The Economist: Eritrea and its emigrants – Why they leave

Eritreans are taking to the seas because of worsening conditions at home

Oct 12th 2013 | NAIROBI |From the print edition

A DAY of national mourning was held on October 4th after as many as 300 people drowned in the Mediterranean’s worst recent shipwreck, just off Lampedusa. Candles were lit and flags flew at half-mast. But this was not in Eritrea, where most of the dead came from, but in Italy, the country they lost their lives trying to reach.

Some 30,000 people reached Italy illegally in boats in the first nine months of 2013, three times as many as in the whole of 2012, according to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. Many hail from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, three countries in varying stages of civil strife. But the largest batch came from Eritrea, a country that has supposedly been at peace for the past 13 years.

The Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies south of Sicily in what officials call the “central Mediterranean corridor”, is not on the Eritreans’ main escape route. Most make their way overland. Some 40,000 have sought refuge in Israel, 87,000 in Ethiopia and 125,000 in Sudan. On the face of things, this is odd. Though its GDP per person is still only $500, the former Italian colony, which was recognised as independent from Ethiopia in 1993, is enjoying modest growth on the back of a boom in mining.

The main reason for the mass flight is that a growing number of Eritreans feel they are living in a prison camp, rivalled—some say—only by North Korea. All males up to the age of 50 have to do national service on starvation wages in an army whose senior ranks are brutal and corrupt. Up to the age of 65 men must continue to serve for periods every year in the “popular army”, even though life expectancy hovers at only 61.

Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president, who has run the country since independence, now acts as a “one-man state”, says the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. For two decades he has been head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairman of the ruling party, which itself emerged out of a guerrilla force. Freedom of movement, speech, religion and assembly have all steadily withered. One survivor in Lampedusa, who gave his name as Awet, aged 27, said he had fled after eight years in the army, knowing no date for his release.

From the print edition: Middle East and Africa

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