Exodus: Eritrean Refugees and the Journey to Asylum

The under-covered refugee crisis: Eritrea has been wrought with civil turmoil, producing many refugees eager to flee the oppressive conditions. Almost 10% of the population have left in the past few years, many seeking asylum in Europe or crowding into refugee camps. They face discrimination and threats of deportation from nations such as Israel. How should the international community address this mass exodus? Do Western powers have an obligation to take in refugees? Is there hope for more democratic government in Eritrea to be established? 

Carolina Porcile 

When a child falls out of a truck en route to flee the country, should its family risk getting kicked out by trying to halt the vehicle and join the child on the desert sand, placing every sibling at risk, or should they leave the child behind to die of thirst and starvation? Thousands of Eritrean refugees face this question every year. 

The current state of the Eritrean refugee crisis is undeniably appalling. Those who leave Eritrea do so either through Ethiopia or Sudan, and in both cases, these Eritreans are often discriminated against by Ethiopians and Sudaneses. As Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist based in Sweden, explains, these refugees are often considered spies in Ethiopia and barred from property ownership in Sudan. In this journey through the Saharan Desert to Egypt and Israel, refugees risk getting kidnapped by human traffickers an average of three or four times. Not only are they economically exploited and often forced to pay ransom, they also are tortured at the hands of their captors. Women and children seldom complete the journey without suffering multiple rapes. To cross the desert, dozens crowd into pickup trucks designed for a handful of people. As Estefanos explains, it is not uncommon for families to face the harrowing choices described previously. The crossing of the Saharan Desert is almost inextricably linked with the loss of family members, rape, kidnap, and torture. Those who make it to Egypt face a newfound challenge: avoiding Egyptian immigration police until arriving at UNHCR camps. Captured refugees are deported back to Eritrea, as Egypt does not offer asylum. Those who reach Israel may find themselves in an even more dangerous position, as Israel too does not grant refugees asylum, often placing them in the precarious Saharonim Prison, where living conditions are unsanitary and inhumane. 

For the few that escape  the continent, the Mediterranean proves all the riper with dangers. Boats are consistently overcrowded, and capsizes occur frequently, leading to hundreds of drownings each year. Even if the refugees survive and make it to Europe, only a few countries, like Sweden, offer them asylum. Recent policy changes in Denmark and the UK leave many of the refugees with no legal pathway to safety. Among refugee populations in Europe, suicide rates soar far above continental averages, and depression and untreated trauma all make integration in the host country increasingly difficult. 

The sheer horror of this journey begs the question: What could possibly drive up to 5,000 people a month to face these uninviting odds? The answer lies in Eritrea’s deplorable political landscape. Eritrea has only ever had one president, and its 1997 constitution has never been implemented.  In addition, Eritrea has a history of oppressive institutions it cannot easily free itself from. The country fought a 30-year independence war against Ethiopia since 1962, finally passing an independence referendum in 1993. At this point, Eritrea became a one-party state under the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. The regime does not tolerate dissent, and of the G-15, the country’s most organized group of opposition politicians, 11 are in jail, one has rejoined the government, and three are in exile in the United States. Random and politically motivated imprisonments are widespread, as is torture. This total suppression of political liberties and consistent infringement of human rights is exacerbated by a dire international situation. 

Eritrea has not been able to reach  sustainable peace with Ethiopia since 1998, when their border dispute escalated into war. The dispute largely occurred as a result of an unclear border drawn following Eritrean independence in 1993. Consequently, both countries claimed the border region of Badme. The ongoing border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has compelled Eritrea to extend its mandatory national service indefinitely. As a result, the majority of capable workers in the country are tied to the national service system, negatively impacting the Eritrean economy. Citizens can spend their entire work lives conscripted, working for over twenty years for salaries far below the market average. Those conscripted work not only as soldiers, but providing all sorts of services the government deems necessary. As Estefanos explains, people are forced to take up, for many years, professions they never chose- with almost no remuneration. Due to the labor shortage, basic jobs lack professionals, and the government conscripts citizens to fulfill crucial jobs, so much so that even teachers are often conscripts. The war with Ethiopia, then, has allowed for the government to reach new heights of authoritarianism, implementing a form of forced labor based on conscription. 

Although the current crisis is humanitarian catastrophe, there is plenty the international community can do to alleviate the situation. Solving Eritrea’s refugee crisis requires a twofold approach. On the one hand, institutional changes are necessary to alter the conditions which have driven the population into exile. These long-term solutions must on the other hand be coupled with a direct and immediate change in the international community’s approach to the current outflow of refugees from the country. 

Estefanos believes that a change in regime is necessary to stop people leaving the country. To attain this, current international pressure on the regime must be reevaluated. The UN Security Council’s sanctions, intended to spur policy change through economically and diplomatically isolating Eritrea, have had the opposite effect. One important measure that should be retained is the asset freezing of leading Eritrean politicians who have funds abroad. Additionally, while the current arms embargo should be continued, more active aid should be directed towards organized resistance groups. Primarily, diplomatic pressure should be exerted to release the G-15, and any underground Eritrean resistance cells connected with the opposition should receive not only diplomatic backing, but also funding. Diplomatic isolation and sanctions impact citizens rather than the ruling elite. Thus sanctions should be lifted, and the governing class should instead be targeted through travel bans, prohibiting Eritrean politicians from being welcomed in any foreign country. The government, or if need be, the international community, should broadcast information about the perils of crossing to Europe, and provide reliable statistics pertaining to the regime. 

Moreover, the no-war, no-peace situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia must be addressed. A significant factor hindering refugees from successfully relocating into Ethiopia is existing fear within Ethiopian society that these refugees are spies for an enemy country. A stable peace would create a more welcoming environment for these Eritrean refugees. An agreement was reached in 2000, but has largely been ignored by Ethiopia. While the Algiers agreement delineates the border between the two countries, Ethiopia’s troops are still present beyond the border. In 2009, the International Court of Arbitration’s verdict favored Eritrea, judging Ethiopia to be in violation of the 2000 Algiers Agreement, as Ethiopian troops were indeed beyond the border established by the agreement. Ethiopia has ignored the verdict, mandating the international guarantors of the agreement to take action to ensure Ethiopia’s compliance.  According to the 2000 Agreement, “the UN, the AU, the EU and USA” ought to take measures to ensure compliance by the two signing parties, due to their status as “witnesses to, and guarantors of,” the agreement. Clearly, then, the international community must exert pressure on Ethiopia to abide by the arbitration ruling and, in that way, resolve the two nation’s current standoff. 

In the immediate future, however, multilateral action is necessary to alleviate the humanitarian crisis created by the Eritrean exodus. The first issue refugees face is the threat of human trafficking and kidnapping, most of which is conducted by Egyptian boudins. This threat could be mitigated by expanding UNHCR centers in Ethiopia, setting them as close to the Eritrean border as possible, and providing UNHCR transport from Ethiopia to Cairo. Given that most refugees fall into the hands of human traffickers as they cross the Egyptian Sahara, UNHCR envoys, following the model implemented in the Central African Republic, should move refugees who wish to leave Ethiopia to UNHCR camps in Cairo. For this effort to be successful, diplomatic pressure would also have to be exerted on Cairo to ensure Egyptian authorities cease to arrest asylum seekers as illegal immigrants. 

Similarly, diplomatic pressure must be exerted on Israel immediately to ensure that the state ceases to arrest refugees who cross from Egypt into their country en masse, halts their mass deportation plans, and eliminates the prison camps where refugees are deprived of sufficient food and shelter living in subhuman conditions. The United States in particular, but the UN as a whole, must condemn these actions at once, and ensure Israel cooperates with the UNHCR to allow refugees to apply for asylum there, or at least to stay in Israel in UNHCR camps while applying for asylum abroad. 

Finally, host countries in Europe such as Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, ought to continue allowing asylum seekers into their borders. Integration programs should be bolstered, particularly focusing on increasing access to mental and emotional healthcare to work through the trauma refugees arrive with. Additionally, efforts to provide group therapy should be strengthened, creating a setting through which trauma can be collectively addressed and fostering a healthier environment in refugee communities. 

When Eritreans embark on the daunting journey away from their homeland, they are escaping widespread human rights violations and forced labor. Yet refugees find little relief in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, where they are victims of violence and discrimination. These desperate men, women and children often find themselves kidnapped and abused by human traffickers and exposed to grave dangers in over-packed trucks in the Saharan Desert or flimsy rafts in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The lasting emotional and physical scars of Eritrean refugees pose serious challenges to integration for the few who reach safety. Albeit this issue may appear to be a distant one, New Haven has actually taken in a modest population of refugees. IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), at which many Yale students volunteer, provides services to these communities. Yalies can and should take an active part on IRIS’s work, especially as “volunteer Cultural Companions to ‘young adult’ refugees and by participating in community-building activities with this group.” Reaching out to these refugees through IRIS should be a goal for every Yalie, as “a crucial part of a refugee’s acculturation process is meeting and interacting with New Haven community members outside of the refugee circles.” The emotional trauma refugees have borne is perhaps unfathomable to most of us at Yale, but it is precisely because their experiences seem so remote from our own that we must extend the hand of friendship  to these survivors and bridge that distance. 


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