The desperate plight of refugees fleeing their countries simply in order to survive is heartbreaking. The image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s drowned body in his red T-shirt, long shorts, and a fresh haircut, may be the single factor that has finally jolted some European leaders into doing something after months of inaction.
Syrians have made up roughly half of the 380,000 refugees who reached Europe after crossing the Mediterranean by early September. According to U.N. figures, 75 percent of these people came from countries where there is either an armed conflict or a humanitarian crisis.
After Syrians come Afghans, a total of 13 percent. It’s not hard to understand why Afghans are on the move. The country is extremely dangerous because extremist groups like the Taliban and Islamic State’s local affiliate are conducting insurgencies across the country. The Afghans endure frequent bomb attacks, but many civilians are also fleeing because they have received death threats.
Next come Eritreans, who make up eight percent of those refugees arriving by boat. Why are an estimated 5,000 citizens of Eritrea fleeing their country every month? After all, the country is not at war, the population is relatively small, and there is no shortage of food.
What Do We Know About Eritrea?
Eritrea is a very long way from the scenes of refugees arriving in boats, having crossed the Mediterranean.
Eritrea is a small country in the Horn of Africa, with a population of a little over six million, as of 2013. Its capital is Asmara, and it is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast.
The country gained independence from Italian colonial control in 1941, and after 10 years of British administrative control, the U.N. made Eritrea an autonomous region within the Ethiopian federation. When Ethiopia tried to completely take over Eritrea, a 30-year struggle for independence ensued; Eritrean rebels finally defeated Ethiopia in 1991.
Eritrea is thus a new country, just over 20 years old. What can be so bad about a young country?
The problem lies in the country’s leader. Isaias Afworki has been the country’s only president since independence, and he is both autocratic and repressive. His government has put in place an unpopular program of mandatory conscription into national service, sometimes of indefinite length, creating a highly militarized society.
Here’s how Eritrean human rights lawyer Daniel Mekonnen, now living in Geneva, Switzerland, explained the gross human rights violations that are taking place in Eritrea on National Public Radio’s Here & Now:
“(The government of Eritrea is) Killing citizens, arresting, torturing, abusing and committing all sorts of human rights violations. The victims of these human rights violations are in the thousands so that’s why we have this large number of refugees coming to Europe and other places throughout the world.
There are two major grounds in Eritrea for persecution. You must be either politically or religiously different from what the government thinks is their own. In the political context, if you have a dissenting opinion you become a target, in the religious target, if you are not within the four officially recognized religious groups, you become a target. We have the Roman Catholic Church, we have the Eritrean Orthodox Church, we have Islam and we have the Eritrean Evangelical Church. Any other religions outside of these four groups is severely persecuted in Eritrea.”
A country with no constitution, elections, or free press, where people must submit to lifelong military conscripts, basically a type of forced labor, Eritrea is forcing its dissenters to leave if they want to survive.
How do they get out?
A Journey On Foot, Across The Sahara, Ending In a Ramshackle Boat
As The Guardian explains, the first stage involves walking over the border into Ethiopia or Sudan. If refugees can avoid being shot by border guards or kidnapped by smugglers, the next target is to arrive in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. From there they have to make it across the Sahara desert and into Libya in the back of pick-up trucks where they are squashed in with as many as 30 other people. Many do not survive the journey.
Once they arrive in the town of Ajdabiya, in northeast Libya, they are often held in by smugglers and tortured until their families send a $2,000 payment. They may have to go through this all over again at another location along the Libyan coast before they finally board a beaten-up boat and attempt the crossing to Italy. So far this year, around 2,800 refugees have perished on this stretch of their journey.
Eritreans Driven Out By Human Rights Violations
A damning report on Eritrea by the United Nations Human Rights Council emphasized the horrors of the dangerous journeys Eritreans are undertaking, evidence of the severe human-rights violations in their country and their very real suffering. It called on their need for international protection.
It seems clear that a shift in Europe’s outlook is required, and perhaps this is beginning to happen. If the European Union can change the way it thinks and acts towards some of its southern neighbors, perhaps it can help to provide better conditions, so that inhabitants don’t feel they have to flee.
The Eritrean refugee crisis, just like the entire refugee crisis, needs to be addressed both by helping those people who are fleeing for their lives, and by addressing the issues in their countries that are forcing them to escape.