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Eritrea: Refugees and Responsibility

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 12, 2011 (110512)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"If refugee flows are a sign of political meltdown, then Eritrea is a level seven nuclear disaster. Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicate that Eritrea, with a population of only about five million, has been among the top ten refugee producing countries in the world for the better part of the decade." - Tricia Redeker Hepner

According to data from the UNHCR (2009 Global Trends, available at, there were almost 210,000 refugees from Eritrea in that year, of whom only 2,500 benefited from UNHCR refugee resettlement programs that year. The case of Eritrea, Hepner argues, is an indicator not only of desperate conditions within Eritrea, but also of the structural failure of the international refugee system to find sustainable solutions for long-term refugees.

A similar failure is evident in the report by the Guardian on May 9 that NATO ships ignored the plight of a stranded ship of African migrants, including Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others, seeking to flee Libya, resulting in the death of 63 of the 72 persons on board. Migrants stranded in Libya include both nationalities already having refugee status in Libya and workers in Libya now fleeing the latest violence there and now seeking asylum as refugees. Despite alarmist rhetoric from Italian leaders, in fact only a small minority of those fleeing Libya have yet attempted to reach Europe rather than fleeing to neighboring countries see earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins at Nevertheless, there have already been hundreds, and perhaps thousands, lost at sea.

According to the latest reports, the Libyan government is now actively encouraging migrants to take to sea in vessels that are not seaworthy, adding to the number taking this dangerous alternative.

International agencies as well as migrants' rights activists have called both for an investigation of the failure of NATO ships to respond and for stepped-up international coordination to locate and rescue those attempting to escape Libya by sea.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains Hefner's reflection on the situation of Eritrean refugees, as Eritrea approaches its 20th anniversary of independence later this month, and a press release from Human Rights Watch on the report of NATO failure to respond to ships in danger on the Mediterranean carrying African migrants from Libya.

Other sources of interest, both for background and for current news, include

(1) Books on Eritrea:

Bereket Habte Selassie, Wounded Nation: How a Once Promising Eritrea Was Betrayed and Its Future Compromised

Tricia Redeker Hepner, Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora

[For more books on Eritrea see]

(2) Migrants in the Mediterranean

"Aircraft carrier left us to die, say migrants" Exclusive: Boat trying to reach Lampedusa was left to drift in Mediterranean for 16 days, despite alarm being raised / Direct URL:

Petition for investigation of NATO failure to rescue migrants

Migrants at Sea blog (includes both news and official reports, including legal documents)

(3) Eritrea's 20th anniversary and planned demonstrations

Asmarino Independent

Eritrean Youth for Change Facebook page

For information on a planned May 27 demonstration by Eritrean youth in the California Bay Area, see

Elizabeth/ Elsa Chyrum: Human Rights Activist (Eritrea) Asmarino Independent, Oct. 2, 2009 / direct URL:

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Eritrea, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Human tsunamis and the world refugee system

Tricia Redeker Hepner

2011-05-05, Issue 527

Pambazuka News

  • This article first appeared at Counter Punch, on April 22, 2011.
  • Tricia Redeker Hepner is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Chair of the Migration and Refugee Studies Division of the Center for the Study of Social Justice, and Eritrea Country Specialist for Amnesty International and The Fahamu Refugee Network. She can be reached at

[Excerpts. Full text available at]

The dictatorship in Eritrea results in large numbers of people feeling the country. But once they enter the international refugee system their problems are only just beginning, writes Tricia Redeker Hepner.

... The Northeast African nation of Eritrea marks its 20th year of independence [in May]. But the festivities will be marred by mourning. President Isayas Afwerki remains firmly entrenched in the seat of power, claiming with alacrity to have foretold the groundswell overtaking his Arab neighbors while banning television coverage of the demonstrations and reorganising the military to pre-empt a possible coup.

Meanwhile, the ripples radiating from the epicenter of his brutal regime are unrelenting, and the fallout has a human face. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children have fled Eritrea in wave after wave of despair. While some of these refugees make it to the shores of Europe and North America, many more do not.

Last week, two boats carrying 400 Eritreans and Ethiopians from Libya to Italy disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea. Fishermen and the Coast Guard are still recovering the bodies ... In the Sinai desert, traffickers of multiple nationalities work in tandem with security forces of Egypt and Eritrea to extort, exploit, abuse, torture and execute refugees seeking to cross into Israel, where they are summarily labeled 'infiltrators' in a euphemistic avoidance of international responsibilities to protect asylum seekers.

If refugee flows are a sign of political meltdown, then Eritrea is a level seven nuclear disaster. Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicate that Eritrea, with a population of only about five million, has been among the top ten refugee producing countries in the world for the better part of the decade. In 2006, it ranked second in the world. In 2007 only Somalis and Iraqis lodged more asylum applications than Eritreans, and in 2008 the numbers of claims filed by Eritreans exceeded those of Iraqis.

The reason? Eritrea spends a whopping 20 per cent of its national budget maintaining a military comprised of forced conscripts whose virtually unpaid labour is reinvested in further militarisation of the society and economy. The Constitution has been on ice since 1997, the promise of multiparty elections remains unfulfilled and even North Korea boasts greater freedom of the press. Civil society institutions and competing political parties exist only in exile.

The list of human rights abuses characterising daily life in Eritrea is longer than the number of international conventions the government has signed. Torture, rape, and execution are commonplace for those who dare put up a fight. The result? Massive flight. "Is there a worse country in the world than this?" mused a Texas lawyer representing one of the hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers in the US as we reviewed his client's case.

As an anthropologist who has lived in Eritrea and worked with Eritrean communities in Europe, Africa, and the US for years, I dearly want to defend this country. But the best I can do is to help defend its displaced, abused, and often forgotten citizens. Together with lawyers, Eritrean activists, human rights organisations, UNHCR staff, and colleagues like Magnus Treiber and Barbara Harrell-Bond, I struggle to place the people of this small African country on the global crisis radar. It's a tall order in these days of perpetual disasters and mind-numbing statistics.


But human experience is what anthropologists are always after - how to put life and breath and flesh onto the cold bones of statistics; how to illustrate the concrete meanings of political violence and migration policies and practices as people live them. Among such human experiences are those of nineteen members of the elite Air Force of Eritrea who fled to Sudan a couple of years ago, risking the 'shoot-to-kill' policy of the Eritrean government - as hundreds of others do every month - seeking to cross the nearest international border.

In Sudan, they registered with the UNHCR and began seeking both refugee protection and resettlement abroad. Their highranking and symbolically significant position as the pride of the Eritrean Defence Forces made them more vulnerable to persecution and punishment by the Eritrean government than many of the 100,000-plus Eritrean refugees in Khartoum. However, some of these men used to be soldiers with the guerrilla movement that is now the Eritrean government. They have scant hope of ever being accepted by the US or Canada the two largest refugee-receiving countries in the world because under some very broad terms of the US Patriot Act and a similar Canadian law, they are considered 'terrorists'. This is because they took up arms in an anti-colonial liberation struggle against the Ethiopian government more than 30 years ago.

Others in the group are young men who were conscripted. Despite their elite positions, their fate was hardly better than most others in the military and their exit signaled refusal of the sort of complicity that makes life more bearable in such conditions. However, these men are also in for a long and treacherous series of legal obstacles due to international reluctance to recognise military deserters and a 2002 policy adopted by the UNHCR rendering ex-combatants ineligible for resettlement.

Similarly, clauses that exclude those who may have participated in human rights violations or persecution of others also present stumbling blocks when applied to real conditions. Virtually every soldier in the Eritrean military has been forced to guard or repress another soldier or civilian at some point, and the majority of Eritrean refugees have been soldiers. The very structure and social organisation of militarisation and political repression in Eritrea blur the neat legal distinction between persecuted and persecutor so critical in refugee and asylum determination procedures. Even the US Supreme Court got drawn in, when the asylum claim of a former conscript named Daniel Negusie was denied because his assignment as a prison guard - punishment for his own dissidence by the Eritrean government - suggested he was complicit in the harm of others.

In the meantime, the 19 men wait in Khartoum, where Eritrean security officials operate with impunity. On any given day, they may be attacked by an agent of their own government, kidnapped and taken back to Eritrea, or, at the very least, shaken down and extorted by Sudanese police or soldiers, perhaps beaten and jailed for being unwanted migrants.

Should the UNHCR take the situation seriously and realise these men need protection - an unlikely showing of concern for individuals by a bureaucracy whose esteemed reputation is outshined only by its impersonality, impenetrability, and unaccountability - they may be taken to a refugee camp, where they will still be subject to many of the same pressures, only in more concentrated form. This is glossed as 'protection', even a 'solution', though it is hardly that.

While camps in places like Sudan and Ethiopia may comply with UNHCR policy, they are administered by host country agencies and staff, some of whom inevitably participate in the abuse and misuse of refugees, often under the noses of international staff. A trip to the food distribution center may end in rape and a place in the resettlement queue can be bought (or lost) for a hundred thousand birr [Ethiopian currency].

In Shimelba Refugee Camp, in northern Ethiopia, the UNHCR compound is open only a few hours per week, as impervious to refugees' pleas for help as President Isayas Afwerki is to political transition.

If elite air force men cannot gain the attention of UNHCR, then the situation is far worse for the average person. Some refugees get sick of waiting - who wouldn't? - and take their chances. But the routes to escape are toxic. If they make it through the Libyan desert to reach the Mediterranean and finally to Malta or Lampedusa, which only a handful do, new problems arise at the gates of Fortress Europe. Are they really political refugees or just impoverished economic migrants? How will a country like Malta - swamped with tens of thousands of refugees - manage to decide their fate? If they move on to another European country, they face imprisonment and deportation under the Dublin II regulation. Consumer values may tout individual initiative and choice but do not extend to 'asylum shopping', thank you very much.

Those who have the connections and money might hire a smuggler, usually for tens of thousands of dollars, who will take them on a risky and tortuous journey to Southern Africa, then Brazil, through Colombia or Venezuela, perhaps Cuba, then Nicaragua, Guatemala, and finally Mexico, where stuffed in the cargo bay of a bus, or in the custody of a coyote, they will cross the border of the US and ask for asylum. For their efforts at being 'above board' - that is, presenting themselves to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) - they are welcomed to freedom in America through its prison system. While this may stimulate the privatised prison-industrial economy, it is first and foremost an extension of human rights abuses shouldered by refugees.

In detention, they discover legal-dilemma redux: many of the same problems that stalled the refugee process in Sudan follow them to the United States. They are possibly terrorists, or implicated in persecution and human rights abuses; they are cowardly deserters of a sovereign state's military; and of course, they are always criminals for having the audacity to migrate illegally. But had the legal refugee process been responsive to actual human circumstances, such illegality would be far less likely.


My goal is to illustrate the complexity and global scope of human rights dilemmas that structure refugees' lives, and the failures of institutions, policies and laws designed to manage them as technical problems rather than protect them as human beings. It is not enough to simply address the human rights violations that lead people to become refugees at the source, crucial as that may be. All along the way, refugees face multiple and nested issues that are sometimes endemic and even actively produced or aggravated by the very systems designed to protect them.

While earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear accidents, and revolutions may be dramatic and momentous events, it is worth remembering that their wrenching daily equivalency plays out in political and humanitarian disasters like that of Eritrea's refugees, more invisible than the radiation seeping into the Pacific but no less poisonous for those affected. As Eritreans mark the 20th anniversary of their revolution, any thoughts of Egypt or Libya will focus on the lives of loved ones lost in the Sinai or Sahara, or those whose fates are yet unknown. Their suffering, and the ripples of despair that radiate throughout the lives of their families and compatriots, is fallout from Isayas Afwerki's dictatorial rule. But it is also fallout from the international community's failed, inadequate, and draconian migration policies and laws. The fallout has not only reached our shores - it also originates there. What comes around goes around. Human lives are the currency we use to pay for the failures of modernity. ??

Libya: Nato - Investigate Fatal Boat Episode - 63 Allegedly Died After Drifting Vessel Sought Rescue Unsuccessfully

Human Rights Watch

Excerpts. Full text available on and at

Press Release, 9 May 2011

Milan - Nato and its member countries should conduct a full investigation into allegations of failure to rescue a disabled boat filled with migrants fleeing Libya, Human Rights Watch said today.

The boat, carrying seventy-two people including two babies, apparently drifted for two weeks in the Mediterranean before landing back in Libya on April 10, 2011, despite distress calls and sightings by a military helicopter and what appeared to be an aircraft carrier. Only nine people survived, one of them told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch interviewed both the survivor and a priest based in Rome who was briefly in contact with the passengers by telephone.

"What could NATO have done to prevent these people from dying?" said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "We need an investigation to determine if, and how, this terrible tragedy could have been averted."

Failure to rescue people on a boat in distress when it is reasonable for a ship to do so is a serious breach of international law, Human Rights Watch said. The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on May 9 for an "immediate and comprehensive" investigation.

NATO has denied the charge that it ignored migrants in distress at sea, saying it was unaware of the boat's plight. A NATO spokesman in Brussels told Human Rights Watch that NATO had looked into the matter with due diligence and found no records of any contact with the boat, adding that no further investigations are envisioned. But reviewing the paper trail should only be the first step in a more in-depth inquiry, including interviews with relevant personnel on ships in the area at the time and at NATO command in Naples, Human Rights Watch said.

The African governments whose citizens were in the drifting boat - Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sudan - and the African Union should press NATO and European governments to conduct an immediate and comprehensive investigation into the matter, Human Rights Watch said.

The survivor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, an Ethiopian man named Abu Kurke, said the 11-meter boat left Libya on March 25 with 72 people aboard. After about 19 hours at sea, with fuel running low, he said, the passengers called an Eritrean priest in Rome, Father Moses Zerai, for help.

Interviewed separately, Zerai, who runs a refugee rights organization called Agenzia Habeshia, confirmed that he received a phone call from the distressed passengers on the boat. He told Human Rights Watch that he immediately alerted both the Italian coast guard and NATO command in Naples. The Italian coast guard confirmed to The Guardian newspaper that it had sent out an alert to all vessels in the area. The NATO spokesman said that NATO was unaware of any calls made to the NATO command in Naples.

Kurke told Human Rights Watch by phone from Tripoli that at some point after the phone call to Zerai, a helicopter with the word "Army" in English written on it hovered above the boat and dropped water and biscuits. He said the boat's captain, a Ghanaian, decided to remain in the area, believing the helicopter would send a rescue team, and used up the rest of the boat's fuel. Kurke said the passengers also saw an aircraft carrier and tried to communicate that they were in distress, holding up the two babies and waving their arms. Two jets took off from the aircraft carrier and flew over the boat, Kurke said, but no help arrived.

The Guardian newspaper alleged on May 8 that the aircraft carrier was probably the French ship Charles de Gaulle. French naval authorities first denied that the carrier was in the region at the time and then declined to comment further to the newspaper. A NATO spokesman is quoted in The Guardian as saying that NATO had no records of the incident, and that "NATO ships will answer all distress calls at sea and always provide help when necessary. Saving lives is a priority for any NATO ships." It is unclear whether other NATO member countries had navy ships in the area not operating under NATO command.

NATO issued a statement indicating that the only aircraft carrier under NATO command in the area on the dates in question was the Italian Garibaldi, and that it was operating over 100 nautical miles out at sea. "Any claims that a NATO aircraft carrier spotted and then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong," NATO said. The Brussels spokesman told Human Rights Watch that NATO ships came to the assistance of two boats in distress on the night of March 26 and 27, providing food and water and alerting the Italian coast guard, which subsequently rescued the boats.

The boat drifted for two weeks before the currents took it back to Libya, Kurke told Human Rights Watch. Sixty-one people, including all twenty women and two children aboard, died at sea, he said. One man died shortly after reaching Libya.

Libyan authorities detained the remaining 10 survivors for several days, and one more man died while in custody, the survivor told Human Rights Watch and The Guardian. The nine survivors are still in Tripoli, hoping to reach Tunisia with the assistance of a local Catholic church.

In early April, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, called on all vessels in the Mediterranean to consider all overcrowded boats leaving Libya to be in distress. The rear admiral in command of NATO maritime operations in the Mediterranean issued a specific, classified order in early April calling for heightened vigilance and efforts to rescue migrants trying to flee Libya by sea, the NATO spokesman told Human Rights Watch. NATO instructions are to provide immediate assistance - medical, food, and water - to a boat in distress, alert the competent coast guard, and wait to make sure the rescue operation is initiated, the spokesman said.

Hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans have died fleeing Libya by sea since the end of March. A boat carrying over 600 people sank off the Libyan coast on May 7, with the death toll still unclear. On April 6, over 200 people, including children, died when their boat sank in Maltese waters.

As many as 800 more people who have left Libya by boat over the past six to eight weeks are unaccounted for and presumed dead.

"With a mounting death toll, all vessels in the Mediterranean, including NATO forces and those of member countries, shouldn't wait until a boat is sinking to intervene," Sunderland said. "As more and more people attempt the crossing in overcrowded, unsafe boats, all vessels in the area should assume overcrowded migrant boats are in distress, come immediately to their rescue, and take their passengers to safety."

Since late March, when the first wave of people began to flee Libya by sea, more than 10,000 have reached Italy and over 1,000 have reached Malta. The vast majority are sub-Saharan Africans. Thousands of migrants remain trapped in Libya, unable to flee by land to neighboring countries.


The European Union (EU) also needs to do more to prevent deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch said. In early April, EU foreign ministers agreed to set up an EU military force for Libya (Eufor Libya) for humanitarian action, including evacuations by sea. No operations have been conducted, however.

"There's been an awful lot of hand-wringing about a potential massive influx of refugees from Libya, with Italy and Malta bearing the brunt of rescue missions and reception of those fleeing Libya by sea, but more has to be done to help people reach safety without risking their lives," Sunderland said. "To help prevent further deaths at sea, the EU as a whole should show concrete solidarity and begin evacuating to Europe migrants who are trapped by the violence."

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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