An extremely worrying dimension to the Eritrean refugees’ situation is that there is a steady influx of unaccompanied minors. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, released a report in March of this year expressing horror on the situation of an increasing number of unaccompanied minors joining tens of thousands of their compatriots in migrating out of their country. The rapporteur identifies forced military conscription and gross human rights violation as the main drivers behind the minors leaving their country and family behind.
As reported by the Special Rapporteur, Eritrean children risk being forcibly drafted into national service in their last year of school or in round-ups. Some of them also taste the brutality of the regime’s prison systems after being taken away in routine roundups or in exchange for older siblings who had deserted the army.
The recent militarization of the Eritrean society is the bi-product of the border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000. The border war with Ethiopia had started before the deep traumas of the war of independence had healed. Nothing had been done to address the issue of social trauma and the various other problems that follow a brutal 30 year war in which civilians were a constant target and when every family in the whole country had been seriously touched by the effects of the war in more than one way. This situation has left nothing for many people except to think of migrating. For teenage minors, especially those above 14 or 15, leaving the country is a decision they know they will take in the future. For children who feel they have to carry family responsibilities, leaving while in their teens is a way of saving time. Instead of waiting until they turn 18 or 19 to leave, by leaving earlier they can save four or five years for reaching their destination.
When the government wouldn’t let the fathers’ of the school age children of the early 2000s take care of their families, it was in effect deciding the fates of the children. Tens of thousands of young fathers had died during the war, leaving the women to raise their children alone. The economic policies of the government made the situation worse for the poorest part of the society. And this was happening before there was time to address even the issues that originated before 1991.
In the western and southernmost border regions it was easy to cross over the borders to Ethiopia and Sudan. At times children of better off families would follow the trend and cross the border. Going out of the country was a way of making sure they survive. The few underage refugees who come from better off families leaving the country through safer routes are safe once they reach the country of transit, and usually wait to migrate legally for education or family reunions. But the bulk of underage refugees who decide to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean usually come from young, poor, and usually, single parent families. When they have both their parents, the fact that their fathers are in the army or living at home, but working in national service means that in effect their parents are not fully able to take care of their children.
Children, as young as 8, have been reported to have crossed the border to Ethiopia from the southernmost parts of Eritrea. This has been happening since the early 00’s but started turning into a major phenomenon after 2007 when droughts hit the southern region’s farmers. The economy was failing, most basic supplies were scarce. In some towns like Mendefera, water, if at all available cost as much as 2 USD for a barrel before the summer of 2007. Before 2009 the UNHCR was arranging the return of young minors to their parents from the camps. Those children usually crossed the border from the last villages near the border with Ethiopia. Those children who expressed willingness to return back to their homes were sent back within few months but many chose to remain.
Some minors; desperate to make easy money, and manipulated into it, join the trafficking and smuggling networks. Although the children do not have the capacity to become traffickers themselves, they are used as smugglers in border areas and as brokers in towns and other communities. Some children from mostly very poor families are also recruited by smugglers or traffickers at a young age because there is no other way for the trafficking networks to reach high school students. The fear around migration from Eritrea makes information about traffickers very hard to access, which means that traffickers have to prioritize their major targets and have agents representing them in those parts of society. For most traffickers having representatives/brokers in high schools, military training centers, colleges, churches and other places where young people are found is a business strategy. The easiest to recruit are teenagers who come from very poor families or those who have already developed habits like drinking and smoking for which they cannot ask their parents for money.
Children and young teenagers do not make an obvious target for security agents trying to catch independent traffickers. They are ideal for smuggling clients in high security border areas. They can transport clients and money without raising any suspicion and can work for years without getting caught.
Within the Rashaida, children assume adult roles at a young age. They have to earn the use of weapons, evasive desert driving and the landscape at a young age. Once theboys reach the age of ten, they usually spend most of their time with their fathers. Most Rashaida gangs operate in extended family structures for contraband trade and human trafficking and their children do most of the smuggling and transport. This culture among the Rashaida might have influenced other traffickers in the western lowlands to enlist children for small trafficking jobs that range from smuggling and transport to helping with torture and guard duties.
Some of the deals traffickers bring to minors are the promise to be smuggled for free in return for bringing clients. For children who grew up seeing people leaving by the hundreds from their communities and who have come to believe that migration is the best choice they can make in the future, such deals are deals sent from heaven. Families are constantly worried that their children might try to cross the border without telling them. Most families hold family sessions for their children who go to military training to warn and convince them not to try to go to Sudan. But at their age, and with the general atmosphere of hopelessness the young students see, it is difficult to have a powerful influence on them once they go to military training or when posted to remote army units or other government agencies.
In border towns near Sudan or Ethiopia those in their early teens know nothing except a culture of migration in their lives. They have grown up hearing stories about people making money from migration. As the possibility of making money becomes an important part of their plan to improve their lives and the lives of their poor families, their closeness to the migration routes, their knowledge of the localities, and their young age make them ideal agents for traffickers who need locals to help them smuggle people safely from the country. The traffickers study the possibility of making money out of each underage refugee very easily. As children, most of them are no match for the experienced traffickers who know how to make sure beforehand if the child’s family can pay the demanded money. When the traffickers know the possibility of anyone paying for the children is very low they usually keep them as messengers.
In camps in Ethiopia and in camps and cities in Sudan, the minors are useful for small daily tasks and sometimes small smuggling jobs that don’t necessarily require adults. In camps in Ethiopia young refugees from the rural areas in the southernmost regions of Eritrea are used by the traffickers to do small tasks like buying qat, cigarettes or alcohol, which the minors themselves become easily addicted to. For their services as messengers they usually get to eat with the traffickers, and provided with qat, alcohol and cigarettes. In refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan,underage women are sometimes forced by traffickers to exchange sexual favors for basic needs. This means that the underage girls are highly traumatized before leaving the camps and many of the boys had become used to certain addictions. They have usually seen or helped when people are punished or tortured by traffickers and have participated in some acts that can be considered rape.
Once the young refugees decide to migrate, for example in exchange for services to the traffickers, they are at their most vulnerable in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Traffickers do not demand money in advance from minors, but they call the children’s families from the Mediterranean cost or from a holding house somewhere in Sudan, Egypt or Libya, the families have no choice but to pay for the crossing or for the ransom demanded. Most of the earliest kidnap victims of the networks that trade in people were women and male teenagers. The unaccompanied minors en route to a safety or where they can build a better are being easy prey for gangs and extremist organizations, where girls are integrated into domestic and sexual services and boys are initiated as fighters.
The fragmentation of Eritrean society is very worrying as the country is losing part of its youth to gangs that support themselves by criminal trade. The deliberate policy to divide families has sacrificed the new generation that should be the future of tomorrow’s Eritrean society. These youth should be protected and nurtured.