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This is Africa’s North Korea

THE-STAR /  18 January 2016 at 13:54pm By: Mercedes Sayagues Eritrea is losing its youth through mass migration. But what is everyone fleeing, asks Mercedes Sayagues. There is something odd in the camps hosting Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan.


18 January 2016 at 13:54pm

Eritrea is losing its youth through mass migration. But what is everyone fleeing, asks Mercedes Sayagues.

There is something odd in the camps hosting Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. Generally, refugee camps in Africa burst with women and children – but mostly young men cram the Eritrean camps.

Equally odd is that tiny Eritrea (population around 4.5 million) ranks, along with Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, among the world’s five top source countries of asylum-seekers. Some 5 000 young Eritreans flee every month, by UN estimates.

Up to 10 percent of the population has left. The majority of Eritrean migrants take the deadliest route to Europe, across Sudan, Egypt and Libya. Throughout their desperate journey, they may fall prey to vicious human trafficking.

In eastern Sudan, the Rashaida militias kidnap migrants until relatives pay ransom, then pass them along the trafficking chain. Sinai trafficking is especially cruel. Smugglers torture migrants by open cellphones so their relatives hear their screams. Over the years, it is estimated they have killed between 5 000 and 10 000 Eritreans. Closer to Europe, hundreds of Eritreans have drowned in the Mediterranean.

Yet Eritrea is not at war. What are the refugees fleeing?

“A totalitarian state bent on controlling Eritreans through a vast security apparatus to control, silence and isolate individuals, depriving them of their fundamental freedoms,” says a 2015 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.

In 483 pages of grim reading, it describes a nation living in fear of forced labour, arbitrary imprisonment, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), inhumane jails, spies, arbitrary land expropriations, and restrictions on freedom of expression, conscience and movement – human rights violations on a scope and scale seldom seem elsewhere.

The 1997 constitution was never implemented and national budgets never tabled. A census is forever delayed. There are no independent NGOs or media. Internet is scarce and slow. Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea last among all countries in press freedom last year.

Only four religions are allowed: Eritrean Orthodox, Sunni Islam, Roman Catholic and Lutheran. Pentecostals and Jehovah Witnesses are persecuted and jailed unless they recant their faith.

UN researchers trying to document Eritrea’s success achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals have been denied entry.

So were members of the UN Commission of Enquiry, which had to rely on 550 interviews with Eritreans abroad.

Eritrea’s repression and isolation have earned it the nickname of Africa’s North Korea – a closed country where people need a pass to travel between towns and a hard-to-obtain exit visa to leave.

Read: The raw reality for refugees


The worst is open-ended military conscription lasting up to a decade. Conscripts as young as 15 and as old as 50 work as indentured labourers in mining, infrastructure projects and farms, often owned by the military. They are poorly fed, abused, exploited and enslaved, says the report.

Those caught trying to escape or deported back to Eritrea are considered traitors, tortured and jailed.

For these reasons, Eritreans are automatically granted asylum in many European countries. The government argues that this is a pull factor. In any case, Eritrea is suffering “drastic depopulation”, warned the Catholic bishops in a rare letter of protest in 2015.

Migration levels are becoming “unsustainable”, says the International Crisis Group.

“Ending the exodus requires greater engagement with Eritrea – potentially ending a decade of isolation that has been both self-imposed and externally generated.”

Only Eritrea’s latest betrayal

Constant betrayals. This phrase sums up Eritrea’s sad history.

Colonised by the Italians at the end of the 19th century, it was freed of Mussolini’s fascist rule by British troops in 1941. The Brits plundered port and factories, then handed the country over to the UN.

Disregarding Eritrea’s wish for independence, in 1950 the UN set up a federation with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, promptly annexed Eritrea. The UN kept shamefully quiet, and in 1961, a 30-year-long liberation struggle began.

As the Cold War gripped the Horn of Africa in the 1980s, Americans and Soviets successively aided and dropped Eritrea, in a deadly game of shifting military alliances. Throughout these vagaries, Eritrea continued to fight pretty much alone.

Holed up since mid-1970 in a vast underground complex in the harsh, northern Sahel Mountains, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) eventually overran Mengistu Haile Miriam’s army and achieved independence in 1993.

The EPLF was the Western media’s darling: an egalitarian, progressive, communal, frugal guerrilla force united over tribal, religious and gender fault lines. It was big on gender equality, for women’s education and against child marriage and genital mutilation. A third of its fighters were women.

Underground factories produced munitions as well as sanitary pads.

Twenty-three year later, the UN reports that Eritrean woman prisoners are not given sanitary pads, can’t shower for months and are crowded in filthy cells without proper toilets.

This shift from liberation to oppression is the work of guerrilla leader-turned-president-for-life, Isaias Afwerki.

In 1998, Isaias provoked a two-year war with Ethiopia. Afterwards, Eritrea plunged into dictatorship.

Eritrean meddling in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, supporting rebels and al-Shabaab, led the US to threaten to declare it a state sponsor of terrorism.

The UN imposed sanctions and began scrutinising its shadow economy. It found an illicit financial system based on money-laundering, arms trafficking and payouts from patrons like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Generals shared kidnapping ransoms with the Rashaida militia and exploited conscript forced labour.

The government exacts a 2 percent tax from Eritreans working overseas in exchange for consular services. The newest revenue is gold mining. In 2011, the Canadian company Nevsun, 40 percent owned by the state, started exporting gold. Another profitable asset is Eritrea’s location on the Red Sea. Its closeness to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt brings opportunities for funding and leverage with Saudis, Iranians, Houthis and Russians.

A small coterie of generals and advisers benefits from business and patronage but running the country is tightly controlled by Isaias.

“Eritrea is a personally owned political-business corporation which risks disintegrating when its founder-owner dies or is removed,” writes Alex de Waal in his book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa.

A heavy drinker, Isaias is in poor health and lacks a succession plan. Yet his absence might bring more turmoil.

Eritrea could become “an oligarchic system run by a cartel of generals and party fund managers, or a deregulated and violent political marketplace”, writes De Waal.

This would amount to yet another betrayal to Eritreans’ hopes for democracy.

Testimonies of brutality

A former prison guard recalled: “They cannot wash or shower. There is no health care. The men get to the point that their testicles are infected. They are screaming with pain. They are not allowed to wear shoes, their feet are swollen from the bruises.”

One detainee reported: “It is called the butchery because there is blood everywhere. I saw one pregnant girl lose her baby from the beating. She was caught trying to go to Sudan. I was in the queue after her to be punished. I could see her getting hit with a thin stick… all over her body by four men. She began bleeding.”

Mother of a toddler detained because her husband left the country: “I was handcuffed, very tight, an iron stick placed between my hands, a stick behind my knees and attached to my hands. Then, hung upside down, placing the stick between two tables, and beaten. I was beaten for 17 days with a stick or a whip, sometimes also slapped. They were bringing my baby in front of me and then they were beating me. When my child became sick, they asked me to bring 50 000 nakfa and I was released.”

A man jailed: “We were beaten every other day. My friend was beaten on the testicles with a stick. When he came back, everything was bloody. He could hardly walk, his testicles swelled to bigger than the size of a fist. He was in a lot of pain… He died shortly after.” – UN Commission of Enquiry

Eritrean refugees


36 000 registered by UN

Of these:

In Ethiopia: 130 000

In Sudan: 126 000

In Israel: 37 000

UNHCR 2015

*Mercedes Sayagues is a Knight International Journalism Fellow

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

The Star

Review overview
  • Hito January 19, 2016

    We all know about this cruelty. Some preferred to remain silent. Some are opposing the regime. And yet another some are still in support of the regime that perpetrates the crime.
    Nazi criminals who were even simple prison guards are held accountable and brought to court of justice as recent as 2014- 69yrs after the crime.(
    We Eritreans should start to prepare a black list of all those criminals who in-dignify our people and that should include every criminal from the prison guard to the tyrant(Isaias).
    At last justice will prevail and we all want to see the criminals in court.

  • k.tewolde January 20, 2016

    I don’t recognize this place, for now I am in denial, my faculty is scattered, I just want paint myself to a corner and disappear, I have never been ashamed to be Eritrean in my entire life.Lord forgive me!