Eritrea is finally hitting the agendas of mainstream journalists and the media despite the plight of Eritreans being an issue for over a decade. The African state is surely a prime example of western national interest. With the worst human rights record (arguably) in the world, lifetime military service and religious persecution (Sunni Islam & Orthodox Christianity make up the majority of the population and little else is accepted), it really shouldn’t have taken this long to hit the agendas. But here it is.
Eritrea first hit my radar about 3-4 years ago when I met a number of Eritrean teenagers through voluntary work I do in London with young refugees and asylum seekers. I knew absolutely nothing. I found myself questioning – why are they here? I felt naive. One only has to do their research to see how bad it is and since then, my empathy goes out to all Eritreans but also, praise. Their strength and intelligence never fails to amaze me. But first, lets go back to the beginning.
So Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a long and bloody war. In the beginning, people were positive. Women had been given a role in fighting, the country had united despite ethnic and religious divisions and finally, the country could have its own democratic country and constitution. Well, not so fast. Isaias Afewerki wasn’t about to let that happen.
Isaias made it clear from the early stages that it was to be a one party state and everyone was going to obey him. Not only that, he took on a very defensive stance – that attack is the best form of defence. Isaias fell out with most of his neighbours – Yemen, Djibouti and most bitterly, Ethiopia. The Ethiopian anger remains – albeit Cold War style. Due to this need to defend himself, he introduced military service for both men and women from the age of 18. This military service has become indefinite. This alone is enough to make parents want to send their children away. Of course, thats not so easy either. I have heard first hand accounts of parents/young people being imprisoned for trying to escape without permission – many parents in prison and labelled as ‘human traffickers’ (smugglers) for wanting to send their children away. Eritrean borders are on the whole guarded with a ‘shoot to kill’ policy meaning if anyone is seen escaping over the borders thats it. Game over. If you do escape, it’s not all gravy then. African countries, just as with Palestinians in the Middle East, tend to make Eritreans stay in refugee camps where they live to rot away with nothing to do. This makes their best bet Europe.
The journey to Europe includes horror stories too with many dying along the way whether it be from dehydration, the horrors of smugglers or the dramas of Libya. Smugglers are renowned for violence, sexual exploitation and well, you name it, to get as much money and exploit desperate individuals as much as possible. Unfortunately I’ve heard accounts of this ending in young people’s siblings or friends dying. If you make it past that, theres Libya. Libya has faced its own turmoil since the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011 meaning that those trying to reach Europe’s shores often have to face ISIS (many girls end up as sex slaves) and Libyan prisons. Again, I have heard of numerous occasions where individuals have been kept in Libyan prisons for a very long time – regardless of their age.
We all know how the European story goes – the boats sinking – but to Eritreans, it seems the risk is well worth it.
I can’t imagine the plight Eritrean individuals that I know have been through. The sheer repression of the largely unknown African state should not be kept quite any longer. The insane amount of human rights abuses and threat to life are beyond anything anyone in the western world can and should have to comprehend and they simply should not be allowed to happen any longer.