The State of Eritrea
Eritrea is a country in East Africa often called The Horn of Africa. It covers an area of 120, 000 km² with a population of about six million people.
It is strategically located bordering Ethiopia in the South, Djibouti in the Southeast and Sudan in the West/Northwest.
The country has nine distinct ethnic groups; representing about 50:50 Muslims and Christians. Eritrea is blessed with huge and as yet largely untapped natural resources; gold, copper, potash etc. but the country remains one of the poorest in the world.
In 1890, Eritrea became an Italian colony. During the Italian rule, the country experienced a significant social and economic development. In 1941, following the Italian defeat in Africa, the British forces overthrew the Italians in Eritrea and established a temporary military administration. During the British administration, political parties proliferated and a culture of debate flourished. In 1948, when the four-power commission (UK, France, US and Russia) failed to agree on the future of Eritrea, the matter was referred to the UN. A compromise was reached whereby Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, but with considerable internal autonomy.
The federal arrangement with Ethiopia, implemented in 1952, was ultimately unworkable. The Ethiopian Government of Emperor Haile Selassie undermined the Eritrean autonomy; it marginalised the Eritrean Assembly, replaced the two official languages; Tigrinya and Arabic, with the Ethiopian main language of Amharic. It clamped down on expressions of protest, the trade union movement and free press. In 1962 Ethiopia finally abolished the federal constitution and annexed Eritrea.
In 1960, two years before Ethiopia annexed Eritrea and perhaps in the expectation of what was to come, the Eritrean liberation movement was born. The movement was led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and then by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) from the late 1960s until the decisive defeat of Ethiopia in 1991. Throughout the 30 years of armed struggle the Eritrean people were self-reliant; supported largely by the diaspora and captured arms from Ethiopia. On the other hand, Ethiopia was supported and financed by the superpowers; firstly, the US until the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 and then USSR.
In 1991, the Eritrean Liberation Forces marched into Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. Two years later, a referendum under the UN supervision was held. The two years internationally monitored referendum process, with a turnout of 98.5% of total Eritrean voters around the world, resulted in 99.8% vote in favour of independence. The outcome of the referendum in May 1993, therefore, formalised Eritrea’s status as an independent sovereign state.
The Eritrean independence, in which tens of thousands lost their lives, soon became a never-ending nightmare for its citizens with all the freedom promised denied to them.
A totalitarian state
The people of Eritrea are today living in probably Africa’s worst dictatorship. They share almost none of the human rights enjoyed by the rest of the world.
Eritrea is a country which has:
- A President in Isaias Afwerki who has never been elected
- No election held since independence
- A one-party state
- No effective Constitution
- No free media
- No independent judiciary
- Detention without trial
- Compulsory indefinite national service
A bad neighbour
The President has involved Eritrea in a series of devastating wars since independence. He fought with Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti, while sending his troops into the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1998 – just five years after Eritrea achieved its independence – a war with Ethiopia erupted over a minor border dispute.
After two years of bitter fighting, that cost some 100,000 lives, a treaty was signed with Ethiopia to end the war. But when an international tribunal awarded the village over which the conflict had been launched to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to respect the judgement. The USA and the EU, which had witnessed the treaty, refused to twist Ethiopia’s arm, and Eritrea and Ethiopia have been in a state of ‘no-war, no-peace’ ever since.
President Isaias insists that his army remains entrenched on the 1,000-kilometre border with Ethiopia. Its young people are trapped in the military; required to serve in an indefinite National Service. Some have been in uniform for 20 years and more. Service extends beyond the military, with conscripts used as slave labour in mines, farms and factories. With no right to leave and essentially no pay, many have chosen to flee the country – taking their chances against Afwerki’s shoot-to-kill policy employed at the border.
Mass exodus of Eritreans
It is against the above background that we witness a huge influx of refugees from Eritrea crossing into Ethiopia and Sudan to seek a future elsewhere, attempting to reach Europe and a better life. Many perish along the way; their bones litter the Sahara, their bodies float on the Mediterranean.
Eritreans represent one of the highest asylum seekers in Europe and the country is said to produce the highest number of refugees per capita even compared with war devastated countries such as Syria, making it the “fastest emptying” nation in the world.
It is clear that Eritreans are, quite literally, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – the only option they have is to flee their homeland. This is the price of President Isaias’s rule.
The long arm of the regime
Even once they reach overseas as refugees, Eritreans are not safe. President Isaias’s grip on the large and growing diaspora (some put it as high as a quarter of the country’s population of around 6 million) is vice-like.
Spies abound and government thugs have beaten up Eritreans who step out of line. Any Eritrean needing any assistance from their government must pay a price. The diaspora is required to pay 2% of all their earnings to the Eritrean government. Without proof of payment they cannot visit a dying relative, sell a house, renew a document or even send their families a parcel of used clothes.
Britain and Eritrea
The British government, like the rest of the European Union, has one central aim: to reduce the flow of migrants reaching its shores. Although Eritreans who make it to Britain are generally given the right to remain, London is doing all in its power to ensure that they do not flee Eritrea, or if they do, that they stay on African soil.
To achieve the first, Britain has joined its EU partners to support development projects in Eritrea, even though this is likely to strengthen the regime. To prevent Eritrean refugees leaving Africa, the EU (with British backing) is working with the security forces of Eritrea and Sudan. Camps in Ethiopia for refugees are being improved and money has been given for Eritreans to receive education in Ethiopia – both welcome developments. But that is where the initiatives end. The aim is to trap Eritreans at home, or in countries in the region: a policy that has resulted in despair among many who wish to flee the repression.
This is the background to the foundation of Eritrea Focus, which was formed in 2014.