Every year, many thousands of Eritreans go to extraordinary lengths to escape their country and start new lives elsewhere. This small nation in the Horn of Africa, with less than 6 million people, is one of the world’s biggest providers of desperate refugees.
By David Blair
6:30PM BST 03 Oct 2013
There is no civil war in Eritrea: its people flee because their isolated homeland could pass as an African version of North Korea. Like the Kim regime in Pyongyang, President Isaias Afewerki keeps Eritrea on a permanent war-footing.
Most adults are conscripted into the army or forced to perform compulsory labour of some kind. Today, one Eritrean in every 20 serves in a bloated army with 320,000 soldiers.
Mr Isaias justifies this eternal mass mobilisation by claiming that neighbouring Ethiopia is scheming to re-conquer Eritrea. Just as the fictional state of “Oceania” was always at war in George Orwell’s “1984”, so Mr Isaias presents his repression as essential to guarantee the survival of the nation against outside enemies.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki (GETTY IMAGES)
That message has some resonance because of Eritrea’s traumatic history. The country broke away from Ethiopia in 1993 after waging a brutal 30-year struggle for independence. The two neighbours have remained bitter rivals ever since, fighting a border war between 1998 and 2000 that claimed perhaps 70,000 lives.
Today, the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea still confront one another across a closed and fortified frontier. Mr Isaias, who led Eritrea to independence, thunders that Ethiopia continues to occupy a few patches of the sacred national territory.
He has duly turned his country into a vast armed camp, frozen into a state of permanent antagonism with Ethiopia and much of the rest of the world.
Survivors of the Lampedusa tragedy are brought ashore (REUTERS)
Many Eritreans will do almost anything to leave. There are three principal routes by which they try to escape – and all are exceptionally dangerous. Some make contact with people smugglers and pay for passage across the Red Sea to Yemen, from where they try to slip into Saudi Arabia and reach the wealthy kingdoms of the Gulf.
Others head westwards, over the border into Sudan and then north across the Sahara into Egypt. Here, they have two options, both fraught with peril. Some turn east and try to cross the Sinai Peninsula with the aim of reaching Israel. Along the way, they run the risk of being kidnapped by Bedouin gunmen, who often try to extract ransoms by torturing their captives.
Others turn west and head over the frontier into Libya, from where they board overloaded boats of the kind that sank on Thursday. If they remain afloat, these vessels carry their huddled passengers across the Mediterranean to Sicily, the Italian mainland – or, more frequently, the island of Lampedusa where migrants are then detained.
The fact that so many thousands are willing to take these risks shows just how desperate they must be to escape from Eritrea, a supposedly peaceful country that resembles an African Sparta.