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Eritrea: Perilous Journeys
Nov 15, 2009 (091115)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"On 20 August 2009, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the
Italian coastguard rescued five of the remaining 78 Eritrean
passengers aboard a rickety boat set sail from the Libyan capital,
Tripoli. While a number of European sailing vessels had passed
their boat in the three weeks it had spent at sea, only one stopped
to give them life jackets, bread and water. But it soon went on its
way ... Seventy-three of the Eritrean refugees died from thirst,
hunger and heat. ... The five survivors now face a fine of 5,000 to
10,000 Euros for illegal immigration under an Italian law that took
effect in early August." - Yohannes Woldemariam
"Boat people" is a term familiar in the United States, generally
applied to Haitians or Cubans trying to reach the shores of this
country. But the phenomenon, with its accompaniment of death and of
an uncertain fate even after arrival, is world-wide. Refugees,
whether classified by authorities as "political" or "economic," set
out from West Africa over the Atlantic to the Canaries, North
Africa across the Mediterranean, and from the Horn of Africa
to Yemen. Global and regional inequalities as well as political
conditions fuel these perilous journeys, as they do the journeys
over land across the U.S.-Mexican border or from Zimbabwe to South
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains an article focusing on Eritrean
boat people, recently published in Pambazuka News. The author,
Yohannes Woldemariam both describes the conditions of the journeys
and analyzes the contexts in Eritrea and in Europe.
This Bulletin, sent out by e-mail as well as posted on the web, is
one of a series of three on Eritrea posted today. The other two are
web-only. "Eritrea: Press Freedom Updates" is available at
"Eritrea: No Welcome in Italy" is available at
For a selection of recent books on Eritrea, see
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Eritrea, visit
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
The plight of Eritrea's boat people
Why Eritrea's refugees shouldn't accept their fate
2009-10-29, Issue 455
With a government that makes it illegal to leave the country and
military service compulsory for all men and women aged 18 to 40 in
the name of a festering border conflict with the more powerful
Ethiopia, it's no wonder Eritreans undertake perilous journeys in
search of a better life. But getting out of Eritrea itself is no
guarantee of change for the better, thanks to flawed international
responses that fail to see the humans behind 'the refugee problem',
Yohannes Woldemariam writes in Pambazuka News.
On 20 August 2009, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian
coastguard rescued five of the remaining 78 Eritrean passengers
aboard a rickety boat set sail from the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
While a number of European sailing vessels had passed their boat in
the three weeks it had spent at sea, only one stopped to give them
life jackets, bread and water. But it soon went on its way, leaving
them to face the perils on their own. Seventy-three of the Eritrean
refugees died from thirst, hunger and heat. Those that managed to
stay alive were flayed by sun and caked in salt by the time they
were spotted. The five survivors now face a fine of 5000 to 10,000
Euros for illegal immigration under an Italian law that took effect
in early August.
The neglect and mistreatment of Eritrean refugees can partially be
explained by the evolving relationship between Libya and Italy and
the politics of oil. Years of UN sanctions for Libya's sponsorship
of terrorism meant that Gaddafi's oil and gas had not been
exploited nearly as much as other Middle Eastern countries. Gaddafi
is now keen to use oil in projecting his country's regional
influence. The immediate target of Libya's investments has been
Italy, a former colonial power and the largest investor in Libya's
energy sector. Italy is without any energy resources of its own.
This is why Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been more
than happy to deal with Gaddafi. There is a plan to expand the
pipeline that transports gas from Libya to Italy from eight to 11
billion cubic meters annually.
In August 2008, Berlusconi negotiated the Accordo di Amicizia e
Cooperazione (Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation) between Rome
and Tripoli. Italy colonised Libya from 1911 to 1943. In that era,
about 27,000 Libyans died as victims of Italian colonialism,
including almost six thousand executed opposition guerrillas.
According to the August, 2008 agreement, Italy apologises for the
crimes it committed during the colonisation of Libya with the
promise of US$34 billion to be paid over the next 24 years. In
turn, Gaddafi will provide Europe with gas and oil and guarantee
full cooperation in the joint operations against the boat people.
Berlusconi's euphoric reaction to this treaty was dubbed as the end
of the 'refugee problem'.
After this agreement, what is the plan for refugees caught on the
high seas of the Mediterranean? According to the Italian journalist
Gabriele Del Grande, Eritreans are being jammed into containers and
deported to large Libyan camps (funded by EU money) in the middle
of nowhere under inhumane living conditions, of food and water
shortages, and of rape and other forms of mistreatment.
It is ironic that while Berlusconi agreed to pay reparation for the
horrors suffered by Libya when it was an Italian colony, there is
absolutely no mention of compensation for Eritrea, Ethiopia and
Somalia, which were also Italian colonies in Africa. In fact, the
Italian fascist Benito Mussolini authorised the use of chemical
weapons against Ethiopia, on 16 December 1935. Italian Air Force
planes sprayed mustard gas and dropped bombs filled with mustard
agent on Ethiopian soldiers and villagers. Moreover, Italy
recruited thousands of Eritreans to fight its colonial wars in
Libya and Ethiopia. My great grandfather was among those who
perished in Libya in this sinister Africans against Africans
scheme. It is their descendants who are now the untouchables left
to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.
Why Do Eritreans Flee?
Eritrea is a small country north of Ethiopia, east of Sudan, with
837 miles of breathtaking coastline along the Red Sea. It is a few
nautical sea miles from the Middle East. The country was colonised
by the Italians in 1890 and was linked in an ill-fated federation
with Ethiopia in 1951. The United States has a long and ignoble
history of interfering in Eritrean affairs and in making possible
the so-called federal arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Until the mid-seventies, the US had its biggest military base in
Africa, in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. It supplied weapons to
the then Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, and actively helped him
suppress the Eritrean struggle for self-determination. With the
overthrow of Haile Selassie by the Dergue (a military clique), the
Soviet Union replaced the US as a patron of the new regime in
Only in 1993 did Eritrea gain its independence, after a devastating
thirty years war of independence. The two current leaders,
Ethiopian Meles Zenawi and Eritrean Isaias Afwerki, had relatively
good relations as liberation fighters against former Ethiopian
dictator, Mengistu Hailemariam, for about three or four years after
Eritrean independence. But they soon fell out over a range of
economic and political matters, as well as the border conflict.
Before the deterioration of Mr Afewerki, he was labelled by the
West as one of the hopes of Africa. President Bill Clinton once
lauded him as a 'renaissance African leader.' Deserved or not, this
reputation was short lived. President Afewerki now violates basic
human rights for what he perceives as 'threats to his rule' and the
security problem with neighbouring Ethiopia.
To be sure, Eritrea has genuine security concerns stemming from
lingering Ethiopian expansionist sentiments, and a two-year border
conflict with Ethiopia that cost tens of thousands of lives, from
1998 to 2000. Ethiopia has since refused to implement the border
demarcation decision of an independent UN commission, which awarded
the disputed area of Badme to Eritrea. This festering dispute has
become chronic, forcing a protracted border dispute with Ethiopia,
and the militarisation of the region. Eritrea is third only to
North Korea and Angola as the world's biggest military spender -
relative to population size. Eritrea has 4.6 million people, in
contrast to Ethiopia, which has passed the 80 million mark.
However, no security concern can justify the excesses and flagrant
violations of human rights by the Eritrean regime.
Hence, Eritreans are voting with their feet and taking the drastic
decision to leave their country on this perilous journey - an
illegal act under the current government. Some are trying to escape
conscription while others are fleeing indefinite military service
- years spent in trenches facing Ethiopian forces dug-in across the
border. Military service is required for all men and women aged 18
to 40. There is no limit on length of service. There is no
exemption for conscientious objectors, and no alternative
Eritrea's extensive detention and torture of its citizens and its
policy of prolonged military conscription are creating a human
rights crisis and causing Eritreans to flee the country. Arbitrary
arrest, torture, appalling detention conditions, disappearances,
forced labour, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement,
expression, and worship forces the youth to take any desperate
measure in search of freedom. Those who try to flee risk the
possibility of being shot by Eritrean border guards. The government
also punishes the families of those who escape or desert from
national service with fines or imprisonment.
The boat people of Eritrea encapsulate all the suffering the people
are enduring. The country has become one huge prison and is now
compared with such places as North Korea and Burma. Many prisoners
are held in overcrowded shipping containers, with no protection
from extreme weather conditions. Torture by means of the painful
method known as 'helicopter' is routinely practiced. It involves
having hands and feet tied behind the back in a painful position.
Disappearances and prison deaths are common. No legal challenges
are permitted. Making inquiries on behalf of detained relatives is
both pointless and dangerous. During interviews with the European
media, President Afewerki routinely denies knowing the whereabouts
of even high profile prisoners.
The Perils on the Way
Most refugees' immediate destinations are either Ethiopia or Sudan
en route to Libya, Egypt, and Europe. Hundreds of Eritreans have
been forcibly repatriated from Libya, Egypt, and Malta in the past
few years and have faced detention and torture upon their return.
There are many predators who profit from this human misfortune at
different stages of the flight. Smugglers take away the life
savings of these refugees and put them in decrepit boats for the
dangerous journey to Malta or Italy. Profiteers are also known to
trick desperate asylum seekers onto crowded boats which resemble
slave ships and which put to sea without enough fuel to reach their
In general, the primary cause of Eritrean refugee deaths is
drowning in storms, though many refugees have been attacked by
smugglers and murdered or raped. When in trouble, smugglers throw
people overboard into the shark-infested waters to avoid getting
caught. Refugees also die from thirst, hunger, or heat. Sometimes
the corpses wash up on the beaches and are spotted by fishermen,
coast guards or passersby folks.
In the particular case of the boat ultimately rescued by the
Italians, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, as
passengers died from thirst and hunger, the survivors threw them
into the sea. One of the survivors, 27 year-old Eritrean Titi
Tazrar described how the 73 other passengers had died: 'They
included three pregnant women who aborted at sea-Some died because
they fell into the sea at night'The pregnant women aboard suffered
the most. We didn't know how to help or comfort them. But soon
after losing their children they too died.'
How can anyone abandon people who are in such a dire situation? I
can only imagine the international outrage had these boat people
been of European descent. Travelling in the open seas in
overcrowded boats is a harrowing experience, and as a former
refugee myself, I am appalled and heartbroken by the inhumanity
these refugees experienced. It is only ultimate desperation that
drives these human beings to such a precarious journey.
For those who make it over the Sahara but are captured by the
Libyans, the conditions in the Libyan detention centres are
inhumane, and police exercise repression, rape and extortion. At
best, Eritreans in Libya are subject to indefinite warehousing in
remote areas without access to courts or due process. The United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has advised against
deporting anyone to Eritrea, including rejected asylum seekers,
because of the mistreatment faced by those who are forced to
return. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on all countries hosting
Eritrean asylum seekers not to forcibly return them, given the risk
Yet, Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Conventions. The
country does not observe international norms and continues to
detain, deport and even kill refugees in overcrowded detention
centres. Furthermore, Libya does not allow the refugees any visits
or interviews with UNHCR officials and has handed over refugees to
the Eritrean government, where the refugees face certain
imprisonment, torture and possibly death. In one such instance on
August 27, 2004, 75 Eritreans were put aboard a chartered Libyan
air force plane without being told their destination. Upon learning
that they were headed to Eritrea, four of the Eritreans hijacked
the plane and forced it to land in Sudan. In short, Libya is a
country whose authoritarian leader, Mohammed Gaddafi, scoffs at the
very notion of human rights.
Across the Mediterranean, European countries are tightening their
immigration laws. Italy's lower house backed a bill that would fine
illegal immigrants and those who rent houses to them. Racism,
compassion fatigue, and the view of these refugees as 'dangerous
waste' are pervasive. In June, the European Commission proposed a
much tougher border-control regime for Europe, where more dead and
half-dead Africans continue to wash up along the beaches.
Yet European politicians find Eritreans and other Africans easy
scapegoats for their xenophobic public. Mr. Berlusconi is quoted as
saying: 'When I walk down the streets of Milan and I see the large
numbers of non-Italians, I feel like I am no longer an Italian or
in a European city but in an African one'. One can definitely sense
the growing irritation of the Italians and the Maltese. They ask:
'Why don't these boat people accept their fate instead of crossing
the sea to land themselves in countries that don't want them and
can't cope with them?'
Behind such comments lies the European paranoia of African/black
hordes lining up to cross the Mediterranean. To callously suggest
that refugees be returned to the circumstances that forced them to
leave their home country betrays a serious lack of compassion, and
a refusal to engage with the motivations for why people flee the
country in which they are living. It is also a refusal to
acknowledge, at least partial responsibility by the class of people
and countries who control the international economy, and who create
debt, militarisation, war, famine, and poverty. Denial aside, this
is one problem that is not going to go away anytime soon. It is a
tragedy that cries for urgent attention, as Eritreans are in a
state of despair and frozen misery.
What Is to Be Done?
Tougher policies by the Europeans will not deter Eritreans who have
little to lose. In their desperation, they continue to escape
Eritrea in droves, risking - among other things - death in the high
seas. From Sudan, refugees continue the journey in different
directions, but most end up in Libya. Libya's Mediterranean
coastline makes it a natural jumping-off point for Europe. Many
refugees perish from thirst, hunger and fatigue before they reach
Libyan cities. The Sahara is treacherous even for well-prepared and
seasoned travellers. These refugees are often ill equipped and ill
informed for such a journey.
The Eritrean nightmare cries for a coordinated response from
affluent countries like the United States and the European Union.
So far, the European countries have crafted policies that
essentially deny access by making it as difficult as possible to
enter their territory.
Countries on the periphery of Europe had the harshest policies,
protecting their neighbours to the north, often for money. The
European Union requires asylum seekers to file their claims in the
first European country they enter, meaning that most file claims in
countries like Malta and Italy, which deny asylum at rates far
greater than other European countries. The decision by the Italian
government to return asylum seekers to Libya without any assessment
of their protection needs is a clear violation of international
human rights standards and the EU and its member States must
urgently call on Italy to put an immediate end to such practices.
There is a clear need for coordinated action to address the
situation in the Mediterranean, but it is crucial that actions
envisaged by the EU uphold respect for international human rights
and asylum obligations. Italy's decision also violates the
fundamental principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the
1951Convention relating to the status of refugees, which prohibits
returning refugees to countries where they may face persecution.
States are obliged to respect this principle wherever they exercise
jurisdiction, including on the high seas.
Europeans will meet at the end of October to discuss refugees and
migrants. The EU can utilise economic aid to try to extract
concessions from the Eritrean regime. It can make aid contingent on
tangible human rights improvements. Despite his despotism, Mr
Afewerki still enjoys cordial relations with the EU. Recently, the
EU granted his government, 122 million euros of development aid.
The EU's president, Swedish Premier Carl Bildt has promised that
spreading the burden would come up for discussion by EU ministers.
Europeans should heed the plea of Jacques Barrot, the EU
commissioner for freedom, security and justice Issues, who is
quoted as saying: 'We will not solve this crisis by reacting in a
xenophobic manner.' Burden sharing in the form of resettlement by
the more affluent European countries, Canada and the United States
can save lives. Barrot's proposal for a 'Joint EU Resettlement
Program' of refugees is the only humane way forward.
At the root of the problem is also the unresolved border conflict
between Eritrea and Ethiopia for which Ethiopia is largely to
blame. The Obama administration and the EU can play a positive role
by helping break the impasse and thereby depriving the Eritrean
government of the pretext for conscription of the population and
the 'no war no peace' footing. The United States and the guarantors
of the Algiers agreement need to take a diplomatic offensive to
compel Ethiopia's compliance with the Hague verdict. Ethiopia is an
aid dependent country and coercive diplomacy against the Zenawi
regime may provide an opportunity to change the rules of the game.
Ethiopia's intransigent attitude is destabilising the entire Horn
of Africa region and contributing to the youth exodus from Eritrea.
One of the best written analysis I have read on this matter in a
long time. Good points on the policies of the Eritrean government
that are driving hundreds and thousands out of their country, the
role of E.U's migration policy and the overall responsibility of
the global community. Thank you. Nunu Kidane, Priority Africa
P.S. I happened to be visiting Italy, in Sicily at the time of this
and you can read more of the findings of my organization from
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