Eritrea: an open-air prison, EU indifferent

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Eritrean refugees with clenched fists in the air protest in front of the Embassy of Rwanda in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, Israel, 22 January 2018. [Jim Hollander/EPA/EFE]

Despite the dire situation on the ground in Eritrea, EU countries and the European Union look the other way. Benoit Lannoo explains why

Benoit Lannoo is a consultant in policy strategies, interreligious dialogue and communication.

Last summer’s peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has not improved the living conditions of Eritreans. They therefore continue to seek security and happiness elsewhere, in most cases risking their lives; several European countries that have normalised their relations with the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, seem indifferent to the situation.

On July 8 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed travelled to Eritrea to meet with Afwerki, and put an end to a war between the two neighbouring countries that had raged from May 1998 to June 2000, but had never formally ended.

Since this peace agreement was established, several European countries have rushed to normalize relations with Eritrea and seem to forget that the country is a dictatorship commonly known as the ‘North Korea of Africa’.

There is no doubt that this agreement – like any peace agreement – has its benefits. Families that had not seen each other for decades were able to meet again.

The European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, announced a €20 million project to link the Ethiopian border with the Eritrean coast’s ports after visiting the Eritrean capital Asmara last month. This can indeed boost the regional economy; but what kind of economic model does Eritrea have?

365 prisons

The Afwerki regime has not changed. A strong example of its economic model is the “national service”. Any Eritrean from the age of around 16 years old “serves the nation” for an indefinite period, either in the army, the industry, construction or another economic sector.

It is nothing less than slavery, from which only pregnant women or mothers can be freed, which explains the marriages of underage children and the high birth rate of Eritrean women. Who can guarantee that EU-funded investments will not be used in projects built by such ‘volunteers’?

However, anyone who refuses the “national service” ends up in prison… if he or she is lucky. Eritreans have developed a particular sense of humour. According to a popular saying, there are 365 prisons in the country, that is “one prison per day”. In these, torture and rape are systematic.

It is therefore no coincidence that some 12% of the Eritrean population has already left the country and that other citizens continue to flee.

“Who can blame my compatriots for continuing to try to flee their country?” wondered Father Mussie Zerai, a young Eritrean-Italian missionary of Saint Charles Borromeo who has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At a diaspora conference in Brussels in December 2018, the modest cleric was welcomed as a hero. But he is also deeply concerned about the normalisation of international relations with the dictatorial regime in his country, following the diplomatic success of peace with Ethiopia.

“There is still no future in Eritrea, there is only repression. One of my friends had to pay four times to flee his country: he paid corrupt customs, he paid smugglers in the desert, he paid to stop torture in the camps in Libya and he paid traffickers to cross the Mediterranean. But he had no choice!”

Yet again, this Horn of Africa country stands out from many others. Fleeing from Eritrea means paying, paying and paying again. Several international observers, including the United Nations Security Council, have already demonstrated the link between the totalitarian Afwerki regime and human trafficking between Eritrea and the camps in Libya.

Ransoms transferred via smartphone

The traffickers’ favourite tool is the mobile phone – a casual observer may be surprised that refugees have smartphones and the network is often made available for free. A mobile phone enables you to transfer ransoms and to blackmail a refugee’s family, whether the relatives are in Eritrea or in Europe.

There are many examples of Eritreans tortured in Libyan camps of whom the relatives heard and saw the torture… via the same smartphone by which they were asked to transfer large amounts of money to stop the screams.

The Asmara regime also created an original tax: a non-resident tax estimated at 2% of income and charged, if necessary, to the family remaining in the country of origin.

“Voluntary” return

It is for all these reasons that the Eritrean diaspora, which has been trying to come together and mobilize since the peace agreement with Ethiopia, denounces the normalization of relations between the West and their country. This normalisation only serves to increase Eritrea’s natural resource exploitation.

As an example, the Canadian mining company Nevsun has just been cited before the Supreme Court in Ottawa by a group of workers who accuse the company of being well aware that its miners in Eritrea are slaves. For Eritreans, peace with Ethiopia brings more risks than benefits.

Matteo Salvini, Italian deputy prime minister of the xenophobic Lega party, said that Eritrea was now a “safe country” and that there was therefore no longer any reason to accept Eritrean refugees.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is working to return Eritreans from Libya to their native countries on a “voluntary” basis. Peace with its former enemy Ethiopia seems to be slowly clearing Isaias Afwerki, one of the world’s worst dictators.

Why then do Western countries invest in better relations with Asmara? Why are they even considering sending Eritrean refugees back to the camps in Libya? One day, on the sidelines of a meeting, a Western diplomat gave the answer to Father Mussie Zerai.

“Of course, Afwerki is a ‘bastard’, but he is our ‘bastard’!” Looking more closely at Eritrea’s geostrategic importance, everyone understands why this unhealthy regime is surviving. Seven different countries have a military base in the region; that explains everything.

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