John Tulloh. Why Eritreans are crossing the Mediterranean.

Jul 2, 2015

Current Affairs.


It is the seventh youngest nation in the world. It was born in 1993 after a 30-year war. Its flag was raised for the first time as an independent nation with high hopes for democracy in a continent dominated by too many despots. In its first years it set an example of frugality when its people were encouraged to ride bikes and, what vehicles there were, had to be modest small ones. Its original leader is still in charge 22 years later. Time for an election? ‘Never’, he said. Instead he has created a harsh dictatorship with thousands of desperate citizens deciding life must be better elsewhere. Hundreds have died in the process. Their country has been likened to North Korea.

Such is life in Eritrea, the sun-baked former Italian colony on the African shore in the south of the Red Sea. Its people today cause nervousness in the capitals of Europe. They make up a considerable proportion of asylum-seekers risking their existence among the huddled masses crossing the Mediterranean to make a future in Europe.

Recently, the UN took a look at how the fledgling nation was doing. Its report was damning. The initial sense of democracy, it said, ‘has been extinguished by the government under the pretext of national defence’. The UN investigators said the regime of President Isaias Afewerki was guilty of extra-judicial killings, widespread torture, sexual slavery, Orwellian mass surveillance and enforced labour. In short, it may have committed crimes against humanity.

Eritrea has a system known as ‘national service’. The report says this really involves ‘arbitary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labour and absence of leave’. Compulsory military service can be open-ended, continuing for years. Avoidance can lead to execution. Women recruits are rounded up to satisfy the lust of their commanders. Eritrea is a country ruled not by law, but by fear, said one of the UN investigators.

No wonder five percent of Eritreans have fled, according to the UN. Even that can be dangerous. Abandoning the country is regarded as treachery and until last year soldiers at border crossings routinely shot anyone trying to escape. It is a similar story for North Koreans who’ve had enough of their country.

It is a sad tale when the birth of Eritrea was greeted with such lofty expectations. A reporter for the Washington Post was moved to write:

     On a continent of millionaire dictators, where broken promises of democracy dovetail with collapsing living standards and unpayable debts, Eritreas revolutionaries hold out the possibility of an efficient, self-reliant African nation, run by Africans who have had 26 years to learn from the failures of independent Africa. 

     The trouble is that they didn’t learn or didn’t want to know. As a result, Eritrea has ended up like the Ethiopian regime – the Derg – which it fought for the three decades to get rid of. Its ratified constitution was suspended with no explanation and has now been abandoned altogether. Promised elections at the outset never took place and again without explanation. All private newspapers were closed and their journalists detained. Land was nationalised. Aid agencies were driven from the country. ‘Short of North Korea or an ISIS slave cave, there’s no more hopeless place on earth’, wrote Spectator columnist Mary Wakefield last month.

Eritreans in exile are unanimous in saying the villain for all this is President Alwerki. He apparently regards himself as indispensable and clearly sees himself as president for life – just like the Kim dynasty trio of tyrants in  North Korea. In a strange twist of irony, Eritrea in its written response denouncing the UN report lifted lines word for word from a North Korean fulmination to the UN on another matter:

“We are fully ready for any confrontation with the U.S. and will shatter the reckless “human rights” racket by the hostile forces through our toughest reaction. 

“The moves of the hostile forces to dare provoke the socialist system of the DPRK which was chosen and has been consolidated by the Korean people will not be able to escape disgraceful doom.”

The West pays little attention to Eritrea other than warning people travelling there. The EU in April approved an aid package of 122 million euros. ‘The more it gives, the faster the population decamps’, observed Wakefield.

The country is of little strategic value despite the Soviet Union once having a naval base there before independence. While Eritrea has a majority Christian population, more than 40 per cent of its people are followers of Islam. But no doubt the West is content in the knowledge that Eritrea’s brutal president will keep any Islamic radicals in their place.

Just as North Korean defectors have a tough time adjusting to life among even their own kith and kin in the south, for Eritreans it is an entirely new challenge in a new continent where they are far from wanted. ‘They were in Africa until yesterday and are fleeing like lost goats in Rome’, a social worker was quoted in The Times about newly-arrived Eritreans now trying to evade a different type of authority.

The number of Eritreans who made it to Italy by the boat last year was 40,000 or 23 percent of all asylum-seekers. That compares with just 32,000 of all asylum-seekers who made it to Australia by the dreaded boat in the 18 months to June 2013. The Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, can only pale when this year’s likely record-breaking exodus across the Mediterranean is totted up.

If there is a glimmer of hope for Eritreans, it may be it’s because gold has been discovered in their benighted country and other minerals could be there as well. That’s if President Alwerki doesn’t follow the example of other African dictators by pocketing the money for himself and keeping his country to remain among the 10 poorest in the world.

FOOTNOTE: Australia has had a connection with Eritrea ever since 1987 when the late Fred Hollows began his work there to restore sight to thousands of people. Despite the crackdown on NGOs, the foundation in his name continues his work there today.


John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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