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Eritrea: ‘The sheer numbers of people fleeing tell the story’

There is no better symbol of the failure of the Eritrean state than the thousands of refugees who abandon it every week, searching for a better life – even when escaping is often more dangerous than staying

There is no better symbol of the failure of the Eritrean state than the thousands of refugees who abandon it every week, searching for a better life – even when escaping is often more dangerous than staying put. SIMON ALLISON spoke to Dan Connell, a long-time Eritrea watcher, about the perils that await Eritrean refugees, and why they are so desperate to leave in the first place.

Outside of Eritrea itself, there are very few people that know now the country as well as Dan Connell, a journalist, an academic, and now a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Center. As a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, he spent months in the trenches with the Eritrean freedom fighters. Post-independence he worked closely with the new government, before becoming one of its fiercest critics – his outspokenness earning him permanent Persona Non Grata status. He’s now one of the world’s leading experts on Eritrean politics, having published seven books on the subject.


The Daily Maverick caught up with him at the University of Pretoria. He’s here to highlight one of the many under-reported consequences of Eritrea’s decline: the vast exodus of young Eritreans into surrounding countries, looking for a better life but often falling into the clutches of human traffickers.

SIMON ALLISON: Despite its perils, many Eritreans are risking a dangerous border crossing – the army is authorised to shoot would-be refugees on sight – to escape their country. What are they fleeing from, and why in such large numbers?

DAN CONNELL: Firstly, the UN has counted some 300,000 Eritreans leaving in recent years, out of a population variously estimated at 4-5million, and there are many who are not registered and the UN doesn’t have count of. So you’re really talking a significant share of the population. What distinguishes this flow of refugees is the very significant percentage, maybe 45%, are young people, say 16-25 years. The factor that is driving most is the imposition of an indefinite program of national service, the conscription of the young people into military service and also in many cases indentured servitude to the state, working on government or ruling party enterprises. Terms that were initially defined as 18 months have turned into eight or ten years or longer and I think many of the young people just see absolutely no future for themselves. They fear the possibility that if they get out of line in the situation they’ll end up detained, perhaps tortured, perhaps killed.

Getting out of Eritrea is not a solution in itself. Eritrea’s neighbours (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen) have their own problems. What makes Eritrean refugees particularly vulnerable?

Many of the Eritreans coming out are of Christian background and particularly when they move into Sudan, a country into Islamist rule, they find themselves isolated, cut off from opportunities within the country and in some cases targeted for discrimination or worse – the human traffickingoperation. [Human trafficking] has involved the kidnapping of refugees, the transport to the Sinai in the past and increasingly now the detention within secret spots in Sudan, where they are tortured and forced to demand ransom payments from relatives living abroad, anywhere from the US to Europe to Israel or sometimes inside Eritrea. These ransoms have run into the area of $30,000-$40,000 dollars so the trade here has become a very lucrative business for the traffickers and a very ugly one for the Eritreans. I think what is remarkable about this is with the dangers of being caught up in this trafficking ring, coupled with the dangers of simply trying to cross the Sahara or to get out through other means, where so many have died trying, illustrates just how driven people are to leave in the first place.

Coming into today’s talk, I know you were concerned about possible disruption from pro-government supporters, and I know you’ve had disruptions before. Even for myself, writing about Eritrea, the comments get very personal and very threatening. What sort of issues have you faced trying to cover Eritrea?

I think the Eritrean community itself is clearly deeply divided. There are people who are passionately supportive of the country, there are also people who support the government more by default because they fear the threat of Ethiopia, and they buy the argument that they can’t criticise the government without weakening its defence of the country. On the other side, there are people who are extremely disturbed over the political repression and the lack of economic advance within the country that everybody believed was possible in the 1990s. And there’s a very large middle ground of people who really want to see everybody somehow have a chance to get back and engage with Eritrea and get along, and are the so-called silent majority in this. The two extremes are fairly passionate. The response to criticism of the regime of course inside Eritrea has been arrest, detention, disappearance, torture…it’s not really surprising that the mirror to that outside is disruption and efforts to stop conversations about opposition.

My general take on this is that the comments on articles, the shouting at events, is really from a fairly small minority of people. In the case of the event we had today, there was a set of talking points five pages long that was distributed – we heard two of the questions from the talking points asked today, I saw a copy of it before I came in [So did the Daily Maverick. Sure enough, questions from the talking points were asked verbatim]. So it was a very well-organised and orchestrated attempt…The questions that were asked obviously didn’t reflect somebody who had even listened to what I had to say. They were pre-programmed, and I think that again is an indication of how the government tries to deal with criticism. It just can’t tolerate it.

Who would be distributing the talking points?

Supporters of the government or members of the ruling party who are here in the diaspora. They are a minority. Eritreans in South Africa, I think a significant number, are here trying simply to keep their heads down and get by. Many fear public criticism will make it difficult for them to go home, difficult for their relatives who are at home, because repression is often visited on families inside Eritrea, but there is a significant contingent here of Eritreans supporting the transition to democracy, the recognition of the country’s long-dormant constitution, and some of them were also here today.

Speaking to South African diplomats, they paint a very different, a very rosy picture of what’s happening in Eritrea. What do you make of this position?

…You know, the sheer numbers of people fleeing the country tell a story itself. The people are voting with their feet, and to try suggest that a population known for its fierce nationalism would be churning people out to go elsewhere, it just doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry, when the diplomats make that argument I think the answer is alright, open up the country, let us come in and see for ourselves.

You’ve been involved in Eritrea for a long time – in the trenches during the civil war, working alongside the new government after independence. Now you’ve been madepersona non grata. You can’t go back. How does this make you feel?

I feel like a part of me has been cut off. It’s my second country in many respects…I am deeply invested in the country, I have many very close personal friends there, and I believe deeply in Eritrea’s possibility as a society and as a new kind of state in Africa. I look forward to the opportunity to go back once the regime changes, and I am hopeful that that will take place within the next 3-5 years.

That’s a very specific time frame. What’s your logic?

I think the president of the country [Isaias Afewerki] has complicated health problems. This is not the kind of country where you’ll see a popular uprising. Fear is too great. Fear not only of the regime, but also of course Ethiopia outside, and as long as they can wield that stick they will manage to keep the repressive regime in place. This is one of the reasons I have been repeatedly calling for international efforts to end the border conflict between the two countries to strip that away from the regime as an excuse to keep their heel on the population. DM

Photo: President of Eritrea Issayas Afewerki attends a news conference with European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel (not pictured) after their meeting at the European Commission headquarter in Brussels, Belgium, 04 May 2007. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Review overview
  • hailu May 15, 2014

    Exodus of Eritreans and possible consequences tomorrow


    The exodus of Eritrean people is very alarming and disturbing. As Dan Connell expressed this is extinction of the population and dangerous to the demography of the country.

    Many people are not awaken from their sleep still to realize this will lead to series imbalance in the country and expose those remaining to be inferior. Much systematic extinction of people has been seen in many countries and its consequences were devastating.

    This is not about pro-government or opponents’ game, we are perishing and tomorrow we will regret d for our actions.

    It will not be far to see Eritrea dominated by others and will confidently call it their land of ancestors and we those who flew will live in agony for the rest of our life. What I see is the Arabs will dominate Eritrea and will claim it is their own and will start to persecute all the tribes of Eritrea.

    What we are experiencing is a beginning of a very complex situation which will never be able to be tied again once broken.

    Can any pro-Isayas responsibly tell me this exodus of the young people is for good?

    Can the opponent Isayas tell me for not uniting their force and force the government for he failed already?

    Very sad

  • ogbai May 15, 2014

    What a bad culture do we get into. What surprises me is any one who stayed with dictatorial system is brave and worthy as mighty as the arrogant Isayas. But, the day any one in any case took stands against the dictator that even claimed to be not Eritrean, regardless his contribution to his country for many years that from Hero to Zero. The fools followers of the system they could not see Eritrea with out the mad dog. Even they do not know what they are talking about just they repeat again and again the same song. Lets not to forget what to happen to the \Mendelai Temen\ tomorrow even by natural death like any body or liver problem from his hard drink for that matter. You shallow thinkers that I am afraid you are going to blame the Honourable Mr.Dan Connell or the poor Wayane. I am very sorry for my country and my people Eritreans that he is going to leave us with people like you. Think about it after 30 years of struggle and 23 years of corrupted system. Least to say you are the production of the cruel system. I hope we will recover from this sick mentality very soon. However, Mr. Dan Connell that you know better why this is happening to our hero people of dignity that because of Isayas greedy ambition, and those followed him blindly.I would be happy to see doing more in your part. I hope seeing you in Asmara very soon. And our failed state will recover with the help of people like you and with the mass protest by the strong movement for change inside and out side Eritrea.

    • Sraj saleh May 15, 2014


      • Sorobeti May 16, 2014

        Hi Sraj Saleh

        Any news from your brother Adam Saleh who was kidnapped by the mafia regime in 1996?

  • THE NOBLE TEACHER May 15, 2014

    Tesfu Kidane stated…..,I QUOTE HIM…

    ኖብል ቲቸር ኢልካ ትኣቱ ከም ስምካ ኣይረኸብኩኻን። ስለምንታይ እንተበልካኒ ኵሉ ግዜ ብጅምላ ኢኻ ትዛረብ። ንተጋደልቲ ብጅምላ ትኹንን እንተ ኼንካ፡ ንሕናኸ ንስኻ ድማ ወይ ኩላቶም ሲቪል ኢሰፓታት እዮም፡ ኣብ ትሕቲ ደርግ ኮይኖም ምስኡ እናተሓባበሩ ሃገር ኣድምዮማ ወዘተ ወዘተ ክንብለካ፡ ወይ ድማ መንእሰይ እንተ ዄንካ፡ ነቲ ጨቋኒ ትብሎ ጭፍራ ኣብ ክንዲ ኣብ ሃገር ኴንካ ምቅላስ ቈርበትካ ክተድሕን ህዝብኻ ጠንጢንካ ዝሃደምካ በለጸኛ ኢኻ ዲና ክንብለካ፡ ወይ ከኣ ኣብ ደገ ትነብር ዝነበርካ ተረፍ መረፍ ናይ ህግሓኤ ወይ ተሓኤ መሳርሒ ዝነበርካ እንተ ዄንካ፡ ኣሕዋትና ነዚ ኣይተጋደሉን ኢልካ ኣብ ክንዲ ምቅላስ ኣብ ወጻኢ ዝሑልን ውዑይን እናማረጽካ ትነብር ዘለኻ ተበላጺ ኢኻ ክንብለካ ማለት ድዩ። ወዲሰብ ብዝፈጸሞ ገበን ጥራይ እዩ ተሓታቲ.በዓል ሓቂ እንተ ዄንካ ስምካ ብጋህዲ ቀሊዕካ ቁምነገር ዘለዎ ትሕዝቶ ጸሓፍ። ካብኡ በለ ኖብል ቲቸርዶ መንደፍዶ ብዝብል ስም መንነትካ ሓቢእካ ምጽሓፍ ፋይዳ የብሉን። ኣብ መወዳእታ ሓደ ተቓላሳይ ቅድሚ ኵሉ ንነፍሱ፡ “ኣነኸ እንታይ ገይረ ወይ እገብር ኣለኹ?” ኢሉ ክሓትት ኣለዎ። እስኪ ንገረና እንታይ ትባቝጥ ኣለኻ ንስኻ? ንኤርትራ እዝን እዝን ኣበርኪተ እስኪ በላ። ሓቂ እንተለካ ነቲ እጸልኦ እየ እትብል ስርዓት ተቓለሶ። ዘረባ ምብዛሕን ንዓኻን ከምዚ ከማኻን ዳንደታት ናጻ ከውጽኡ ንእስነቶም ዝኸፈሉን ደሞም ዘፍሰሱን ንጹሃት ተጋደልቲ ምስቶም ገበነኛታት ጸምቢርካ ኣይትወንጅሎም። ነውሪ እዩ። ፈሊኻ ተዛረብ ከምዚ ትብሎ ዘሎካ ኣይሰርሕን እዩ። ወይ ድማ ሓደ ትምህርትን ልቦናን ዝጐድለካ ሰብ ኢኻ ክትብሃል ኢኻ። ንለባም ኣምተሉ እዩሞ እዚ ወድሓንካ። ምሕረት የውርደልካ።END OF QUOTATION,


    ብመጀመርያ እቲ መልእኽቲ ፣”ዝኸበርኩም ፣እቲ ኣነ ሓወቦኹም፣ ኣእምሮኹም ብለባምን ክሃንጾ ነቲ ዋለኻ ዝኾነ ኣእምሮኹም ትኸፍቱ “,ይብል,ካልኣይ፣ከምቲ ብዙሕ ጊዜ ዝገለጽክዎ ሽመይ ምሕረቱ ሃብተ ይብሃል፣ዓውደይ፣ገሽናሽም ድምበዛን__ዕድመይ 56 እዩ!
    ሳልሳይ ፣ኢሰፓ እንተበልካኒ ክብረት እዩ ክስምዓኒ፣ምኽንያቱ እቶም ሰኸርም ሸፋቱ ሃገረሰብ ዘለዉ ካብ ሓወቦታተይን ኣሞታተይን ብኳደረ ኣገዲዶም፣ምግቢ ካብ ኣፍ ቆለውዖም ከሕድጉ ከለዉ፣ኢሰፓ ድማ ንኣስመራ ዘለዉ ህዝበይ ብኣይሮፕላን ጌሩ ምግቢ ካብ ማእከል ኢትዮጵያ የምጽኣሎም ኔሩ ።ስለዚ ኣየርከብኩሉን እምበር፣ኢሰፓ እንተበልካኒ ሓበን ኢዩ ዝስምዓኒ።እቲ ሽፍትነት ብሱሩ ኣየድልን ኢዩ ኔሩ፣ስለዚ ካብ ዘየድሊ ነገር___ሕያዋይ ተጋዳላይን ዘይሕያዋይን ከውጽኣሉ እየ ማለትዩ።
    እቲ፣__ “ወዲሰብ ብዝፈጸሞ ገበን ጥራይ እዩ ተሓታቲ።”___ዝበልካዩ ድማ ክምህረካ ጽን ኢልካ ስማዕ__ ባንክ ክስረቕ ከሎ ማኪና ዘዊረ ጥራይ እየ ነቶም ሰረቕቲ ኣህዲመዮም እምበር ኣይሰረቕኩን ክትብል ኣይትኽእልን ኢኻ።እቶም ተገንጸልቲ ሸፋቱ__ንወላዲት ሃገሮም ክሒዶም ክሽፍቱ ንዝወጹ___ከመይ ጌረ እየ፣ገበነኛን ዘይገበነኛን ከውጽኣሎም ??? ናይ ጽሕጻሕ ጥዑም ሽትኡ ዶ ኣሎ እዩ ???
    ነቲ__”ዘረባ ምብዛሕን ንዓኻን ከምዚ ከማኻን ዳንደታት ናጻ ከውጽኡ ንእስነቶም ዝኸፈሉን ደሞም ዘፍሰሱን ንጹሃት ተጋደልቲ ምስቶም ገበነኛታት ጸምቢርካ ኣይትወንጅሎም። ነውሪ እዩ።” ዝበልካዮ ድማ…..
    ንስኻ ቁማል ተበሉዑለይን ደገ ሕደሩለይን ኢልካዮም እንተዄንካ እምበር__ኣነ ሓራ ስለ ዝነበርኩ፣
    ማንም ኣፍቃሪቱ ጠሊማቶ ይኹን ፣
    ወይ ኣዋልድ እኳ ዝኸዳ ከመይ ኢለ ኣነ ይተርፍ ዝበለ፤
    ብደሞዝ ፖሊስን ሚኒቺፕዮን ስድርኡ ዓሰርተ ክልተ ቆለውዕ ወሊዶም ቅጫ ዝረቐቖን ፣
    ኣዲስ ኣበባ ዩኒቨርሲቲ በርቲዕዎ ዝሸፈተን__
    በዚሓ ድማ ዘሕዝነንን__ሽፍታ ኢለ ዘይጽውዖን__ብሸፋቱ ተጋደልቲ ተገዲዱ__ብሓይሊ ዝተሰለፈ__እዚ ሓቅኻ ኣብ ሓደ ሳንዱቕ ክኣቱ የብሉን።
    ነቲ__ እስኪ ንገረና እንታይ ትባቝጥ ኣለኻ ንስኻ፧ ንኤርትራ እዝን እዝን ኣበርኪተ እስኪ በላ። ንዝበልካዮ ድማ እንደገና ክምህረካ እዝንኻ ጽሎ፣
    ኣነ ናይ ነብሰይ፣ስድራ ቤተይን ሓላፍነት ኣለኒ፣ካብኡ ቀጺሉ ኣዕሩኸይን ኣዝማደይን፣ ካብኡ ቀጺሉ ንህዝበይ ከድሕን ሞራላዊ ግዴታ ኣለኒ።በዚ ምኽንያት ክኣ እየ መታን ህዝበይ ከድሕን (ነቶም ዝሰምዑኒ)___ንሕና ኣቦታትኩም ፣ሸፋቱ ኴንና ይኹን ተዳናገጽትን ሓገዝትን ሸፋቱ፣ኣጥፊእናኩም ኢለ ሓቂ ይምህሮም ኣለኹ።ኤርትራ ትብሃል ሃገር ምምሕዳር ኮይና፣ካብ ኣዲኣ ኢትዮጵያ ተጨውያ ንበይና ትግዛእ ምስ ነበረት ፣ድሓር ብዝመረጸቶ ናብ ኣዲኣ ኢትዮጵያ ተመሊሳ፣እዚ ዘይተዋሕጠሎም ሰብ ኣኽሱምን ደቂ ካርቱምን ግን ዘየርብሕ ሽፍትነት ጀሚሮም ብመጀመርያ ንመታሕት ህዝብና ኣወዲኦሞ ሕጂ ድማ ንኹላትና ዘወድኡና ዘለዉ ወረቦላታት ኢና።ምንም እኳ ናብ ኢትዮጵያ ተመሊስና ካንሰር ክንከውን ኣጥቢቐ እንተ ተቓወምኩ ፣እቲ ሓቂ ክትፈልጥዎ ፣ነታ ሓዳሽ እት ሃንጽዋ ኤርትራ ድማ ሓቂ ፈሊጥኩም ክት ንጽዋ፣እዚ ገድሊ ዝተባህለ መዕነዊ ሽፍትነት ብጽልኢ ዝተመርኮሰ ወንጀል እዩ ኔሩ__ኢለ ይምህሮም ኣለኹ__እዚ እዩ ንኤርትራ በረከተይ።
    ንኤርትራ እንታይ ጌርካላ ማለትካ ግን___
    ደቀንስትዮ ብድሙድሙ እናስከርኩ መዝሓል ውትራነይ ጌረየንዶ፧
    ንቆልዑ ገባራት ኣንጻር ድሌቶም፣ብሓይሊ ጓቲተ ንሓዊ ኣጥቢሰዮም ዶ ፧
    ንሕቶ ዝሓተተ ገባር ጨዊኻ ዶ?
    ማለትካ እንተኾይኑ ብእንጀራ ቤተሰበይ ዝዓበኹ እየ ።
    ርኤኻ ሓው ንስኻ ነቲ ሽፍትነት ከም ዘድሊ ጌርካ እዩ መርትዖኻ፣ኣነ ግን ሽፍትነት ኣየድልን ኔሩ ጥራይ ዘይኮነስ ህዝብና ኣወዲኡ እየ ዝብል ዘለኹ።ኣብ ኡጋንዳ ስደተኛ ከለኹስ ንሓደ ሙፍታሕ ሽሙ ወዲ ኣዲስ ኣበባ
    ኣንተ ሙፍታህ ለምን ሰጃራ ማጨስ ኣታቆምም ፧እንተበልኩዎ__
    ንሱ ድማ__ታዲያ ሲጃራ ትቼ ምን ላጭስ ነው ??? በለኒ።
    ቃልሲ ኤርትራ ድማ ከም ምጭያስ ሽጋራ እዩ ኔሩ፣እንተዝተርፍ ፣ካብ ካንሰር ምድሓንና።

    ሕቶታትካ ብስነስርዓት መሊሰዮ ክኸውን ተስፋ እገብር።

    ድምበዛናይ ሓወቦኻ ምሕረቱ ሃብተ ጳውሎስ።

  • tesfaldetabraha May 16, 2014

    hi DANCONEL insted of talking if you have proplem whay dont you go to ERITREA take some off those idiots with you & do like your servant WEDIALI did then you will free the ERITREAN people looking like aman talking bullshit is not helping so go faice the LION or shut your big maouth up idiot

    • selamawit2 May 16, 2014

      “shut your big maouth”?
      tesfaldetabraha, it’s you who has to shut his mouth.

      there is a lot SLOBBER comming out of this MAMMOTH HOLE.
      Please, hurry up and ATTEND A BIB!!!


  • addis chala May 16, 2014

    the fate of Eritrea;wrong issyas calculation leads the eritrean people to UN forgotten violation of his citizens .unless issayas deported from authority ,his devilish master mined will harm his people as usual. hence the Eritrea people must unite to discard this gangrenous dictator guy.I believe that DAN CONN EL REVELS THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ISSY’S . on day rhe eritrean people will be free

  • silent May 16, 2014

    “The sheer number of people fleeing tell the story”. Mr.Dan as a professional journalist you know
    that there is always a story beneath a given story but for sure you will never utter a word about
    it for various reasons. We (the Hafash) believe that our youngsters exodus is a planned method by
    someone whose intentions is to weaken Eritrea. Do you have any idea on the targeted numbers, say
    300,000 or more? As for your prophecy, regime change will be within 3-5 years; implying that by that
    time Eritrea will remain inhabited only by elders with no one to defend it.
    Diabolic yet foolish!

    • selamawit2 May 16, 2014

      “silent”, you are not “We (the Hafash)”.
      you are only 4-9 incompetent and illegitimate war officers, an ill soaker-dictator and their
      airhead descendants.
      BTW your nick “silent” is a foreboding: you will be charged and become very silent very soon!

      • silent May 17, 2014

        Selamawit2, are you Mr. Dan or just his concubine? In case you’re his concubine, please congratulate him for the temporary success of his unholy mission; the mission of depriving
        Eritrea of its new generation. Beg him also to be frank and to refrain from behaving like
        emperor Nero, the man who burned Rome to later show fake sorrow or sadness.
        P.S. Brotherly tip: Don’t underestimate the Eritrean Hafash, remember, we were able to implant
        a nation thence we will be able to defend & build it. To the Hafash numbers are meaningless,
        what counts is principle, dedication and commitment and we’re rich of those qualities.

        Viva EPLF and its independence for eternity!

        • selamawit2 May 17, 2014

          “Silent”, concubines have concubines in their minds – judge yourself what you have in your mind.

          Again: You are NOT “Eritrean Hafash” and “Eritrean Hafash” is against you.
          And because you are too tiny and not able “defend & build” you need 10thousands of DEMHITs to help you.

          cheap schizo massmurderer!

          • silent May 18, 2014

            cool down…steady, you’re not Dan neither his concubine..let me guess…you’re his petty
            disciple, the new ‘marionette warriors of doom’.
            Who is the Eritrean Hafash? Those who survive on the mercy/charity of the ‘good’ West or
            those who are striving graciously to stand on their own feet with dignity and build their
            country a brick at a time?
            ?? 10000 DEMHIT to help us?! Clean your crystal-ball, it’s showing you wrong figures
            nevertheless, you will know the truth about DEMHIT when you will get wiser or mature.

          • selamawit2 May 18, 2014

            you say : “Who is the Eritrean Hafash?”
            surely NOT you!

            you say “you will know the truth about DEMHIT when you will get wiser or mature”.

            Please, please help me with your maturity and WISDOM and tell us “the truth about DEMHIT”(i can’t help snorting with laughter).

  • silent May 19, 2014

    let the one who told you about the 10000 (a number is not an opinion)the truth; the problem is that (your source) he/she could hardly be reliable, on the other hand, evidently the truth will hurt you and I can’t risk that…it’s not in my nature.

    Wish you a joyful 23rd anniversary of our lovely Eritrea’s independence!!

  • Berhe Tensea April 30, 2016

    Eritrea not only jails journalists, it shuts them, and imprisons them in container prisons that has never been done elsewhere in the world.