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Migration crisis

Thousands are fleeing Eritrea - what are they running from?

The country is producing around 4,000 migrants every single month.

France Migrants Lionel Cironneau Lionel Cironneau

THIS WEEK, THE world has been debating the plight of refugees from war-torn Syria.

But the migration crisis isn’t a week-old problem. All through the summer, European naval services were rescuing people from, generally speaking, poorly constructed boats in the Mediterranean.

Many of these were from the African country of Eritrea, which is producing around 4,000 migrants every single month.

But why?

First off, where is Eritrea?


PastedImage-37840 Google Maps Google Maps

Located in east Africa, the country was at one time under Italian, then British rule.

Large parts of it were given to Ethiopia after World War II as a British and American reward for Emperor Haile Selassie’s support. The loose federation was mandated by the UN against the wishes of Eritreans.

This led to a violent 30-year war of independence, which came with the ratification of a UN-observed referendum in 1993. However, the dream didn’t last long. Between 1998-2000 Eritrea fought a renewed border war with Ethiopia that left at least 80,000 dead.

If it’s independent how is it so bad?

Italy Migrants Abraham Hilan 17, from Eritrea, plays soccer at the Franco-Italian border in Ventimiglia, Italy. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Because you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.

Eritrea is ruled by Isaias Afwerki, who was a hero of the bloody independence battle.

At independence in 1993 he became the country’s first — and so far only — president, but his increasingly iron-fisted and paranoid rule is driving thousands to flee every month, contributing to the world refugee crisis.

Eritrea was once held up as a beacon of hope for Africa by Western governments, and Isaias was hailed as a “renaissance leader” by then US President Bill Clinton.

But attitudes changed sharply as Marxist-inspired Isaias tightened control of the one-party state run by his People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and as he began backing regional rebels, including accusations of supporting the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shebab. Indeed, US National Counter-terrorism Centre lists al-Shebab’s Mukhtar Robow as one of its most-wanted. Robow travels on an Eritrean passport.

How bad is it?

France Migrants Lionel Cironneau Lionel Cironneau

In truth, it’s actually really difficult to know. Eritrea is an isolated nation that is notoriously secretive.

What is known is that independent media was shut down in 2001 and that Afwerki has been described as increasingly isolated and “mercurial”.

Partly because of criticism of his handling of the war in 1998, Isaias launched a brutal purge in September 2001, arresting 11 top party figures – close colleagues from the independence struggle – and forcing a wave of others to flee.

Religious minorities are jailed, often placed in shipping containers and US diplomatic cables say that he is “unhinged”.

His popularity slumped in the tightly restricted country, where the young are conscripted into mass national service that can last for decades, and where military police prowl the streets to round up those skipping the army service.

Together, open-ended conscription and state repression have driven thousands to flee despite a shoot-to-kill policy by border patrols, with families of those left behind risking being punished by crippling fines or imprisonment.

How do people leave?

They walk. Many will spend a full day trekking in an attempt to reach Ethiopia. Once there, they can escape – if they have the money to pay the €900 fee to get to Sudan to human traffickers.

And escape means one thing: a better life.

“We want to go, to go anywhere,” 25-year old Abraham told AFP in Hitsats camp in northeastern Ethiopia, just south of the Eritrean border.

“Germany, Canada, England, Switzerland,” the young people say in turn, all countries with significant Eritrean communities.

Like most refugees here, they worry of reprisals against their family still in Eritrea if they give their full name.

“If it is possible to go illegally to Sudan, we will go. We know it’s dangerous,” Abraham added. “We know we can lose our lives, but we have no choice.”

With reporting by AFP

Read: ‘There are more O’Neills and Murphys living in the US than in Ireland’

Read: It’s still not clear how many refugees Ireland is taking

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