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Undeterred by perils, migrants flee hardship in Eritrea

BY AARON MAASHO (Reuters) - Ten years ago, Eritrean migrant Habtu hunkered down on the vomit-stained deck of a creaking trawler on the Mediterranean Sea, making the final stage of his perilous bid to reach Europe. It


(Reuters) – Ten years ago, Eritrean migrant Habtu hunkered down on the vomit-stained deck of a creaking trawler on the Mediterranean Sea, making the final stage of his perilous bid to reach Europe.

It is a trip thousands of Eritreans attempt each year, fleeing one of Africa’s poorest and most isolated nations, a place where army conscription with pitiful pay can last years.

Many die on the trek. Probably all of the more than 360 migrants who drowned in a shipwreck near Italy’s coast in October were Eritrean, though many are still unidentified.

So the computer science graduate felt fortunate when his journey across a quarter of Africa via the scorching Sahara brought him to Malta – even if he had hoped to reach Italy, a former colonial power in the Horn of Africa.

But his luck ran out when his asylum request was rejected and he was sent home. Now 32, Habtu remains undeterred and wants to make the treacherous trip again, rejoining the flow of often well-educated Africans dreaming of a new life in Europe.

“Your only choice is to fight, and one way to fight is to make such journeys,” Habtu told Reuters in Mai-Aini, one of six refugee camps in Ethiopia housing 79,000 Eritreans. “You can’t continue this way.”

Officials say about 40 or 50 Eritreans cross into Ethiopia a day, using camps as way stations on their longer journey north.

Camp officials asked that only first names of refugees be used to protect families back in Eritrea, where rights groups say freedoms are trampled on by the state. Asmara denies this.

Yet, even if Habtu makes it on his second attempt, he may still face disappointment in Europe. Activists there say those who survive the dangerous trek often end up in badly paid and illegal work, scraping by as house helps or hawking on streets.

For some, it can be worse than back home.

“Europe is a mirage,” said Kossi Komla-Ebri, 59, a doctor who immigrated to Italy from Togo in the 1970s and who now works with the Afro-Italian community.

“People are drawn to Europe with a positive image in their heads. It’s a fatal attraction. They don’t realize they will be eating scraps under the table,” he said.

But Habtu’s case highlights the difficulty in stopping the illegal migrants, even when they have first hand experience of the dangers. Others have also not been deterred, even as news of the October shipwreck off Italy’s Lampedusa island filters back.


Many Eritreans who spoke to Reuters in Mai-Aini said quietly they still planned to make the journey to Europe from the camp, which lies perched amid craggy hills about 1,200 km (750 miles) north of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“We need to do everything possible to stop this risky adventure,” said Moses Okello, who is the representative for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Ethiopia, which manages the camps with their rows of cement block huts.

“However, no amount of positive intervention in the camps can stop those refugees who come with the intention to use Ethiopia as a transit point,” he said.

Many like Habtu have fled from compulsory military service, a requirement for everyone aged 18 to 50. It can run indefinitely. Habtu described a life of virtual servitude in the army, saying he earned a meager $20 a month.

Most Eritreans live in poverty. The country’s annual gross national income per capita in 2012 was $450, far below the $1,345 figure for sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank figures show.

Eritrea’s fiercely self-reliant government has turned down aid from the United States, saying such handouts will breed dependency in the nation of 6.1 million people, one of the least developed in the world with an economy based on agriculture.

Abdulkadir spent 10 years in Eritrea’s military, including serving in trenches on the frontline of a 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. He said he was not paid enough to feed himself so he started an illegal trade in food to make ends meet.

He was caught and locked up in a makeshift cell – a metal shipping container in the searing heat of Eritrea’s Red Sea coast. Released after a year, he fled the country and reached Egypt. He was shot when trying to cross to neighboring Israel.

“We suffered a lot,” Abdulkadir said, rolling up his trousers to show a wound that means he now walks with a cane.

“We were also regularly beaten by the traffickers and the women among us were raped,” he said, describing treatment at the hands of Sinai Bedouins who had initially promised to help him and others across. He was then shot at the border and later sent back to Ethiopia where he had been registered as a refugee.

The route through Egypt to Israel was until a few years ago a common one for Eritrean migrants, but rising insecurity in Egypt’s Sinai which borders the Jewish state and a new Israeli fence with more patrols mean many now head westwards to Libya.


From there, traffickers offer berths that can cost more than $1,000 each on barely seaworthy vessels to Europe. Most migrants aim for Italy, though tiny Malta is where many also end up.

Of more than 32,000 migrants to reach southern Italy by boat this year, about a third are Eritrean, the United Nations says.

The final sea journey can be the most dangerous stage as the Lampedusa sinking highlighted last month. Habtu was on his boat for 34 hours being buffeted by waves before making it to Malta.

Eritreans blame their government for the tragedies.

“It is well known that the only person responsible for the shipwreck is the Eritrean dictator,” said Magda, 20, a political science student in Rome and daughter of two Eritrean immigrants.

“If there weren’t a dictatorship in Eritrea, 16-year-olds would not be escaping,” she said during a protest in Italy.

Eritrea dismisses charges of rights abuses. It says it has indefinite military service due to the festering border dispute with Ethiopia. It says conscripts also do development work.

After the Lampedusa sinking, Eritrea said the United States encouraged human traffickers to undermine the country.

“The prime responsibility for the gross loss of human life, as verified by concrete evidences, squarely rests on the U.S. Administration,” Eritrea’s Information Ministry said.

Washington, which has accepted 5,547 Eritrean refugees from the Ethiopian camps since 2009, rejects the charge.

“I think that’s nonsense,” Anne Richards, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, told Reuters at the Mai-Aini. “This problem that prompts them to leave is completely the doing of the Eritrean government.”

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Review overview
  • Eden November 26, 2013

    Hello those of you who call yourselves dileyte fethi. Are you happy now seeing all Eritrea’s young men fleeing Eritrea every month by thousandths? Please understand my Eritrean brothers and sisters, we are Eritrea’s number one enemy for leaving our country and supporting our family members to leave the country. Yet, we complain when our President brings Demhit to Eritrea to protect our country that we left behind. We should support our president and Demhit for keeping our country as a functioning country.

  • rti November 26, 2013

    Eden, I have a question for you. Please tell me where are living now? Are you in Eritrea or in Europe, or U.S.A.? When did you leave Eritrea and why? Shame on you to approve of the presence of Demhit in Eritrea.
    Eden, tell me, are you perhaps of Ethiopian origin? And so, for you to say Isaias Afwerki “our President”, someone not elected by the people who has no legitimacy, he is a thief who stole the presidency and a tyrant who wants the presidency at any cost. I am looking forward to hear your response.

  • Eden November 26, 2013

    First of all, I would like to show my respect to Amanuel or Assenna foundation for allowing my comments to be posted on this sit. Amanuel, I met you in person with my father and uncle when you came to Washington DC. My father and my uncle are big fans of you; however I don’t like you because you don’t support our President Isaias. Okay!

    In responses to rti’s questions I would like to say if you are Eritrean Tigrigna the chance for you being an Ethiopian origin is very high, nevertheless, I as far as I know I am 100% Eritrean. Look in regard to Isaias not been elected or that he stole the presidency is not my fault. It is your and the rest of Eritreans’ including my parents liability. I was born when Eritrea became a Country and my responsibility is to support my country and my leader at this time.

  • Dawit Meconen November 26, 2013

    Aaron Maasho,

    Forget your crocodile tears; I know deep down, you are salivating profusely to realize your Chicken Dream on the perils of Eritreans, the Dream you have been obsessed with for several millennium, all in vain.

    In the meantime, I mean until Death spares your miserable existence, one way or other, just enjoy your futile hallucination, such as swimming and basking on the beautiful Red Sea.

    You may wonder on my level of intelligence to exactly figure out your deluded mind and the forgone prospect of your demise. Cease to wonder; I am banking my intimate knowledge of your history.

    Look back, in the annals of history, you never had any achievement on your own. All the foreigners that crossed Ethiopian border, did so on your collaboration. General Napier, can be cited as one among the many.

    Committing National Treason is therefore one of your Marks of your Distinction. The other one is : once the foreigners hopped you on the pedestal of Ethiopian Political Power, you unabashedly make foxy turn of 180 degrees to look like ultra-Ethiopian Nationalist. Complete lack of Moral Integrity is, therefore, the Second Mark of your Distinction.

    tplf ( tigrai peoples’ liberation front) ,who, as its chosen name tells, was fighting to free the country of tigrai from Ethiopian colonialism, embodies your 2nd Mark of your Distinction.

    Have the tplfs flipped on their goal since? Absolutely; flippancy is their basic nature. That is why they are always treacherous, whom nobody can trust. But can they whitewash their history? No.

    Just look closely, their name, tplf, is not almost identical with EPLF by accident but because the two had similar objective and enemy, on which their 17 year relationship was based.

    Conversely, look the difference between tplf and EPRP( Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party). The two are antithesis of each other, the reason tplf, in 1977, wiped out EPRP from Asimba, tigrai.

  • rti November 26, 2013

    Eden, thank you for taking the time to respond; however, you have not answer my number one question? where are you living now, and why? Have the decency to answer this. And, now, it seems that you are not a proud Eritrean, that you are the liability of your parents? Wake up!

  • waEro November 26, 2013

    Eden must be kidding.