Photograph: Aldo Pavan/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
Since the 1960s, state sponsored violence has been a defining part of the reality of Eritrean society and the only reason that still causes mass migration. As Eritrean struggle for independence began, the Ethiopian Empire slaughtered men, women and children and burned dozens of villages to the ground in hopes of punishing the civilian population on the allegation of supporting the armed revolution. For thirteen years since the early 1960s, the feudal Empire’s response to the Eritrean question was murder.
When a Marxist military junta overthrew the Emperor HaileSelassie I in 1974, it decided that the blood that was being spilled was not enough; it had to spill more blood to quell the fire of rebellion. The group that led the struggle that brought Eritrean independence after toppling the Marxist government turned out to be even more effective at creating suffering and spilling more blood.
When Eritrea gained its independence in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans were living in exile as refugees. Many returned and settled as they established businesses and worked as professionals to became a vital part of the economy. Everything seemed to come back to life, and the country was filled with hope. The late 1990s were a time of rapid change in Eritrea. The economy was fast recovering from a state total failure before independence, the national service programme was producing the first ever professional military, the country had its own currency, a constitution was drafted and the press law allowed the publishing of private newspapers.
But, against all this hope, the liberators suddenly turned to persecutors within ten years of independence. A widespread crackdown on political dissidents and all free press, extreme restrictions on business, arbitrary detention and disappearance, open ended national service, religious persecution, and ban on travel for most citizens dried out what little life had come back to the nation. Within the a decade of the 2001 crackdown on civil rights, almost every young Eritrean living in the country had done involuntarily lengthy national service and almost everyone had a story of detention and cruel handling to tell. There are more than 365 illegal detention centers around the country operating under the military or the intelligence services. Political prisoners alone are estimated to have reached more than 10,000 in number as of last year.
In June this year the UN mandated commission of inquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea had reported that the Eritrean government had committed crimes against humanity against its own population. Recently, the Human Rights Special Rapporteur to Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth speaking on the state of human rights in Eritrea recently told the UN General Assembly that “The crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign against the civilian population. The aim of the campaign has been to maintain control over the population and perpetuate the leadership’s rule in Eritrea.” In her address, the special rapporteur recommended that the Eritrean government be referred to the ICC and that the AU establish an accountability mechanism.
Eritreans had migrated in their thousands since the 1960s, but the last of wave of migration since the early 2000s is the worst in Eritrean history. As more than a record 5,000 people escape their own government every month, Eritrea has been called the fastest emptying nation in the world. At least a third of the Eritreans now live away from their country and about half a million of them are documented refugees and registered asylum seekers around the world. These estimates do not include the hundreds of thousands who live on the move around the African continent and elsewhere in the world. Those who have not been lucky enough to be considered refugees or asylum seekers have died in their thousands as their cross the border out of Eritrea, in detention by kidnappers, on the journey through the Sahara and while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
After 2001 the government engaged in war against its own population and even the few who had returned from exile in the early 1990s had to migrate again, and hundreds of thousands new refugees followed over the next 15 years. The only difference between the exile of the colonial era and the present forced exodus is the persistence and strength of the pushing force. The present forced exile has achieved what the two previous tyrannies combined could not achieve in effectively pushing a whole nation away from its homeland.
There was never a time in Eritrea before the present situation when people were kept from working for decades, when people were not allowed to build homes, when they were banned from travel, when farmers could not till their fields, when fishermen couldn’t fish, when business people couldn’t sell basic supplies. Before Eritrean independence, people lived in fear only because the whole society was actively engaged in fighting the colonial enemy. In the present situation people live in fear without being anyone’s enemies. Since early October, people in the capital and other cities cannot get service at an internet café without registering their full address and their IDs and which computer they used.
In the land they call home, Eritreans could not build a home for the last 25 years. Since 1991, only a few thousand units of private housing have been built most of which belong to pro-PFDJ diaspora Eritreans who built on land which the government confiscated from traditional inheritors. Yet, the government will not allow people who lived inside Eritrea to own land or to build previously owned land. Since 2003, the government has banned construction by private citizens. People who had nowhere to live mostly built a few thousand buildings, constructed around major towns, without permission. In late 2014, the government decided to launch a campaign to demolish at least 10,000 homes built on ancestral land in towns across the country. This is in addition to the thousands that have been demolished by municipal police since 2004.
In the land of their ancestors, by the very government that is considered sworn to protect them, Eritreans are relentlessly hunted down, and made to suffer inhumanely by their own government. Since 1998, people below the age of 50 cannot work in their own chosen occupations. They have either to serve indefinitely in the army or work for one of the ministries and PFDJ owned companies, always with a salary or pocket money of less than 25USD a month. Many fathers who had children when they started doing national service in the 1990s now have their children joining them to do national service. All across towns and villages in Eritrea, families have been disrupted due to summer work programs, the one-year secondary school completion at the military training center in Sawa, remote and long national service posting and continuous imprisonment. People are physically tortured in their military units for minor offences, temporary desertion is punishable by years of imprisonment and torture. The composite stress and suffocation of the whole situation is so unbearable in the first week of October 2016 alone that six men aged 18 to 28 committed suicides at military camps near the capital.
Meager and single type army rations mean everyone who has been in the army for more than a year or two is severely malnourished. Many men suffer infertility due to sustained malnutrition. While those in the army are malnourished because of poor supplies, those who work for government ministries and PFDJ owned companies have to feed themselves and cover all expenses and bills with the 10-25 USD monthly pay they receive after the deduction of the many fines. Most youth currently in their late twenties and below see a dark and hopeless future ahead of them. Having grown up watching what has been happening to those who are now in their thirties and forties means that the younger age group’s decision to leave the country has already been made for them.
While soldiers serve for nothing on empty stomachs, farms across the thousands of farming villages in the highlands lie fallow for years. The Red Sea teems with fish while the hungry fishermen are prohibited from fishing. Pastoralist nomads only have very old grandfathers and grandmothers to herd their livestock. Irrigated farms fail because of the lack of people who can be hired to work and the chronic lack of supplies due to endless import prohibitions and market control by the government. Aging parents and grandparents have no one to care for them. As their children and grandchildren forcefully waste their decades, the elderly live hungry and alone as they weep for the fates of their children and their own.
Even in the absence of free press, Eritrea is ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the most heavily censored country in the world. North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have better freedom of press than Eritrea. This means even the national service recruits working for the government’s propaganda machine live in constant fear as many dozens of them have been detained without reason.
The ruling dictatorship relentlessly pushes the society away from their own country. All able bodied Eritreans cannot work in their chosen occupations to survive as the government forces them to work without pay. As it punishes them inhumanely for every little attempt at improving their lives, their only choice is to leave their homeland and look for a new one. They have to go anywhere where they will not be tortured, starved, jailed or killed for no apparent reason with. It does not matter where to and what for, Eritreans now want to go anywhere but home.
Recently the government has ordered investigations into the sources of income of all people who deposited more than 5,000 USD worth of local currency during late last year’s currency change. In a third-world system that has poor institutional structure traditional businessmen will be asked for detailed records of their business activities of at least two decades. This is a continuation of the relentless efforts to criminalize and destroy private business in the country, and it will push tens of thousands of people with 5,000 USD worth of money or more to escape the country as no government investigation ever ends in favor of the subjects.
Hundreds of thousands of Eritrean migrants go through a series of suicidal journeys to escape the suffering at home. It appears to them that it is better to die while trying to escape the danger than to resign and be swallowed by it. They go through their first life threatening situation when they decide to desert their enslavement post and contact border smugglers. They only reach Europe after a series of suicidal missions. If caught by border guards or security agents they can spend years in prison, all their money will be confiscated and might lose their lives while under torture in prison or due to untreated illnesses there. People go through weeks or even months of fearing for their lives and though enormous stress as they plan their escape.
When they are not caught during planning, they risk being shot at and killed, being captured, put to detention for years, and if they survive that part of the journey, they risk being sent back to military units which they will desert at the first opportunity. If they had survived the first two suicidal missions and hadn’t been captured or killed while planning an escape or during the border crossing, they have yet another three suicides to go through. The irony here is the fact that government itself is involved in the human smuggling and trafficking business.
Human traffickers routinely kidnap escaping refugees for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom, after which they are killed if they cannot afford the amount. In many instances, refugees’ organs were harvested to earn the desired amount of money. Kidnapping for ransom can happen to refugees more than one time. Chadian and Malian gangs, ISIS or local Libyan gangs also kidnap refugees to enslave them. Women are forced to become sex slaves as men are worked without rest and enough food and water at construction sites. ISIS forces the Christian refugees to convert or kills them if they refuse to convert. Such killings have been the subject of much horror as the carefully staged killings were recorded and uploaded on the internet.
Those who are able to escape this death with the help of relatives and friends face yet more death. They have to travel through the Sahara and the Mediterranean to reach Europe. If they do not die of vehicle accidents or because of thirst, hunger, exhaustion and disease, if they are not killed by one of the many armed groups who kidnap them, they continue their journey towards yet another death. The rickety boats and overcrowded discarded fishing vessels used to smuggle refugees across the Mediterranean are the death traps that kill thousands of refugees every year. Almost all the boats that are used to cross the Mediterranean needs rescue help. Most of those who reach Europe, after being saved in the Mediterranean, are traumatized beyond hope.
They had lived years in slavery disguised as national service, most of them had suffered torture and imprisonment, and the general repressive state has left its mark on everyone. On top of these wounds, the refugees arriving in Europe have acquired deep traumas along their journey. With the strangeness of a new society, and the knowledge that they will not be able to go back home anytime soon, creates a profound sense of loneliness in their new homes. As the refugees struggle to adopt to their new environments, all the suffering and pain they had to go through begins to show its impact. The collective suicides become individual dilemmas. Many of them have been damaged badly, and will take too much resource and many years to heal. Violent crimes and suicides are part of many traumatized young refugees’ lives when their reach Europe. Being the most pervasive part of their reality, death reigns in their lives and their journey, which started with death, ends with death.
As Eritreans are pushed away from their country and scattered around the world, the world has also seemed to follow suit and tell them to go away. Europe has decided to gang up with criminal regimes and has paid hundreds of millions of euros to tyrants to tighten the death grip that has been forcing the population to abandon their own country. The Eritrean government was awarded 240 million euros for apparently agreeing to do anything it takes to block all points of escape from the country. By choosing to take the side of a criminal regime, Europe has in effect made itself an accessory to murders committed by the Eritrean regime against Eritrean citizens. All extrajudicial detention, torture and killings of people trying to migrate can now be directly linked with the Khartoum Process and therefore with the European Union.
Of course, this deal which is known as the Khartoum Process can achieve none of its stated aims of decreasing the flow of refugees to Europe. Nobody serious enough about the reality in Eritrea can pretend that people are migrating because of economic problems. But the criminal regime in Eritrea and the EU seem to collude on the idea of labeling the problem as arising from the poverty of a third world country. By giving 240 million euros, the EU can convince itself that it has created a solution for the problem, while the Eritrean government gets to continue its campaign of labeling the exodus an economic migration. But people don’t commit suicide five times over for a piece of bread, they can only risk their lives in the search for hope and a secure life; the very things that Eritreans have not had for more than half a century.
Europe is throwing money for nothing at the Eritrean government as the power clique in Eritrea pleads poverty while hiding the hundreds of millions of dollars of mining revenue earned since 2011. In the summer of this year it was reported that the president alone had deposited gold worth more than 200 million USD in a private vault at the Qatar National Bank. Even though the Eritrean government doesn’t need any economic aid to revive an economy that it had deliberately destroyed to enable it to weaken the population and stay in power, the EU package enables it to pretend that it is a serious government that cares about the fate of its society.
To keep the currently EU sanctioned good appearances of using any means necessary to stop the flow of refugees, the Eritrean government has ganged up with the Sudanese government. Even when those who are tasked to keep the borders shut desert their units and escape, thousands of refugees have been deported back to Eritrea to be punished for years and to be reinstated in military units for more indefinite periods. The shoot to kill policy at people breaking away through borders is strengthened as the government perceives that any news of border shootings will keep the clients at the EU happy. Of course, there was the shoot to kill policy before, crossing the border is more severely punished, and nobody understands what Europe expects the Eritrean government to do more if they do not intend to uses warplanes to bomb escaping refugees.
Friendships in the name of the Khartoum Process and other similar vague and dangerous engagements leave the politicians in the target countries and in Europe politically happy. These friendships don’t help the target society in any way, but they empower the tormentors. Deals like the Khartoum Process also do nothing towards alleviating the refugee crisis. These friendships are built with tyrants and criminals and European taxpayers’ money is being spent to encourage some of the worst dictatorships in the world to point more guns at Eritreans fleeing suffering and torture. EU taxpayers’ money is being used to legitimize some of the most atrocious governments in the world. That money is being used to strengthen the position of a government that pushes thousands of refugees to Europe every month. All the while Europe is criminalizing itself by effectively helping convicted criminals commit more crimes against humanity against the people of Eritrea. Europe is eroding its moral authority concerning democratic practices and human rights. Decades of European political history of standing at the forefront of democracy and human rights can now only be viewed as mere fair weather hypocrisy. Europe pays in name and in money in return for nothing for anyone involved.
All the funds that could have helped decrease the flow of refugees if used on refugees in transit countries, is being used to empower and embolden the very government that pushes people to migration. The Eritrean government that stands accused by a UN Commission of Inquiry for committing crimes against humanity, and the Sudanese government that is accused of genocide against its own people, whose president is wanted by the ICC at the Hague, are paid to keep helpless refugees away. While the Eritrean government uses the same elements in the army and security forces which were used as tools the crimes against humanity to do Europe’s bidding, Sudan uses the same Janjaweed militia who killed hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens in its Darfur region to hunt down refugees escaping deportation back to Eritrea. Europe deliberately ignores that these regimes cannot be considered legitimate governments, that some of the leaders would have to be apprehended and taken to court if they ever visited Europe, that their years are counted and that making friends with governments does not in any way mean collaborating with societies.