From A World To Win News Service

Why immigrants are forced to flee to Europe—and how European governments throw aside law and morality to stop them: the case of Eritrea


July 13, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


6 July 2015. A World to Win News Service. Eritrea has only six million inhabitants, but 37,000 of them fled the country in the first 10 months of last year. As of June 2015, Eritreans are the second largest group of immigrants (after Syrians) to make the perilous journey to Europe and elsewhere.

For the most part these men and women are fleeing indefinite military service, which often involves forced labour. Those who try to avoid this service or escape their enslavement once enlisted face arrest, torture and disappearance. Women also face sexual harassment and rape by their commanders. Yet instead of welcoming these refugees, as common decency and law requires, European governments are declaring the Eritrean regime tolerable and encouraging it to imprison its people within its borders.

Denmark has played a leading role in these measures. In reaction to the growing volume of asylum requests from Eritreans, in 2014 Denmark published a report that concluded there was no valid reason to grant them that status. The report was largely based on interviews with anonymous diplomatic and other sources in Eritrea and is said to contain contradictory and speculative statements about Eritrea’s human rights situation and claims that the government promises reforms. It stated that Eritreans’ fears that they would be killed if sent back to Eritrea are unsubstantiated. Two commission members resigned in protest, saying that while they were investigating the situation in Eritrea, they had no access to detention centres or interviews with victims or witnesses of human rights violations and that the claims in the report are misleading at best.

Migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, March 2014.

Migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia at UN refuge in South Sudan, March 2014. (UN photo by Isaac Billy)

The report was also denounced by the deputy director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, Leslie Lefkow, who said, “The Danish report seems more like a political effort to stem migration than an honest assessment of Eritrea’s human rights situation. Instead of speculating on potential Eritrean government reforms, host governments should wait to see whether pledges actually translate into changes on the ground.”

However, using the Danish report, the U.K. has issued new guidance that refuses many more asylum applications by Eritreans, who are currently the second largest group of would-be refugees seekers in the U.K. at this time.

UN officials and human rights organisations believe several European Union countries such as Norway, Italy and the U.K. may be offering the Eritrean government money and the lifting of the arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on listed Eritrean officials in exchange for stricter Eritrean border controls. “Key European figures have been heading to Asmara and it’s clear there is a real political will to solve the migrant crisis by getting the borders shut from the Eritrean side—it’s a very dangerous tactic,” said one UN insider who understands the brutal actions of the Eritrean regime. (Guardian, 13 June 2015)

A UN report based on 550 confidential interviews with witnesses abroad and 160 written submissions, released 8 June 2015, finds Eritrea responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations on a massive scale bordering on crimes against humanity.

Sheila B. Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, said Eritreans deserve international protection. “This is why one of our key recommendations in the report is aimed at the international community, urging it to continue to provide protection to all those fleeing Eritrea; to respect the principle of non-refoulement [not sending asylum seekers back to their home countries]; and to end bilateral and other arrangements that jeopardize the lives of those who seek asylum. To ascribe their decision to flee solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire human rights situation in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people,” she said. Eritrea’s minister of information dismissed the UN report as “garbage in, garbage out.”

The plight of these refugees is not sufficiently highlighted by their rising numbers only. What people actually risk or experience conveys how desperate they are to leave. Just leaving Eritrea is fraught with danger because border guards, acting on official policy, often shoot to kill.

According to the Telegraph (3 October 2013), “There are three principal routes by which they try to escape—and all are exceptionally dangerous. Some make contact with people smugglers and pay for passage across the Red Sea to Yemen, from where they try to slip into Saudi Arabia and reach the wealthy kingdoms of the Gulf.

“Others head westwards, over the border into Sudan and then north across the Sahara into Egypt. Here, they have two options, both fraught with peril. Some turn east and try to cross the Sinai Peninsula with the aim of reaching Israel. Along the way, they run the risk of being kidnapped by Bedouin gunmen, who often try to extract ransoms by torturing their captives.

“Others turn west and head over the frontier into Libya, from where they board overloaded boats of the kind that sank on Thursday. If they remain afloat, these vessels carry their huddled passengers across the Mediterranean to Sicily, the Italian mainland—or, more frequently, the island of Lampedusa where migrants are then detained.”

Here is the story of one Eritrean immigrant: “A 26-year-old former Bisha mine worker told Vice News he was forced to work at the mine from January 2011 to October 2013. He did not want his name used for fear of retribution against his family back home. He said he worked at the mine seven days a week, 12 hours from Monday to Saturday and seven hours on Sunday. ‘We were not given enough food to eat, so I was always very weak and exhausted by the end of the day. Health problems like difficulty passing urine and diarrhoea abounded. I lived in a compound housing about 600 people, sharing 10 toilets and 20 showers.’ In October 2013 he was transferred away from the mining company to another conscripted job, where he experienced ‘severe physical punishment.’ ‘It was too much to cope and I decided to leave,’ he said. In December 2013 he fled on foot across the border to Sudan.” (Vice News, 12 June 2015)

Bisha, a rich source of copper, silver, gold, and zinc, is the country’s only mine. One of Eritrea’s biggest enterprises, it is a major factor in the country’s high level of economic growth. (In a bitter irony, another is emigration—almost a third of the country’s GDP comes from remittances from the five percent of the population forced to emigrate by the same situation that makes Eritrea so attractive to foreign capital.) The mine is majority-owned by the Canadian transnational company Nevsun, with the Eritrean state a junior partner. Three formers mine workers have filed a civil suit in Canada accusing Nevsun of complicity in torture, forced labour and slavery. The class action suit says that Bisha provides “massive financial support and incentives to continue Eritrea’s system of forced labour and human rights abuses.”

The regime initially instituted obligatory military service in response to a longstanding border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia, including outright war in 1998-2000. The two countries maintain armies of roughly the same number of troops, even though Ethiopia is more than 15 times bigger than Eritrea in terms of population. The leadership of the two regimes were once closely allied in fighting the broadly hated Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which collapsed after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was allied with.

The region’s European colonial powers had enabled Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, and Mengistu continued this. After Mengistu fell in 1991, Eritrea did not gain independence for another two years and the former allies entered into confrontation. The new Ethiopian regime was brought under the wing of Washington. The U.S. found Ethiopia useful in its efforts to dominate the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s army has acted as a gendarme for the U.S. in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

In short, the imperialist countries are deeply implicated in creating and continuing the situation that forces so many Eritreans to flee their country. Human lives weigh nothing when it comes to imperialist economic and political interests. This is also clearly demonstrated by the European governments’ latest policies toward Eritrean and other refugees, whom these governments would rather see drowned in the Mediterranean than alive on Europe’s shores.



Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

REVOLUTION AND RELIGION The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion, A Dialogue Between Cornel West & Bob Avakian
BA Speaks: Revolution Nothing Less! Bob Avakian Live
BAsics from the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian
Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
WHAT HUMANITY NEEDS Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism
You Don't Know What You Think You 'Know' About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation Its History and Our Future Interview with Raymond Lotta