May 2, 2015. A boat carrying 369 mainly Eritrean migrants, 45 km off the Libyan coast. The bilge pump was blocked and water was pouring in. Everyone was evacuated safely to a rescue boat and taken to Sicily. ©Jason Florio - all rights reserved.
May 2, 2015. A boat carrying 369 mainly Eritrean migrants, 45 km off the Libyan coast. The bilge pump was blocked and water was pouring in. Everyone was evacuated safely to a rescue boat and taken to Sicily. ©Jason Florio - all rights reserved.

No Place for Eritreans

Mar 22, 2017

By 2015, the UN estimated that 5,000 Eritreans were leaving their homeland every month. Eritreans trying to escape their repressive country are well aware of the perilous journey in front of them, facing obstacles at every step. It is only when—to borrow poet Abdellatif Laâbi's line—the fear of living replaces the fear of dying, that they decide to go.

Nobody has high hopes for a regime that has been accused of committing "crimes against humanity." However, what's both startling and troubling is the complicity of the international community in these crimes—the African Union, European Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other UN organizations. They are guilty of everything from ineffectual silence to outright collaboration.

Despite the fact that Eritrea is among the signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), most of the Declaration's articles are routinely ignored in today's Eritrea.

Freedom of movement in the country is tightly controlled through required pass-papers, countless checkpoints, and frequent military round-ups. After the age of six, Eritreans can't travel out of the country legally except under extraordinary circumstances. Leaving with permission involves a convoluted process controlled by the Office of the President; this includes all government employees up to the level of ministers.

Yet, it is relatively easy for married women to leave the country. As a result, in the last few years many young Eritrean women have settled in Uganda and other African countries, mainly because they don't dare to risk staying behind until their children reach the crucial age of six. Their husbands must find ways to join them later, taking all kinds of risks and paying high amounts of money to smugglers. To cross the tightly secured border illegally, some pay as high as $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country, to cross overland into the Sudan and Ethiopia or to sail to Yemen. Yet this high price does not guarantee safety.

Once Eritreans are smuggled to a neighboring country, if they wish to continue their journey legally, they have only one option: they must report to the Eritrean embassy and request a passport. Before granting the passport, the embassy asks the Eritrean citizens to fill out an "apology" form and agree to pay 2 percent of their income. This extortion begins a vicious cycle, and helps fund the Asmara regime. Even more insidious, the passport becomes an effective means of control and silencing potential dissident voices. Speak against the regime and risk losing your passport.

Those who cross the border into Sudan must pay costly bribes to Sudanese security officers, often more than once. They also risk falling into the hands of human traffickers who lie in wait at the borders. Early in this dangerous adventure, Eritrean refugees who make it to Sudan risk getting scooped up in the frequent round-ups by Sudanese security forces looking for bribes. They see the vulnerable Eritreans as potentially lucrative prey. Even worse, there's no official body to advocate on the refugees' behalf. Some seasons, such as Ramadan, pose greater risks for the Eritrean refugees, with round-ups and bribes becoming more intense.

In 2016, the European Union began collaborating with Sudan in hopes of discouraging that migration route, offering $100 million in aid to the Sudanese government. But unfortunately, this provides an irresistible opportunity for Sudanese security forces to abuse refugees. For example, in February 2017, as some 65 refugees (mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea) demanded improvements in their living conditions, they reportedly received 40 lashes and were fined U.S.$800. The EU's complicityin injecting money to such dictatorial regimes in hopes of curbing immigration also extends to Eritrea: in April 2016, it agreed to give the Eritrean government 200 million euros in aid.

In June 2016, a large group of Eritreans were rounded up by the Sudanese security forces—some of them were trying to cross into Libya—and sent back to Eritrea, the place from which they originally fled persecution. Some 422 Eritreans were returned, ending up in Eritrea's infamous military prison, Adi-abieto. Sudan's action was a clear violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which asserts that refugees "should not be returned to a country where they face threats to their life or freedom."

It is common knowledge among Eritreans that Eritrean security forces frequently enter territories of Sudan to arrest and forcibly repatriate Eritreans who fled persecution. That is why many Eritreans never feel safe in the Sudan and either they continue hiding or keep a low profile.

Indeed, most Eritreans consider Sudan a stopping point en route to some other destination, rather than an end destination in itself. The most common option for these hapless Eritrean refugees is the dangerous trek across the desert to Libya, and from there embarking on shaky boats across the Mediterranean, a voyage that results in the deaths of hundreds of Eritreans yearly.

During the hazardous, highly stressful wait in Libya before attempting to cross the Mediterranean, as revealed in a report by Doctors Without Borders, Eritreans are subjected to various types of abuse, including torture and rape at the hands of the human traffickers. The report adds that 411,000 Eritreans, of a total population of 5 million, lived as refugees outside the country as of 2015. Since then, the numbers have been steadily increasing with the worsening situation in Eritrea.

The overwhelming and seemingly endless Eritrean tragedies have desensitized many Eritreans. At some point, it reached a stage where tragedies are only worth discussing when they directly affect close family members, friends, and colleagues. For example in June 2014, a boat carrying 243 people, mostly Eritreans, disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea. Its fate was investigated in a 10-part open source report called the Ghost Boat, headed by journalist Eric Reidy. Yet it did not get proper attention, either inside Eritrea, or from concerned international organizations.

Until recently, another route for refugees was to cross the Sinai desert and end up either in Israel's detention center, Holot, or live as undocumented refugees, referred to by the Israeli government as "infiltrators." Without any legal status, around 30,000 Eritreans live in Israel, often becoming the targets of political rallies at election time. In the early 2000s, Sudanese traffickers kidnapped hundreds of Eritreans in Sudan on their way to Israel, selling them to Egyptian traffickers in Sinai who tortured them viciously in the hopes of getting ransom money from their families. But over the past few years the number of refugees entering Israel has radically decreased, as the Israelis have blocked the Egyptian border, with a "smart" electronic fence. In addition, as of 2015, Israel has started deporting—or as they put it "voluntarily resettling"—Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, giving them one-way plane tickets and $3,500 in cash each.

The horrendous situation in Yemen is also leaving Eritrean refugees in dire straits. Although it has become increasingly difficult to know the number of Eritreans who are stranded in Yemen at the present, in 2015 they were estimated around 50,000. Yet Eritreans remain vulnerable without any international agency to advocate for them.

Over the last few years, Ethiopia has become yet another destination for Eritreans fleeing their homes. As the reported by the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think-tank organization, about 150,000 Eritrean refugees currently live in Ethiopia. With Ethiopia undergoing internal political turmoil, this poses an extraordinary threat to Eritreans. Even before the deteriorating political developments in Ethiopia, Eritreans in refugee camps were subjected to never-ending hassles and corruption. For example, when many Eritreans were presented with the opportunity of resettlement in the United States, Canada or Europe, a number of Ethiopians hijacked those opportunities through corruption. That left many Eritreans, who thought they had their ticket to a better life, in an increasingly dire situation. The absence of any public agency to advocate on their behalf conspired with an innately corrupt system to prolong their suffering.

Institutional harassment takes place in similar ways in other African states that are presumed to be relatively safe havens. Although an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) free-movement deal has been signed between eight member states, allowing citizens of member countries to obtain "upon arrival" visas when traveling between the countries, this has been particularly difficult for Eritreans. Airport security officials in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and South Sudan have created their own systems where they routinely charge bribes of between $200 and $300 to enter and leave these countries. It seems that this usually applies only to Eritreans. The very fact that Eritreans cannot report to their embassies in these countries makes them vulnerable and easy prey of these corrupt systems. This widely goes unreported, but it is common knowledge among Eritreans who live in those countries. Those who attempt to resist paying the bribes routinely face delays and flight cancellations. While in Uganda the bribe is $200 to $300 to leave the country via airports, in Kenya it's even worse. The situation is extremely arbitrary, and depends on the mercy and/or level of corruption of the respective security officers. With terror attacks increasing, Kenyan police often harass and randomly arrest Eritreans and Somalis. Eritreans certainly do not have an agency to speak on their behalf despite the fact that many of them possess legal papers.

Semi-official harassment also extends to South Africa. Around 600 Eritreans were studying in South Africa when Eritrea's 2001 political crackdown occurred. Many did not return home. South Africa neither deports them nor grants full asylum status. Hence they have no other option but to pay a huge bribe every time they want to renew their resident permits. As the waiting period continues interminably, some have begun establishing small businesses, though many have been targeted by the surge of xenophobia across South Africa. Unlike other nations' embassies, not surprisingly, the Eritrean embassy in South Africa does not recognize these refugees from the homeland, and never advocates for them. The few who can afford to pay as much as $20,000 to smugglers can leave the country.

Knowing the weak links in any given system, some Eritreans have been known to collaborate with immigration officers and police officers in the various countries to establish pathways to freedom that depend on corruption. It has become a new normal in most African countries for law enforcement agencies to target Eritreans in particular, as they are well aware their plight.

Without a second option and facing deportation, many refugees from Eritrea are left having to pay a huge bribe. The utter silence of the international community about this tragic situation, including the total lack of any legal resource for these people, is the real scandal. It is high time that the international community and concerned organizations, such as the UNHCR, put pressure on neighboring states to respect the Eritrean refugees who are fleeing persecution. More importantly, in line with its findings, the UN has a responsibility to expose and pressure the European countries that are injecting money to sustain the dictatorial regime in Eritrea.

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