One of the largest demographics leaving the African continent for Europe are Eritreans. As of 2015 there were, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 474,296 Eritrean refugees worldwide, almost 12% of the population. Yet despite the amount of people fleeing the country, most people still know very little about what is going on in Eritrea.
Following World War 2 the Italian colony of Eritrea was merged with Ethiopia. This led to a prolonged struggle for independence by Eritreans under the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), culminating in independence in the early 1990’s. Since then tension has been high between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with regular border clashes occurring.
Current leader Isaias Afwerki has ruled the country since independence, consolidating his power and denying citizens’ rights and freedoms. Ironically, the name of Afwerki’s ruling party is the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), yet Eritrea is far from a democracy or a provider of justice for its citizens. According to a United Nations (UN) report, torture, extrajudicial executions and forced labour have been common in the country since independence as a way to crush any dissent.
One of the major causes of Eritreans leaving has been compulsory conscription into the armed forces. In most countries conscription is a temporary state and many are able to leave freely after doing their time. However, in Eritrea it can become a permanent state of existence for many, with some having reportedly been conscripts for around 17 years. Conditions in the army are akin to slavery, with work consisting of reconstruction projects such as roads. Earnings are equivalent to under $30 a month. It is unsurprising then that many are willing to risk the dangers and consequences of fleeing the country instead of being forced into joining the military, especially considering that unless you are released from military service you are unable to go to University or get a formal job.
Prisoner’s conditions in Eritrea are abysmal. Religious leaders, journalist and political opponents have all been subjected to arbitrary arrests and kept incommunicado for years on end. If you are caught trying to escape, you face a lengthy time in prison. Many have been packed into shipping containers, with no sanitation and subjected to searing heat. Torture is common and carried out without repercussion.
Conditions in Eritrea mirror that of what we hear coming out of North Korea. Yet Eritrea is barely mentioned in the media or in general as being a country that we should be speaking about. When we see the countless images of those fleeing across the Mediterranean, little is spoken of the conditions that the Eritreans among them are escaping from. Instead we are led to believe that the majority are just economic migrants, rather than genuine refugees. Not all of those who flee Eritrea look to come to Europe, with many remaining in Ethiopia or Sudan. However, in Sudan especially, many have been mistreated or deported. Being deported back to Eritrea is likely to lead to imprisonment and abuse.
Unless the international community really begins to take Eritrea and the plight of the Eritrean people seriously, little is likely to change.
Featured image | Tighly packed homes in Asmara, Eritrea | David Stanely : flickr
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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