to reach Sicily from Libya as the weather improves over the spring and summer, the busiest seasons of the year because of the calmer and presumably safer waters. As the debate about how to manage the inevitable surge of boatloads of refugees has focused on renewing the so-called ‘Mare Nostrum’ policy of sending European patrols closer to the Libyan coast, there is an element of analysis that continues to be missing. It concerns the causes of such risky migration in the first place. Why do so many men and women risk their lives and those of their families in making a trip with effectively limited chances of success? There is an apparent determination to shun an analysis of what is happening and what can be done in the country from where the overwhelming majority of these refugees originate: Eritrea. Indeed, all the corpses found during the night after the shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa last week were Eritrean. A whole generation of youth have been forced to leave their country, oppressed by the dictatorship.

According to United Nations estimates, about 4,000 people escape from this small country in the Horn of Africa every month. Last year alone, nearly 10,000 arrived in Italy. Many are lost during the trip; about a hundred people a day flee from Eritrea through the Sudan. Those who are caught early get arrested because they lack papers; others die in the Sahara desert as they make their way toward the Libyan coast from the south, some may even fall prey to organ traffickers. Eritrea has earned the reputation of a country with a poor human rights record. The grave violations of human rights include arbitrary detention of those perceived to be political enemies, including opposition members (who have to operate in secret), journalists, and even former allies of president – or rather dictator – Isaias Afewerki.

In a somewhat similar fashion to North Korea, Eritrea has found itself increasingly isolated at both the regional and the international level ever since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and came to be governed by one of the most repressive dictatorships in Africa. Afewerki has encouraged the repression of opponents of the regime, with thousands of arrests as denounced by Human Rights Watch. The country, which has been described by some NGOs as a “state prison” or an “open air prison,” actually can boast about a huge number of prisons scattered throughout the country. The real or perceived (mostly the latter) threats to national security have continued to give the government a pretext to exert total control over civil society through the repression of any form of dissent.

None of this is exclusive to Eritrea of course. Dozens of African countries are governed by de-facto dictatorships masquerading as presidential republics or even kingdoms. What is unique about Eritrea is the extent of military repression as practiced through a strictly-enforced conscription regiment and martial culture. Eritrea’s army is about 600,000 strong, which is one tenth of the population of about 6 million. Few countries anywhere, other than North Korea or the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, have one tenth of their population in the army. Eritrean conscripts, which include men and women, account for a good majority of those who try to escape to Europe or, increasingly, Israel.

There is a constitution in Eritrea that was ‘adopted’ in 1997. It allowed for elections and a parliamentary framework, but neither one of these has ever been implemented. The real system of repression is silent and it revolves around compulsory military service for men and women from the age of 17 to 50 years, turning an entire people into a large surveillance apparatus; the apparent intent is to make people believe that everybody could be a spy. In keeping with this spirit, Afewerki appears to be isolating Eritrea from the rest of the world, noting that his country does not need Western aid. Yet, most of Eritrean nationals employed by the state earn little over 500 nakfa per month, about 12 dollars. There is a mass of working men and women at low cost, available to public and foreign private companies, especially in construction and mining, which have attracted some Western companies and growing Chinese investment.

Workers live below the poverty line and many are forced to look for other jobs to survive. The dictatorship even speculates on migration, having introduced a two percent tax on migrants’ remittances, or of all the money that comes from Europe or other countries in where the Eritrean diaspora survives. Afewerki uses the excuse of the presence of an evil and rival neighbor intent on invasion such as Ethiopia to build up nationalism to serve as an excuse for military authoritarianism. After a war that lasted 30 years, an international agreement and a commission to separate Eritrea from Ethiopia, the former still requires access to the sea, keeping tensions high along the border. After a conflict between 1998 and 2000, the international community stopped dealing with the border, which allowed Afewerki to tighten control and militarize the nation. Since 2009, Eritrea has also faced accusations of arming al-Shabaab in Somalia to destabilize the Horn of Africa.

The United Nations Council for Human Rights has appointed the members of the Committee of Inquiry on Eritrea, which has denounced the lack of fundamental freedoms while European diplomacy has recently called for the release of dissidents and journalists held in prison since 2001 without charges or trial. The opposition is divided and ‘declarations of intent’ are no longer enough. It takes a strong stance and diplomatic action targeting the Eritrean government, both by the European Commission and by the UN. Yet, this should not be about sanctions as the opposition is still fragmented into many small political and ethnic groups. Sanctions would only strengthen the government, making the whole population even more reliant on its dominant role. In fact, major opposition groups, from democratic secular to Muslim-inspired ones, rising from ashes of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), are based in Europe or in Sudan, while ethnic groups, such as the Afar or Kunama, are in Ethiopia and suspected of receiving weapons and aid from Addis Ababa. Until a serious international diplomatic initiative coincides with domestic policy action, young Eritreans will be forced to choose between living without freedom by staying behind or risking death by departing.

For Western companies, with shareholders, Eritrea can be cause severe damage to their reputation and Human Rights Watch has cited the case of the Canadian mining company, Nevsun Resources, which is developing a gold project in Eritrea. Nevsun faces the problem that all Eritrean construction projects are by law contracted to the local Segen Construction Company.  Segen (and it must be stressed HRW has not accused Nevsun of any violation), is accused of using military conscripts while failing to pay them; in essence, it is accused of using slave or forced labor.  Eritrean law has established that Eritrea conscripts can be sent either to military service or work for the government and those who refuse end up in custody (HRW hints they could face torture). They have a choice of earning no money in the ‘civilian’ world or of serving in the armed forces until the age of 50. Even if Nevsun wanted to improve the Eritrean workers’ conditions, in some way, offering food or other services, it is prevented from doing so since the places where the workers are literally locked up after work are off limits.

The Eritrean government is all too keen to invite foreign operators, since they bring much needed investment dollars (indeed it needs hard currency – literally, as foreign reserves have dwindled); but the stakes have been raised for these companies have made moves, especially the ‘one horse’ plays, that put all their effort into one resource. They risk being seen as accomplices of the regime. There is a more hopeful scenario nonetheless. A stable peace with Ethiopia would help Eritrea pull back its martial, Sparta-like, regime and open up to the world. In a bid to resolve tensions, especially within the armed forces, Afewerki might be persuaded to consider recent peace overtures from Ethiopia, an endeavor that has been pursued for over two decades without any results. Afewerki’s political survival has been compromised and peace may be the last option to save his country – even if it would imply a major political shift.

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