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Trapped and bereft in the world’s ‘fastest emptying country’ – TheGuardian

Thousands of people flee Eritrea illegally every month to skip military service, but getting out is too expensive for most People wait for a bus in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Life is hard for those

Thousands of people flee Eritrea illegally every month to skip military service, but getting out is too expensive for most

People wait for a bus in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Life is hard for those who cannot afford a border crossing. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Outside a cafe on the crossroads of a busy intersection in Asmara, three 25-year-olds sip macchiatos and catch up on the latest gossip in the bright morning sunshine. The conversation soon turns to people who have “skipped”, a term for those who have fled Eritrea to escape the indefinite national service programme.

Birhane, 25, who works as a mechanic in a government-owned garage, said: “Between us, we probably know about 300 people who have skipped in the last few years. They are leaving because we have to do what the government tells us to do.”

In 1991, when Birhane, Henok and Adonay were born, Eritrea had just gained independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of war. In the early years, many people were optimistic about their future and their leaders.

Today, the atmosphere in Asmara is markedly different. Isaias Afewerki, the former leader of the liberation struggle, is still in power 25 years later, and a resumption of hostilities with Ethiopia at the turn of the millennium inflicted huge human and economic damage on the country, exacerbating its slide into a military state.

In the capital, although bicycles and charming old European cars dot the roads and the ambitious Italian colonial-era architecture is well preserved, more than a dozen people said they were desperately gathering cash to pay for sigre dob (border crossing).

Gaim Kibreab, a professor of refugee studies at London South Bank University, says Eritrea is the world’s “fastest emptying nation”. About 400,000 people are estimated to have left the country in the past decade, from a population of just 5.1 million.

The UN and human rights activists estimate that as many as 5,000 Eritreans flee illegally every month, but the Eritrean government claims that the real number is closer to 1,000, because Ethiopians often pretend to be Eritrean when seeking asylum abroad.

Those left behind in Asmara say everyone is well aware of what is happening. “I know of thousands of people who have left,” said Demsas, 49, as he strolled down one of the main streets. “We can feel it.”

The government acknowledges that people are leaving in droves, but says it is part of an international conspiracy to weaken Eritrea. “The policy of the United States for the past 10 years has been to encourage the migration of Eritreans, especially Eritrean youth and especially Eritrean educated youth,” said Yemane Gebreab, the director of political affairs for the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and a close advisor to Afwerki.

“If they can encourage migration and especially desertion from the Eritrean army, which has been a main objective of this policy, then they will have achieved their aim of weakening Eritrea,” he said.

Last year, the government put a limit on the amount of money that people could withdraw from their bank accounts.
Last year, the government put a limit on the amount of money that people could withdraw from their bank accounts. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

For law-abiding Eritreans, it is hard to avoid the national service programme. Hundreds of soldiers are known to storm neighbourhoods in Asmara every few months. Known as a giffa (raid), troops block off traffic and set up a cordon before going house to house in search of people who have not enlisted.

Young Eritreans say they feel trapped by these policies. If they are caught deserting, the government hands down brutal punishments. But if they stay, they are resigned to a life earning a monthly wage of 500 nakfa (£25). “All of us are still in national service. We don’t get enough [money] to live on,” Henok said.

The government has recently changed some elements of national service, a sign that the regime may be aware of the damage its policies are causing. Those drafted in 2001 or earlier are being allowed to leave active service, but they are still required to work for the government. The maximum salary offered after demobilisation is 4,000 nakfa, equivalent to $165 on the black market, according to Hagos Ghebrehiwet, the PFDJ director of economic affairs.

Last year, the government put a limit on the amount of money that people could withdraw from their bank accounts, saying it wanted to encourage citizens to use cheques and mobile money facilities. Hagos said: “Cash is the basis for illegal activities, like human trafficking.”

However, very few businesses accept cheques or credit cards, and since the introduction of the rule, the black market dollar exchange rate has halved, leading to speculation that the policy is a covert way to limit the number of people fleeing.

“With this new currency, people don’t have access to their money,” Demsas said. According to human rights activist Meron Estefanos, wealthy Eritreans can pay high-ranking government officials between $5,000 and $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country and driven to Khartoum in Sudan. The fee for a similar journey across the border with Ethiopia is $2,000 to $3,000, she said.

For most Eritreans, who do not have rich friends or relatives overseas, the journey to Europe is extremely expensive. Natnael Haile, who lives in Sweden, says he was drafted into the army aged 13. After spending seven years repairing army cars on a desolate military base, he crept out of his dormitory in 2008. Haile paid smugglers $400 to take him to Sudan, where he was kidnapped and sold to nomads in the Sinai desert.

Haile ended up paying a total of $7,100 to get on a boat heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa. But the account of his harrowing journey does not deter Adonay and his friends in Asmara. “We would all leave tomorrow if we had the money,” they say.

A version of this article first appeared in The Africa Report

Review overview
  • THE HABESHA September 29, 2016

    The danger of Eritrea emptying is very dangerous to the area and specially to the tigray tigrinyi & moderate moslems of Eritrea and Tigray kilil. Papa Isaias due to cash flow & his desire to punish weyane has partnered with the Arabs that he has always despised.The Ethiopian federal government and speccially the Weyane kilil governments sound like dark comedians when they continually prophesise that the eritrean government is on the verge of collapse ,when it is their own government that is being shaken by unsolved internal issues and age old Egypt-Arab interferance…..while it is natural for such disturbances to happen in fairly open and democratic Ethiopia than North Korea Eritrea, that has docile slave minded tigrinya population and apolitical, peace loving tribal moslem population ,Ethiopia does not seem to see the seriousness of the issue..We are in development (ኣብ ልምዓት ኢና ዘለና) excuse seems like saying “We are not afraid of bullets because we have umbrella” !!!..The Ethiopian government may have some magic solution under it´s sleeves but I worry because when eventually SAUDI ,QATAR & EMIRITES bring their ISIS sattelites ti destabilize the area they will not stop at Zalambesa or Adikwala.
    I hope the Ethiopian and specially Tigray kilil people are pressurizing their government to come up with clear and direct principle and strategy..Whiloe my first priority is the safety of Eritrean people ,we are connected and our futurity has alwaays been connected whether Eritrea continues as a fake Nation or the former Greater Tigray tigrinyi flourishes the people need safety !

    • k.tewolde September 30, 2016

      THE HABESHA, you seem to be concerned for your cousins,they will be ok,they have the arsenal of the west for now and are you sure your papa despises the Arabs?if so since when? and how dare you call current Eritrea ‘a fake nation’ remember it was manufactured by your Papa.I am asking you this questions,because you are a unity of contradictions,who are you?and what do you stand for? or you are just a cyber vagabond.

      • Kesete September 30, 2016

        K.Tewolde, do not descend to the gutter history and era of your criminal ELF.
        Do you really think you the toothless coward one qualified enough to lecture or to talk on behalf of the “entire” population of Eritrea?
        I know very well that criminal ELF cadres like yourselves are allergic to reason. A poor patient can’t diagnose himself/herself and he/she must see a doctor to know his/her illness and then get the right medication and that’s where you and Eritrea are at the moment sadly as a result of half a century meaningless destructive wars.
        Papa Isaias is still in power and unfortunately will continue to be in power indefinitely because as in amharic old saying “wusha bekededew jib yigebabetal”, in other word, your weak, criminal and opportunist islamic ELF let him to monopolize the power. In short, with your dark and shameful past you should just be hiding in your safe place for now.

        • AHMED SALEH !!! September 30, 2016

          K.tewelde or ELF didn’t support the false dynasty of tigrai tigrigni doctrine and to put the blame on others can not change facts .
          Eritreans are aware to know the makers of destructive policies of EPLF – Weyane leadership from the time they held power . You can find the past history as excuse to cover up present failures but reality on the ground doesn’t lie . Look yourself in the mirror instead you bark at wrong tree while your Christian brothers are suffering and killed at the hands of your alike . Blaming Moslems for atrocities doesn’t offend me but it shows betrayal to victimized people that seek your attention .

          • k.tewolde September 30, 2016

            Great answer brother Ahmed.Hopefully,he can put his faculties together and understand the content of your humbling post.

    • AHMED SALEH !!! September 30, 2016

      Tigrai tigrigni flourishes at the expense of Ethiopian people which is not our business to
      interfere . But we Eritreans own sovereign nation where we should focus on issues
      concerning our nation political affairs .
      Eritrea is a member of united nations . The so called nation of Tigrai by TPLF cadres manifesto based on illusion is not only fake but also dangerous for Ethiopian unity .
      Again I refrain myself to speak about Ethiopians but the Tigreans must show solidarity,
      support and love to fellow Ethiopians otherwise unnecessary tension might worse the
      relationship with general population .
      In case Eritrean political turmoil we don’t need foreign intervention because it only
      create complicated developments ..

      • Dogeli October 1, 2016

        I agree, I will stick with my Arab-Arabist identity from the civilized al Sauds and the al Shieks across the blue sea. Renting a cheap identity, by burning ones own, is the new normal.

  • k.tewolde September 30, 2016

    A picture is more than a thousand words,this is current Eritrea,a child,elderly men and women,and single young woman,like the journalist describes it,’…..they appear resigned to fate….’,yes indeed,no hope,no dream,no future waiting for a decree from the regime every now and then,the sun rises and sets like any other place and the lying continues….

  • MENKAE September 30, 2016

    THE HABESHA Eritrea is independent country. Regarding Amhara and Oromia fish and bird may fall in love but they can’t build a home together..