Associate professor explains cost of freedom for Eritrean refugees
By Jeremy Rumsey The African country of Eritrea is a stranger to peace. In the past decade it has consistently ranked among the top 10 refugee-producing nations in the world. Because there is no census conducted, the exact population
The African country of Eritrea is a stranger to peace. In the past decade it has consistently ranked among the top 10 refugee-producing nations in the world.
Because there is no census conducted, the exact population of Eritrea is uncertain. It is estimated to be around four to five million, with the number of refugees growing every year.
Over 20 percent of the country’s GDP is allocated to the military, making it the largest army in Africa.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 45 percent of the approximate 50,000 refugees that have made it to Ethiopia are ex-military, and many others are boys and girls under the age of 18.
Dr. Tricia Hepner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee presented this information at last Friday’s science forum held every week at Thompson Boling Arena.
Since 2007, she has traveled around the world striving to understand and improve the chaotic and convoluted process that refugees must go through in hopes to one day become a free human being.
Hepner wants to know more about the diaspora or migration of Eritrean refugees. In particular, she is interested in finding answers to questions like “How do Eritreans find asylum in the global north?”, “How do the ‘rights environments’ of the U.S. and Europe interact with the ‘rights environments’ of the countries in the Horn of Africa?” and “What do Eritreans themselves perceive human rights to be?”
The authoritarian government of Eritrea has no active constitution and denies freedom of the press. Hepner explained that the situation there has continued to worsen.
“There were more U.S. asylum applications lodged by Eritreans in 2009 than by Iraqis or Somalis,” Hepner said.
From 2005 to 2010 the number of asylum applications by Eritrean refugees has undergone an increase of 166 percent in just the U.S. alone. In addition, other countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Norway have also seen significant increases — some rising more than 1,000 percent.
She referenced a major tragedy that happened this past April where more than 400 Eritreans drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Because it is not unheard of for a refugee to spend an entire decade in a refugee camp waiting for asylum to be granted, Hepner said they often take risks.
“Many [refugees] take their chances and end up being captured by human traffickers who might sell them into sexual slavery or remove their organs for trade, leaving them in the desert to die.”
Even if a refugee evades harm while traversing great distances to arrive in the land where they assume freedom will be waiting, they often find out instead that their journey is still far from over.
Since 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. are scrutinized as possible terrorists, especially from countries like Eritrea.
Furthermore, although freedom may finally be granted to the refugees and oceans lie between them and their homeland, they still are not out of persecution’s grasp. Any refugee that publicly speaks out about the injustices being committed could put the lives of their family members still living in Eritrea at grave risk.
This is how the Eritrean regime has managed to keep a lid on their civil atrocities and continues to go unnoticed by the main stream media. Hepner suggests that this is not just a local but a global problem.
“By studying refugee experiences holistically and humanistically we learn something about ourselves and how our own societies, values and political-legal frameworks all work together,” she said.
Source: Tennessee Journalist