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Eritrean exodus: living with risk

Selam Kidane
24 October 2015

Many Eritrean citizens are leaving their country, taking enormous risks along the way to a longed-for place of safety. The process is part of a larger movement of people towards Europe from many countries across the Middle East and Africa, but also has its own distinctive characteristics.United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other sources track the rise in numbers.6,400 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe in 2012; 14,580 in 2013; and 44,600 in 2014.

At present around 5,000 Eritreans are fleeing their country each month, making this small country of 6 million a top producer of refugees. Eritreans are second only to Syrians as the largest group of those entering Europe to seek protection. Among them are unaccompanied minors and vulnerable women, many of them arriving by boat after surviving dangerous journeys through the Sahara desert and then across the Mediterranean.

The sheer magnitude of the numbers leaving Eritrea, and the risks that people take in order to do so, are at last beginning to receive proper attention. Yet as long as the situation continues, the basic questions it raises - why are so many Eritreans abandoning their homeland, and what are consequences for them and their homeland? - must continue to be asked and answered (see "Eritrea, a geeration in flight", 16 October 2013).

Many explanations focus on the way that the conditions of life in Eritrea, a genuine beacon of hope from the late 1980s, have plummeted. Eritrea's human-rights violations and political repression under the long-term rule of Isaias Afewerki have been reported extensively by many agencies: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and most comprehensively the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea, published in June 2015. Analysts of Eritrea's modern history provide detailed evidence to identify the reasons for the exodus (see Gaim Kibreab, "Why thousands of asylum-seekers are fleeing Eritrea and risking their lives in the Mediterranean", The Conversation, 5 May 2015)

There is pervasive insecurity in Eritrea. The UN commission declares: “Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they [Eritreans] feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country. In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety. They risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers.” Many are vulnerable young people who have experienced abusive and indefinite "national service", or are anxious to avoid imminent forced conscription.

At the same time, when Eritreans manage to find some security, typically in western Europe, their troubles are not over. European governments often respond by attempting to downplay both the scale of human-rights violations in the country and its social and economic decline. Such manoeuvres are designed to limit those allowed to stay, and thus mitigate what European policymakers see as the economic incentives (or "pull" factors) that are drawing poor people from across the world.

The "push-and-pull" model of migration is one of the oldest formulations among those studying the phenomenon. This sees migration as inseparable from development and puts economics as the heart of the process. At its best the approach integrates many factors in a way that offers insight into why people move. The model has been extensively applied to Eritreans and generated a lot of work on the connected political and socio-economic deterioration that has led many Eritreans to flee. The government's failure to adopt viable economic policies, its repression of basic civil rights, forced conscription and constant militarisation, are among the "push" factors in this situation.

But like any model, it it can be limited by a focus on systems, and a problem with explaining how the various factors interact. It can also neglect the individual level, including how decisions about migration are made, its insecurities and benefits, or the ability of the individual to cope with these.

A larger approach

These aspects are relevant to the mass migration currently occurring, including by Eritreans. For instance, the model might imply that scarcity and impoverishment should impede long-distance migration, as people wouldn’t be able afford the cost and danger of such travel. Yet Eritreans are spending thousands of dollars on getting themselves smuggled out of their country - and tens of thousands if they are caught up in trafficking, such as the situation in the Sinai peninsula.

A decision to leave and a willingness to make sacrifices in order to do so indicate the degree of threat being faced in Eritrea, on both an individual and collective level. Political violence, aside from resulting in physical injuries or death, constitutes a traumatic threat and imposes great harm on a person's mental health. But the consequences can also be a form of collective (and cultural) trauma, which undermines further the social bonds that violence has already damaged.

The sheer number of people caught up in Eritrea’s refugee crisis, the risks that they take to flee their country, and the difficulties of loss and separation they are living with, all add to the psychological complexity of what is happening. In this respect, understanding of Eritreans experience needs to become more holistic and go beyond the iteration of "push-and-pull" factors (see Alex Cocotas, "The EU wants to pay off a brutal dictatorship to help it solve its African refugee problem", Quartz, 7 July 2015).

Such an analysis becomes even more crucial as the European Union tries to stall the departure of Eritreans and their arrival in Europe. This is linked to hope for "positive change in Eritrea", which would allow the country to justify being declared safe to return to and the delivery of a substantial aid package. Such a policy would set aside recent problems in the relationship. Most aid agencies were forced to leave Eritrea in May 2005. The latest EU assessment of relations with Asmara failed to register any progress with respect to human rights.

The EU's turn is motivated by short-term considerations. It is also wrong in principle. Empowering a regime that has no intention of curbing political violence will not help Eritreans. What is needed is an approach that sees their problems in the round and puts their experience at the centre, guided by a commitment to help them heal and rebuild their country. If Europe and the international community can enlarge their thinking in this way, a way through Eritreans' crisis could be opened.

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