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Eritrea: Perilous Journeys

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 15, 2009 (091115)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"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 Africa.

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 or

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

Yohannes Woldemariam

2009-10-29, Issue 455

Pambazuka News

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 Ethiopia.

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 non-military service.

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 destination.

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 of torture.

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 Network

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

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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