The Eritrean Human Tragedy: Root Causes Why Eritreans Are Fleeing Their Country in Droves
Communiqué No. 3
The Eritrean Human Tragedy: Root Causes Why Eritreans Are Fleeing Their Country in Droves
Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND)
By virtue of the fact that Eritrea has sadly become the ‘North Korea’ of Africa, the Eritrean people are today in a horrendous situation where their human worth and dignity count for nothing. Placed under circumstances of no option, the physically able youth are leaving their homeland to countries near and far in search of a flickering light of freedom. However, the grim reality of fleeing their homeland has made them vulnerable to untold tragedies. A clear testament to their vulnerability to an uncertain future is the 360 Europe-bound Eritreans who perished near the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, when their overloaded boat caught fire. The revulsion and shock at the loss of these young, energetic, and hopeful Eritreans were beyond the comprehension among not only Eritreans but also among people of goodwill throughout the world. The grief-stricken families and relatives of the Eritrean victims of the Lampedusa tragedy are still waiting for the remains of their loved ones to return home. Agonizingly, the tragedy of Lampedusa is not an isolated occurrence. Rather, it is symptomatic of the crisis that has befallen Eritrea. For about a decade and half now Eritrea’s youth have been fleeing their country in growing numbers by land and sea, taking harrowing risks at several stages of their journey. While escaping the country they risk being shot by border guards, who are given shoot-to-kill orders and if they are caught alive, they are subjected to long-term imprisonment, where torture is said to be routine. If successful in escaping the country, death in the Sahara desert, drowning in the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea, and torture and payment of huge ransom in the Sinai are among the dangers they face before they reach the countries of destination. There are even reports that some of the refugees have been subjected to rape and organ-harvesting in the Sinai. Even when they reach the countries, where they expect to find refuge, they have often faced repatriation to their home country, which subjects them to persecution and abuse and denies them their most fundamental human rights. In some cases, as in Israel, they have also been condemned to indefinite detention on account of illegal entry.
It bears to note that Eritrea achieved its liberation from foreign rule only two and half decades ago after 30 years of armed struggle, in which tens of thousands of young women and men sacrificed their precious lives. The country endured another cycle of a bitter war a decade and half ago when the nation’s young women and men again paid huge sacrifices defending its borders. After these devastating wars, the country was expected to mobilize everyone in its small workforce to engage in rebuilding the country. Instead, the most productive segments of the workforce are forced to abandon the country in large numbers, as the leaders have made the country inhospitable to them. According to Human Rights Watch, over 1500 people flee the country every month. UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, who has been prevented from visiting Eritrea, also notes that about 7,500 Eritrean refugees, the same number as those from war-torn Syria, arrived in Italy by sea in the first nine months of 2013. This figure is much higher than the estimated 3,000 Somalis who arrived in Italy during the same time period. For a small country with a population of roughly 5 million, Eritrea is today experiencing a staggering loss of productive workforce due to a combination of internal imprisonment and external drain of manpower. In addition to the refugees, unknown numbers of Eritreans today languish in prisons, as the country is often described as ‘a giant prison’ by various human rights organizations.
It is baffling to Eritreans and international observers how and why Eritrea has descended into such a grim condition. Indeed, it is astounding how a country that sacrificed so much to liberate itself from foreign rule descended into such a deplorable situation in such a short time after its joyous independence. Of course, there are numerous factors that have led to the tragic circumstances that prevail in Eritrea, which all foreign governments, humanitarian organizations, and all social activists worldwide must know. Among the key factors that are driving young Eritreans out of their country, even in the face of grave risks, to their lives include: (1) a tyrannical political system devoid of any semblance of rule of law; (2) an economic system, where the ruling party’s firms monopolize the key sectors of the economy, denying citizens the right to participate in various types of economic activities in their own country, and (3) an open ended national service, which has become a mechanism of reducing the country’s workforce into a pool of forced labor at the disposal of the ruling party’s business concerns. The principal aim of this communiqué is to explain briefly to the community of nations, humanitarian organizations, and all interested groups and individuals how a combination of the aforementioned factors has brought about the exodus of the Eritrean youth from their country, driving them to many Lampedusa-like tragedies.
A Tyrannical Political System
Referring to African liberation fronts, the Tanzanian scholar, Shiviji, noted that “liberators have turned tyrants and continue to tyrannize through the barrel of a gun.” Perhaps those who led the armed struggle for independence believe that they have to control power because they see themselves as more patriotic than the rest of the citizens, or perhaps, they even see monopolizing power as their rightful reward for the sacrifice they made during the liberation struggle. They may also lack the competence to govern effectively and democratically, and thus attempt to compensate for their shortfalls by exercising rigid control, which they had relied on during the armed struggle. Regardless of the reasons, as soon as it pushed the Ethiopian troops out of Eritrea in 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) established political arrangements, which ensured that its leaders monopolize power. It established a single-party system by disallowing any political activity by other political organizations. The EPLF also enacted a number of other arrangements with far-reaching consequences with complete absence of public scrutiny and accountability. One was empowering the executive branch of the government to engage in law-making (Proclamation No. 23/1992). It needs little explanation why such an arrangement has come to undermine the power of the national assembly and to deny the Eritrean people of any meaningful representation in the making of laws and policies. Another arrangement was empowering the executive branch to bypass the judiciary by creating a special court under the direct control of the executive. Established in 1996, the special court was initially supposed to prosecute corrupt government officials but its role was soon expanded to all political cases as defined by the executive branch itself. Within the executive branch, concentration of power in the hands of the president became complete. In addition to serving as chief executive, he controlled the special court, which gave him unbridled power over any real or perceived adversaries, who could be thrown to prison without any legal recourse. The president was also authorized to convene (or not convene) and preside over the national assembly. The 2001 crisis and the purging of 15 senior government officials was, for example, in large part due to the president’s refusal to convene the national assembly to ratify the bills governing elections and formation of political parties, which had been drafted by a committee formed by the assembly. With full control over the three branches of government, the president became accountable to no one and, for all practical purposes, reduced the government to a one person show precluding any possibility of building institutions of governance. Even though the front talked the language of democracy when creating the identified political arrangements, the whole exercise in mass manipulation and deception soon became detrimental to democratic governance. Having consolidated his monopolistic grip on power, the president became emboldened to openly declare that the Eritrean people were not ready for democracy. Party members and government officials (whether senior or junior) either knowingly or inadvertently consented to the president’s vicious obsession with the monopoly of power or lacked the means to stop him. The border conflict with Ethiopia and Ethiopia’s intransigence to accept the verdict of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission also provided the dictator a justification for thwarting implementation of the constitution. Eritrea is now amongst the few countries in Africa ruled without a constitution, opposition parties, or a private press. Eritrea is also a country where citizens can languish in prison for years without any formal charges, let alone trial. Disillusioned by these unexpected reversals of the aims of the struggle for national independence and exhausted by war and permanent deployment, the country’s youth have simply chosen to flee the rigidly closed political system that has come to reign in the country.
A Monopolized Economic System
Another critical arrangement the leaders of the EPLF designed was for the front to own and run its own business firms. This arrangement has created a number of harmful problems. It goes without saying that, when a ruling party runs its own business, it becomes a monstrous competitor with other economic actors, and creates a huge conflict of interest problem whereby individual imaginations and innovations are stifled. Over the years, the single party has established monopolies over key sectors of the economy, completely crowding out the private sector. It has done this by denying and revoking business licenses to private firms in the areas the front wants to control. The party engages even in the retail sector, including in the distribution of basic products, such as milk. Moreover, it appropriates land from customary holders and users to expand its businesses, including commercial farms, while denying land access to private economic actors, firms and households.
More importantly, the ruling party’s participation in business activities precludes democratic governance. The party cannot allow the establishment of other political parties because such a measure is incompatible with the economic order it has established. Additionally, with monopolistic control over political and economic power the ruling party has been able to blur the distinction between the state and the ruling party. The government has, for example, established joint ventures with foreign companies in the mining sector. It is hard to tell if it is the state or the party that is engaged in such ventures.
Forced Labor in the Name of National Service
The most direct reason why the Eritrean youth abandon their country is the open ended national service. Initially, the service was declared to be for 18 months. However, the program was extended indefinitely since 2002. All adults are ordered to work at the direction of the state in various capacities until age 40, now extended to age 50. Since life expectancy in Eritrea is about 60, most Eritreans spend their productive years in the national service. What has become a never ending deployment in the name of national service is conveniently justified by the regrettably unresolved border conflict with Ethiopia. Given the “no war, no peace” situation defining Ethio-Eritrean relations, the national service may have legitimate justification. Security concerns, however, do not warrant an open ended service, which robes the country of its workforce, destroys the economy, and frustrates the conscripts who are abandoning the country in droves, thereby undermining the country’s security. Even though the demobilization of conscripts who fulfill their term of 18 months and keeping them in reserve to be recalled when needed could have averted the problems associated with the national service, Eritrea’s dictatorial government has chosen to indefinitely deploy the forces to different parts of the country, constantly moving them around in order to prevent them from developing camaraderie and friendships. The dictatorship’s sinister objectives also include the use of labor of the conscripts, who are forced to work on public projects such as building roads, and in the ruling party’s business concerns. Obviously, the national service is a political ploy to keep the youth away from cities and towns, thereby insulating itself from potential political agitation, as well as to exploit their labor freely.
In light of the facts enumerated in this communiqué, we Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND) urgently appeal to all foreign governments, and regional and international organizations not only to unswervingly condemn the Eritrean dictatorship for its gross human rights violation but also to provide safe haven and protection to those Eritreans who fled their homeland in hope of finding safety and protection outside their country. We strongly appeal to regional governments and organizations in particular to see the Eritrean case as a matter of urgent humanitarian crisis. It has now become all self-evident that a thick dark curtain has descended upon Eritrea, behind which the Eritrean people are subjected to forced labor, intimidation, political repression, arbitrary arrests, beatings, rapes, and killings. Our urgent appeal is in keeping with all U.N. declarations on universal human rights, on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights. In adopting the principle of “responsibility to protect” in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly even went further to reject the unconditional invocation of sovereignty if states failed to promote and protect the welfare of their citizens. It stands to reason that, when states shirk from their responsibility to be accountable for the welfare of their citizens, it becomes incumbent upon the international community to come to the defense of victims of state abuse. Since the Eritrean dictatorship has not only manifestly failed to protect the welfare of the country’s people but also subjected them to wanton violation of their dignity politically, economically, socially, and culturally, we Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue appeal to all members of the global community to oblige themselves to protect the Eritrean victims of gross human rights violation.
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Communiqué emailed to:
U N Special Rapporteur on Eritrea
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Arab League, Human Rights Department
European Union, EU Special Representative for Human Rights
U S Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor