Unraveling the Complexities of Refugee Flight from Eritrea

Un-eritreaThe unprecedented flight of refugees and migrants into Europe has recently taken center stage.  Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. This number is stunning considering the fact that Eritrea is not currently embroiled in war. Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and are increasingly unaccompanied children. Human rights violations in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the complex evolution of state-society relations in the country. When Eritrea gained de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991, hopes that the country would democratize were high. The country is now a militarized dictatorship. Independent media outlets were shut down in 2001, and civil society organizations were forbidden from convening.  The government has brutally curtailed the formation of opposition groups and organized protests. Arbitrary detentions are common. All but four religions are banned.

Eritrea’s national service program, often equated with forced labor and slavery, is central to human rights concerns. Law dictates that all citizens (male and female) enlist in national military service, which requires 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service. However, since 1998, when a border war with Ethiopia broke out, the vast majority of those who enlisted have not been released from military service, meaning that a large percentage of Eritrean youth have been in the military for decades with no hope of demobilization. While in service, Eritreans are heavily controlled—they cannot leave the country, choose their occupation, or visit family on a regular basis. Additionally, incidences of violence, torture, and sexual abuse are well documented, and there is no system to report such wrongdoings to commanding officers or supervisors. While those assigned to serve in a civil, rather than military, capacity face fewer physical abuses, they too lack rights and are susceptible to being sent back to the military and punished by being transferred to remote locations or imprisoned.

Governmental, non-governmental, and inter-governmental bodies alike have roundly criticized Eritrea’s human rights record. In October 2012, the UN appointed a Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Eritrea and formed a Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea two years later. The Commission of Inquiry published a detailed report in June 2015, noting that Eritrea may be guilty of crimes against humanity.

The Eritrean government, however, asserts a different reason for the mass migration out of its country. The government considers the flight of migrants to be part of an international policy to lure young people from Eritrea. It rejects the findings of the Special Rapporteur and Commission of Inquiry, arguing that the UN has a longstanding bias against Eritrea. Eritrea’s grievance with the UN dates back to the organization’s failure to support Eritrean independence following World War II, but more recently Eritrea cites the UN’s failure to implement the border ruling that would resolve Eritrea’s conflict with Ethiopia as evidence of the organization’s bias against Eritrea. According to Eritrea’s leaders, failure to implement the border ruling leaves the two countries at risk of war, thereby necessitating retention of military conscripts. Instead of acknowledging that ongoing national military service drives Eritrean youth away, the government calls attention to its development efforts, which have resulted in significant gains in education and healthcare.

European countries, in the wake of increased migration, assert that human rights problems in Eritrea are exaggerated and suggest that Eritreans are fleeing because of economic, rather than political, conditions. In November 2015, the Danish government released a report claiming that Eritreans did not warrant asylum. The report, based on the findings of an in-country fact-finding mission sanctioned by the Eritrean government, was poorly researched and even refuted by the sole Eritrean scholar quoted in the study.  The report has been met with controversy in Denmark and has resulted in the resignation of two of its authors.

Yet, the assertion that Eritreans are not in imminent danger persists. The EU, the UK, and other countries continue to question the severity of human rights abuses in Eritrea. In March 2015, the UK Home Office “Country Information and Guidance Report” claimed that many Eritreans could be “safely returned,” basing its evidence on the Danish report.

These various narratives, however, neglect to show a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the Eritrean government and its people. Eritrean state-society relations are something of a black box. Researchers, humanitarian organizations, and international NGOS have had limited access to Eritrea for over a decade – though there is increasing evidence of Eritrea “opening up.” A BBC team was allowed to visit the country to report on the health care system. Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, Bronwyn Bruton, also recently visited the country. Nevertheless, those who have published critical accounts of Eritrean politics and state-society relations have been denied re-entry to the country, while other researchers have chosen not to return for fear of endangering potential interlocutors.

We do have ways of understanding how state-society relations in Eritrea influence mass flight from the country. A rich body of ethnographic work on Eritrea, even if several years old, gives insight into the everyday social effects of surveillance, mass conscription, force, punishment, militarization, and other facets of everyday authoritarianism. Research on the Eritrean diaspora explores the effects of the Eritrean government’s coercive taxation and governance of the diaspora. Finally, even if one disagrees with the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry report, the data it uses provides a window into the nature of state-society relations. These sources all refute the idea that Eritrea is a safe place for those who have fled, but also add nuance and complexity to often simplistic accounts of human rights violations in the country.

When it first achieved independence, Eritrea was notable not only for the high levels of patriotism amongst its citizens – manifest in the population’s willingness to sacrifice and serve its country – but also for the widespread trust in the ruling party to shepherd the country toward a “bright future.”

Now, however, there is no rule of law; Eritreans often describe the country’s laws and policies as “written in pencil.” Their encounters with the state are characterized by experiences of coercion, imprisonment (literal and metaphorical), and punishment. Eritreans are susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders and also to the whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police, and even civil servants, such as teachers. These state employees are in turn susceptible to the wills of more powerful state actors. The state is described as “punishing” in Eritrea, and the country is trapped in a vicious cycle: state employees are “punished,” and they, in turn, punish others or else evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

Eritrea’s 2003 educational policies, which merged national and military service with secondary education, exemplify just how a state institution evolved into an instrument of coercion. All students, male and female, must complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in Sawa, the nation’s military training center. To Eritreans, this repurposing indicated that education would no longer lead to a hopeful future, but would instead act as a conduit into the military. In response, previously disciplined secondary school students began intentionally failing in order to avoid entering the military. After realizing that they could not fail, many began fleeing the country. Teachers’ responses to these events reveal a paradox in Eritrean state-society relations: some teachers joined the students in protest by arriving late to class or not coming altogether; others cracked down on students by becoming more reliant on the use of corporal punishment or calling for police aid in disciplining students. In some cases, teachers did both.

The levels of violence, punishment, and coercion in Eritrea are pervasive at all levels of society. Some policies, like the mandate requiring all Eritreans serve in the military indefinitely, are the result of centralized government decrees. Others, like the everyday threat of being punished, are far more decentralized. The overall effect of this complex combination of centralized authoritarianism and decentralized punishment is that Eritreans are deeply uncertain, fearful, and mistrustful. No one, even those who appear to have power in this system, ever feels secure, stable, or safe. Understanding this fear is key to understanding the government’s relationship with its people and the reasons why Eritreans flee in such large numbers.

UN pressure on Eritrea to improve its human rights record has been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, suggestions by some EU countries that Eritrean migrants can safely return home certainly places a large number of Eritreans in danger. A number of other approaches to stem the flow of Eritrean refugees have been proposed in the past. These include opening up diplomatic relations with Eritrea, providing increased aid, and resolving the country’s border conflict with Ethiopia. The merits of each of these efforts could, and should, be discussed and debated; but any of these alone is unlikely to result in a permanent fix. Until the Eritrean government restores a sense of trust between itself and its people, and among the people themselves, the mass flight of Eritreans from the country is likely to continue.