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Eritrea at the Center of the International Migration Crisis
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By Daniel R. Mekonnen[1]

In June 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) annual report, Global Trends Report, announced that world displacement has reached an all-time high, surpassing previous highest records experienced during World War II.[2] The most common culprits of such displacement are increased instances of armed conflict and persecution.

A small country located in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea assumes a central place in contemporary discourses on global migration: it is among the top refugee producing countries in the world. Europe is a major destination for newly arriving Eritrean refugees. Thus, as far as migration is concerned, Eritrea cannot be discussed without a mention of Europe. By focusing on this interconnectedness, this contribution critiques some erroneous policies of the European Union (EU) related to the Eritrean refugee crisis in particular and the entire political crisis of the country in general.

Tsanta in the making

Eritreans frequently rank among the top two or three groups of newly arriving refugees in Europe. In fact, in some specific instances, the number of incoming Eritreans was by far greater than any other nationality. For example, in the period between January 2014 and August 2014, the number of Eritreans who arrived in Italy (via the southern maritime borders of Europe) was 28,557, compared to the corresponding second highest figure of 23,945 Syrians – a difference of 4,611.[3]

Syria is experiencing the most violent contemporary armed conflict in the world. In contrast, Eritrea (at least on the surface) does not seem to be experiencing any problems related to armed conflict. Nonetheless, Eritrea is stifled by one of the worst on-going cases of political repression, resulting in gross human rights violations comparable with only a few instances at the global level. The fact that Eritrea continues to produce a comparable number of refugees with war-torn countries such as Syria means that its political repression is deeply entrenched, so much so that Eritrean citizens are fleeing the country in startlingly high numbers.

Reflecting on the frightening level of the mass exodus of the Eritrean population, four Eritrean Catholic Bishops wrote: “It is not just the continuous outflow, and hence the depletion, of the people on its own that is worrying us, but the fact that we are heading towards extinction [tsanta] as a result …”[4] Thus, it is not surprising that the Wall Street Journal describes Eritrea as “one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations.”[5]

Eritreans now comprise the majority of victims of the well-documented tragedy of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert over the last five or more years. Eritreans are also at the heart of numerous tragic sea accidents that have taken place recently along the southern tip of Europe and across the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a place that has earned the designation as one of the most dangerous maritime routes in the world. In the Lampedusa Tragedy of 3 October 2013 – involving the capsizing of an overcrowded migrant boat off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea – more than 360 people perished. From a list of 155 survivors, there was only one non-Eritrean.[6] A particularly odious aspect of the Lampedusa Tragedy is the story of an Eritrean woman who gave birth while drowning in the sea. This was known after the corpse of the woman was found attached, by umbilical cord, to the corpse of a baby boy.[7] 

The push factors

The primary reason behind Eritrea’s mass exodus is the government’s policy of indefinite military conscription without formal pay or salary, which affects every able-bodied member of Eritrean society (men and women), sometimes affecting even senior citizens above the age of seventy. Coupled with this all-encompassing abusive practice is a widespread and systematic violation of human rights, including pervasive torture, detention without trial, extra-judicial executions and other abhorrent practices. There is overwhelming evidence of this, the most recent and perhaps also the most important of which is included in the report of the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE), released on 8 June 2015. The report states in part: “It is not law that rules Eritreans, but fear.”[8]

The COIE report adds that some of the violations that are taking place in Eritrea may amount to crimes against humanity – one of the three major categories of international crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Unless this deep-seated political crisis is resolved, Eritrea will continue to be one of the major refugee producing countries in the world.

The role of the EU

In spite of the above understanding, widely shared among close observers of Eritrea, the EU’s approach to Eritrea’s political and refugee crises can be described as enigmatic at best and futile at worst. In its latest manifestation, this approach is partly driven by the ever-growing refugee crisis in Europe. As a result, some European countries, such as Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, were recently observed making U-turns in their approach towards Eritrean asylum seekers. Previously, most European countries provided nearly automatic protection to Eritrean asylum seekers between the ages of about 18 and 50; this age group is generally understood as falling within the age of compulsory and indefinite military conscription in Eritrea. However, in recent months several European countries seem to be reversing their policy or contemplating doing so. This move has resulted in widespread uproar among human rights groups. The point is that, as underlined by the COIE, the factors that compel Eritreans to leave their country in such large numbers still remain intact.[9] Thus, any change of policy on the part of European countries cannot be implemented without flouting their obligations emanating from international refugee law. Such obligations require that no recipient country shall, for example, return asylum seekers to their country of origin where they may face a definite or most probable fate of persecution.

The most problematic aspect of the EU’s collective approach towards Eritrea is that it often times takes the form of futile (in this case) “soft diplomacy.” It manifests in the perplexing method of distributing large amounts of funds (in the name of development cooperation), even when this means flouting the EU’s fundamental commitments as enshrined in some of its founding documents like the Treaty of Lisbon, which includes the Cotonou Agreement, the main legal framework governing the EU’s development cooperation with the developing world.

At least since 2002, the EU has been sending large amounts of money to Eritrea in the name of development cooperation, and each time it has done so it has also flagrantly violated its own popular commitments or principles enshrined in some of its major reference documents. In December 2015, the EU decided to distribute 200 million euros in “development aid.”[10] In my view, this money has been sent to Eritrea without adequate monitoring strings attached to it, as stipulated in article 9 of the Cotonou Agreement.[11] What distinguishes this from previous packages is that it makes specific reference to the objective of stemming migration from Eritrea (supposedly by easing the root causes of migration in Eritrea).[12]

This has not worked in the past, and it will not work now or in the future. If past experience can offer lessons, there is no better example for EU policy makers than the candid confession of Mr. Louis Michel, the former European Union Commissioner for Development Cooperation, given at a parliamentary hearing of the European Parliament in December 2009. Mr. Michel openly admitted that the EU’s “soft diplomacy” approach towards Eritrea has never yielded any outcome, and he further admitted not only to a deep sense of regret, but also bitterness for being personally deceived by Eritrean political leaders – in particular President Isaias Afwerki and the then-Eritrean Ambassador to the EU, Girma Asmerom.[13]

The risk of complicity in human rights violations

The EU’s approach is cultivating a sense of cynicism on the part of the Eritrean government, premised on the conviction of the latter that in spite of its despicable record on human rights, it has the privilege of being taken seriously as a reliable ally. This has the unfortunate consequence of refurbishing the impoverished political legitimacy of the Eritrean government, which is characterized by a deep-seated crisis of human rights that possibly includes crimes against humanity. This false legitimacy benefits the Eritrean government more than the actual flow of funds. This puts the EU in a position that is tantamount to complicity in the perpetuation of gross human rights violations in Eritrea.

Europe’s migration crisis is happening in the context of massive challenges triggered by economic instability. As such, there is no doubt that the migration crisis is fuelling the rise of far-right populist politicians throughout Europe. However, adopting futile policies (such as distributing large amounts of funds without proper oversight mechanisms) towards countries like Eritrea – countries that are the major sources of refugees – does not help in easing the growing political tension in European capitals, especially tensions resulting from the migration crisis.

By disregarding moral and legal responsibilities (the latter emanating from the European Union’s own laws), the EU’s policy towards Eritrea casts a dark shadow on the Union’s commitment to the promotion of human rights, respect for the rule of law and democratic accountability.  

What the EU seems to be missing is that the mere transfer of funds will not help in addressing the root causes of mass human suffering in Eritrea, because the EU’s approach is not accompanied by meaningful actions (otherwise known as due diligence) aimed at ensuring structural solutions to the root causes of vulnerability in Eritrea. This can only be achieved by addressing the deep-seated politico-legal crisis in the country and taking necessary measures that shall include, but are not limited to:

  • The release of all political and religious prisoners who are languishing in detention without trial for many years, prominent among which are the so-called Group of Fifteen (the G-15) and journalists of the free press, incarcerated in the context of the political crisis of September 2001;
  • Implementation of the 1997 Constitution;
  • Ending the practice of indefinite military conscription by respecting the statutory limit of eighteen months and by demobilizing hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who have been deployed in the national military service for many years;
  • Reinstatement of the country’s Transitional National Assembly (parliament), which remains in prolonged hibernation since February 2002.

At the heart of the above recommendations rests ending the pervasive culture of impunity by establishing a rule of law-abiding political system.

Without such meaningful measures, the political situation in Eritrea will never improve, and the push factors contributing to forced migration will not be resolved. Unfortunately, the EU does not seem to have learned its lessons appropriately, as explained above in the context of Mr. Michel’s confessions from December 2009.

Over and above the despicable record of the Eritrean government in the areas of good governance, democratic accountability, and respect for the rule of law, the critical issue is: how does the EU find it possible to do business “the normal way” with a government whose senior leaders (including President Afwerki) are accused of active involvement in a possible case of crimes against humanity?

Instead of investigating and delving further into the main political problems in Eritrea, the EU seems more focused on symptoms of the problem – such as the on-going refugee crisis as it affects Europe. The EU has every right to address the refugee crisis in Europe in ways that fit its regional interests. However, in addressing the push factors for migration in Eritrea, it cannot flout clearly spelled-out obligations emanating from its major reference documents, such as the Cotonou Agreement.

A humanitarian crisis

In the absence of armed conflict, Eritrea already faces a situation that is tantamount to a humanitarian disaster or humanitarian crisis. However, since this term is usually cited in the context of armed conflicts or widespread natural calamities (such as droughts, earthquakes, floods, etc.), there is a high level of reluctance on the part of the international community, including the EU, to use the term “humanitarian crisis” in relation to the situation of mass human suffering in Eritrea.

To add insult to injury, the latest reports coming from Eritrea indicate that there is a looming drought in certain parts of the country. In the neighbouring country of Ethiopia, the drought is said to be the cause of the worst famine in the last fifty years. A map of the drought-affected areas in Ethiopia, produced by the United Nations (UN) in December 2015, shows that some of these areas are actually along its common border with Eritrea.[14] Given that natural calamities do not recognize national borders, there is no doubt that some parts of Eritrea are already blighted by the looming drought (as also confirmed by reliable sources coming from Eritrea). Coupled with the dire state of human rights in the country, this should give an impetus to the international community, including the EU, to treat the crisis in Eritrea as a humanitarian disaster.

Concluding remarks

As noted before, Eritrea suffers from a fundamental lack of good governance and democratic accountability. It is true that in a continent where the violation of rule of law seems to be the norm rather than the exception, Eritrea’s sad experience may not be seen as different from that of the prototype post-colonial African state. However, Eritrea’s problems are multi-layered. One such problem is the widely reported situation of gross human rights violations, including a possible situation of crimes against humanity, as established by the investigative work of the COIE.[15]

A long time observer of Eritrean politics, former BBC reporter Martin Plaut notes that: “The Eritrean situation is not just bad; it is uniquely bad.”[16] The country’s political crisis requires extra effort and improvisation, not a mere dispersal of unlimited funds in the name of “development cooperation.” The EU is yet to come up with a strategy that is commensurate with the challenges Eritreans face at the ground level.

When it comes to Eritrea, European Union policy makers have adopted, and continue to adopt, ineffective policies, because in all cases they have been easily deluded by empty promises from the Eritrean government. Blind trust is not enough to ensure good governance, democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law. In these specific areas, the Eritrean government has consistently demonstrated its failure. That is why trust should always be accompanied by measurable results.

In light of the Eritrean government’s continued obstinacy and disdainful attitude towards the EU’s use of “soft diplomacy,” European Union policy makers need to come up with a revised approach. This needs to be done urgently, as argued by this and other authors time and again.[17]

Read more articles about migration and statelessness in the new issue of  International Affairs Forum


Dr. Daniel R. Mekonnen is an Eritrean human rights practitioner and scholar. A passionate proponent of “cause lawyering,” he has a cumulative work experience of more than eighteen years in human rights research, teaching, advocacy, and adjudication. With a proven track record on academic publications and policy-oriented research outputs,he has also lectured and/or researched in several European institutions
of higher education (in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK), as well as in Eritrea and South Africa. One of his most recent job experiences was that of a Senior Legal Advisor with
the Oslo-based International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI). His most recent book (co-authored with Kjetil Tronvoll) is: The African Garrison State: Human Rights and Political Development in Eritrea (James Currey, 2014). While in Eritrea, Daniel has served, among other things, as Judge of the Central Provincial Court in Asmara. In a recent experience, he served as Chairperson of the Coordinating Committee that organized the biggest mass rally of pro-democracy Eritreans (staged in Geneva), condemning
gross human rights violations in Eritrea. Daniel is also a founding member of the Eritrean Law Society, the only professional association of Eritrean lawyers currently working from exile.


[1] The author is a Guest Writer at the “Writers in Exile Program” of the Swiss German PEN Centre (Das DeutschSchweizer PEN Zentrum – DSPZ) in Luzern, Switzerland. A former Judge of the Central Provincial Court in Asmara, Eritrea, he also maintains affiliation as a Senior Legal Advisor with the Oslo-based International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI). Opinions expressed in this contribution are attributable only to the author.

[2] Full version of the report is available here: http://unhcr.org/556725e69.html#_ga=1.105409091.1165959019.1449518198.

[3] See the following chart by the International Organization for Migration (IOM): https://twitter.com/tcraigmurphy/status/510044413314482176. It is also reported that out of almost 500,000 people who came to Europe in 2015, most came from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. See http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-eritrea-idUKKCN0RH1MU20150917.

[4] Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Eritrea, “Where is Your Brother,” 25 May 2014, p. 14 [emphasis added]. A Tigrinya version of the letter is available here: http://asmarino.com/alewuna/2093-the-most-daring-message-to-come-out-of-eritrea-. English translation is available here: http://amecea.blogspot.no/2014/06/eritrea-nuncio-for-eritrea-appointed.html.

[5] See “Thousands Flee Isolated Eritrea to Escape Life of Conscription and Poverty,” 20 October 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/eritreans-flee-conscription-and-poverty-adding-to-the-migrant-crisis-in-europe-1445391364?alg=y.

[6] Police Headquarters in Agrigento, “List of Lampedusa Survivors,” http://download.repubblica.it/pdf/2013/cronaca/sopravvissuti_lampedusa.pdf, 4 October 2013. The only non-Eritrean survivor happens to be the captain of the capsized boat.

[7] “Victim Gave Birth as She Drowned,” 10 October 2013, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2451746/Lampedusa-boat-tragedy-victim-gave-birth-drowned.html.

[8] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/29/42, 4 June 2015 (hereafter “COIE Report”), paragraph 38.

[9] COIE Report, paragraph 96.

[10] European Commission - Press release, “EU announces support for poverty eradication in Eritrea,” 11 December 2015, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6298_en.htm.

[11] For instance, sub-article 1 of the same provision provides: “Cooperation shall be directed towards sustainable development centred on the human person, who is the main protagonist and beneficiary of development; this entails respect for and promotion of all human rights. Respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including respect for fundamental social rights, democracy based on the rule of law and transparent and accountable governance are an integral part of sustainable development” [emphasis added].

[12] See http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-eritrea-idUKKCN0RH1MU20150917.

[13] See Daniel R. Mekonnen, “An Afternoon with Louis Michel in the European Parliament,” 11 December 2009, http://www.asmarino.com/news/435-an-afternoon-with-louis-michel-in-the-european-parliament-.

[14] See map released by Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 4 December 2015, available at http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/snapshot%20Dec%204%20%281%29.pdf.

[15] COIE Report, paragraph 66.

[16] Martin Plaut, “Eritrea: No Legitimate Partner for the European Union,” 9 November 2015, https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/eritrea-no-legitmate-partner-for-the-european-union/.

[17] I have staunchly argued in favour of this position on a number of occasions, including in presentations I made at parliamentary hearings of the European Parliament. From academic contributions, the following is one pertinent example: Daniel R. Mekonnen and Mirjam van Reisen, “The EU Lisbon Treaty and EU Development Cooperation: Considerations for a Revised EU Strategy on Development Cooperation in Eritrea,” Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Verfassung und Recht in Übersee – VRÜ), 45(3) (2012), pp. 324-343. From media commentaries, the following is a recent example: “Interview with Russia Today,” 8 November 2015, https://www.rt.com/shows/in-the-now-summary/321224-russian-plane-crash-rapping/. A shorter YouTube version is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrc_OY2faZU. 

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