How the world forgot “Africa’s North Korea” Eritrea, and what this means for migration

Britain receives more asylum seekers from Eritrea than anywhere else, but the isolated African state somehow still hides in the world's blindspot. This summer, Eritrea turned 25. On a hazy evening in Asmara, the crumbling pastel-coloured

Britain receives more asylum seekers from Eritrea than anywhere else, but the isolated African state somehow still hides in the world’s blindspot.

This summer, Eritrea turned 25. On a hazy evening in Asmara, the crumbling pastel-coloured capital, a foreign official offers a rare insight into the current state of its long-term leader.

Last week, she saw President Isaias Afwerki – or simply, Isaias – walking alone through the city’s backstreets to a meeting at the World Health Organisation’s local headquarters, wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and chinos.

Isaias has ruled this land with an iron fist since winning the longest guerrilla war in history – against the Ethiopians – and gaining its independence, but little is known about him. “For 70 years old,” another diplomat tells me, “he is in unfortunately good health” – a far cry from the well-publicised rumours of him being a heavy drinker.

And yet his country is ill. Behind the art deco buildings, espressos and oily iced buns of this former Italian colonial outpost lies an appalling dictatorship and a decaying economy.

The main scourge of Afwerki’s regime is that military conscription here lasts indefinitely. Eritreans kiss goodbye to freedom aged 16, when they are called up to Sawa, the national military training camp, and asked to spend years defending the country’s heavily militarised border with Ethiopia or working as slaves on road-laying and construction projects.

Citizens can get out of this service by fleeing, which is why more Eritreans illegally cross the Mediterranean than any other nationality, or by marrying – hence this country’s oddly high rate of young marriage. Otherwise there are no guarantees: release from national service depends on the mercy of individual military generals.

Filmon*, who now lives in a Baltic refugee absorption centre, chose to flee. He walked alone across Sudan and Egypt before smuggling himself into Israel, where we met briefly last summer. A few months ago, he was “voluntarily deported” from Israel to Uganda – and from there he made his way to Europe. Does he regret leaving for a life like this? This relatively hesitant man barely allows me to finish the question: “No way, I would never go back to Sawa. Never.”

What is poorly understood is that this state’s philosophy of military conscription and self-sufficiency is not arbitrary. It is a response to the brutal Ethiopian occupation that the world supported for decades.

Eritrea had to battle an army backed by superpower sugar daddies – first the US and then the Soviets, the two greatest militaries the world has ever known – for 30 years without help from anyone but its diaspora.

This David beat Goliath on its own: why should it take lectures from anyone or rely on anyone for help now? Why should Eritrea take chances on its still restive border with Ethiopia?

Unfortunately, the anger of an abused child is rarely effective. What seemed in 1991 a valiant attempt at doing African independence differently has turned into aggressive self-isolation. There are almost no international organisations or companies here. And despite having an elongated coastline on the Red Sea – the maritime gateway to Africa, Asia and the Middle East – the port city of Massawa is practically empty when I visit.

This country is an economic basket case as a result of such behaviour. Adults earn an average of $500, while children on Liberation Avenue sell packs of knockoff chewing gum and plead with passersby for money and chocolate.

There may even be a famine in the north of the country, foreign diplomats whisper, but no one would know if there was. There is no freedom of press, and private communications are monitored by government, so these matters go unreported. In a country where there is no electricity for long expanses of the day, people are left literally and figuratively in the dark.

In some respects, though, self-isolation has worked. There is little international interest in the affairs of Eritrea considering its geopolitical significance. The last time the UN General Assembly or Security Council passed a resolution on its government’s human rights abuses was 2011.

Shockingly, Britain only established an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea this year. Let us not forget more Eritreans illegally cross the Central Mediterranean than Syrians – and more Eritreans apply for asylum in Britain than any other nationality. Some blind spot.

newstatesman.com

aseye.asena@gmail.com

Review overview
7 COMMENTS
  • Fitewrari September 10, 2016

    This is the core of this article. I have now more respect to the young Eritreans abandoning the land because the elite leaders of Ghedli did not do their jobs properly: “The main scourge of Afwerki’s regime is that military conscription here lasts indefinitely. Eritreans kiss goodbye to freedom aged 16, when they are called up to Sawa, the national military training camp, and asked to spend years defending the country’s heavily militarised border with Ethiopia or working as slaves on road-laying and construction projects.

    Citizens can get out of this service by fleeing, which is why more Eritreans illegally cross the Mediterranean than any other nationality, or by marrying – hence this country’s oddly high rate of young marriage.”

  • The Habesha September 11, 2016

    ሓሻኩም፣ ነዚ ክጥሕኑ ክንድዚ ዝርሃጹ
    ሂወቶም ኣሕሊፎም ባርነት ሓዚሎም ዝመጹ
    ህዝብና ከይነብር ከም ቀደሙ ኣጋይጹ
    ሃብቲ ኢትዮጵያ እናደለበ መመሪጹ
    ሙታንታ ኣዕራብ ሸፋቱ ናብርኡ ስለ ዘናወጹ
    ከም ባርያ እናገዝእዎ እናሸጎጡ መዓጹ
    ክንደየናይ ከይሓልፍ መንእሰያትና እናወጹ
    ሓመድኪ ይቕለልኪ ኤርትራና ልበይ ደንጊጹ
    ዕምባባኺ ሞይቱ እዩ ቀደም እንድዩ ነቒጹ

  • rezen September 12, 2016

    Dear Manager,
    I just experienced a strange occurrence as explained in paragraph 3. I would greatly appreciate if you would permit me to post it here.. If it is not permissible, I fully understand. Thank You very much, in any case.

    1. Commentary by Simon G September 10, 2016
    QUOTE “There is this café I frequently visit on the weekends in Oakland, CA., and as soon as I get in I heard this loud argument, in Amharic. I knew those 3 are Eritreans but I guessed the other one must be Ethiopian. So he was. I grabbed a cup of coffee and joined them. I asked what is this about. One of them told me that our Ethiopian friend (Daniel) just asked us a weird question. I was anxious to know. The question (rather a comment) was “Eritreans are like dumb students who couldn’t figure out just one big question from the teacher, for so many years”. This comment upset the Eritreans and they were arguing Eritreans are so smart (naturally) and how dare you call us dumb students. His reply: well, it has been 25 years since you can’t answer one question. How to defeat one and only one teacher (isayas). The Eritreans reply was all over and there was no substance to it and Daniel replied with just one word ”exactly!”. The 3 of you now making no sense and I am not sure the new guy has anything to add. I told him that I have none. His last comment amused me above all ___>he told me my answer was much better than the 3 of these guys, for the last few hours. You didn’t waste your’s and my time. Saying I don’t know is nothing wrong. That was you are open to learn, Then he he turned his face to the other three and he told them “if you Eritreans learn to say we don’t know, by this time you would have learned the solution from some wise people”. So, act as you don’t know, because you really do not know I said quietly to myself, this wise Gonderie (they told after he left) may have a point. What do you think? “ UNQUOTE
    2. Reaction and reply from rezen.
    Ahhhh…… Great Simon G, ALWAYS FREE, to speak your mind, regardless where the ‘chips may fall’. How fortunate you are to have the inner confidence and daring traits to face realities and challenges. Unfortunately, We, the overwhelming majority of Eritreans, do not have those particular qualities. That is why we are sensitive and edgy – resulting in instant “testata”!!!! Smile! There are, of course, political. and sociological reasons for those characteristics which would merit a VOLUME of a BOOK of PhD dissertation.
    Simon G: Wisely, you brought your narration to an end with a question to your readers: “WHAT DO YOU THINK?” – very wise in my opinion. You may find my answer in a winded way at this same website under Mr. Amanuel Eyasu’s Article, entitled: “Voice of Assenna: Clear Vision for a Bright Future – Amanuel with Eritrean Youth in Coventry, Part 3, Saturday, Sept 10, 2016”
    3. Strange mishap
    The reason for this presentation of my commentary in the above format is bizarre. Fortunately, I printed Simon G’s commentary for my slow reading BEFORE the whole item vanished from the computer!!!!! Needless to say, I can never explain the strange occurrence.

      • rezen September 13, 2016

        Dear Manager,
        Please forgive me. I was totally mixed-up. And, believe me, there is NO IMPLICATION what so ever..
        Respectfully Yours
        rezen

        • Simon G. September 13, 2016

          We all can learn from these both civilized gentlemen!
          Prof. rezen, you should write an article with no more than 2 pages (at max). I can propose a title for you: “how to be a humble and respectful person like rezen”. This is the skill that most Eritreans discarded (or even worse never had) it. This skill is so critical to own, at anytime. All these opposition franchises (well, there are many of them) are as a result of this (plenty of data are available, just look around in any Eritrean cafes gatherings). If we master this skill, we can listen and think. Then, we can talk. AS of now, for most of us, the listening to talking ratio is about 1:10.

POST A COMMENT