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Failed Escapes From the Red Sea


Red Sea

Valetta, Malta, harbor entrance, July 2013, © G. Brigaldino

Asmara is the capital city of the north-eastern African country of Eritrea. After some thirty years of war with Ethiopia, in 1991 it became an independent state. At the same time Ethiopia turned into a land-locked country as only Eritrea has access to the Red Sea. Hundreds of mainly young citizens of Eritrea have lost their lives at sea in the past years and in October 2013 when hundreds more of them drowned, along with migrants from several other fragile states, the tragedy was reported across the globe.

It was the Mediterranean Sea, not the Red Sea where the lives of these people were lost, never to realize their hopes and dreams of a politically safe and economically secure life somewhere in Europe.  For well over a decade now, many other migrants from across Africa have died trying to reach any European Union country. However more recently, there has been a spike in the number of Eritreans trying to reach Europe and sadly, of those who lost their lives trying. As the news moves on in search of new spectacular headlines, if at all, little and meager analysis will have been served up for the general public’s consumption. Yes, we will all say it’s very sad, having to live a desperate life and drown attempting to escape from hopelessness. Why did all of this happen, is there anything that could’ve prevented this, are there people responsible for the suffering, the deaths, and importantly, what are the root causes behind these tragedies and how to address them?

It is unlikely we will have heard much of an answer to any of these questions. Far from promising to have such answers, I do believe that these questions need to be raised right now: not the next time tragedy strikes. In the case of Eritrea, we can start looking for some answers to understand how the current situation has come about and has escalated. Moreover we can start right at the top of the political system to find the answers: the country’s dictator Isaias Afewerki. The plight and suffering of the Eritrean escapees is certainly reason enough to make a case to the International Criminal Court to indict him, given that the court “tries persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Surely the sorry state of affairs this despot has imposed upon his own people stands out as a serious crime against humanity: the hundreds of Eritreans who have drowned just in the past month alone should justify an appeal the International Criminal Court to commence procedures against Afewerki. The European Union itself, better even, the African Union, (if it upholds any serious claim to stand for democracy in Africa), should call for Afewerki’s indictment.

The evidence can rather easily be gathered from the internet and for starters, the recent tragedy of the coast off the Italian island Lampedusa already casts the darkest of shadows upon Eritrea’s “President”.  The AfricaFocus Bulletin of October 6, 2013 has reposted initial accounts and commentaries from various sources and collected these under the heading “Africa: Migrant Deaths at Sea”. We now know that well over 300 migrants died and since there, there have been more deaths elsewhere at sea.

With regard to those who have and continue to flee from Eritrea, the Eritrean regime itself profiteers from the very exodus it has created.

In February, ‘Africa Confidential’ reported that

“About 3,000 soldiers, conscripts, regulars or draft-dodgers cross into Ethiopia or Sudan every month. This traffic is profitable for senior officers, particularly along the Sudanese border. In July 2011, the United Nations Eritrea and Somalia Monitoring Group described in detail the involvement of General Teklai Kifle and others in these practices, smuggling people and arms into Egypt via Sudan, en route to Israel. The value of the weapons trade was calculated at a minimum of US $300,000 per month for Teklai and his network. Illegal emigrants have to pay the soldiers up to $10,000 to cross.”

The most authoritative account of the bleak human rights situation in Eritrea was made public in  late May of this year, when Sheila B. Keetharuth, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, released her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Here are some key passages from this concise, yet troubling 21 page document:

“92. Despite the deadly risks run while attempting to escape the country, large numbers of Eritrean citizens have fled over the past decade. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 4,000 Eritreans, including unaccompanied minors, flee the country every month, despite shoot-to-kill orders implemented by border guards and the extreme dangers along escape routes.

93. Not only ordinary citizens but also high-profile ones, including former ministers, pilots and the national football team, are fleeing and seeking asylum. The path taken by refugees may be fraught with obstacles and can be life-threatening, as many have fallen into the hands of traffickers and smugglers who demand high ransoms for their victims’ freedom. The extensive militarization of all aspects of life in Eritrea, the fear and experience of national service, its policy of prolonged military conscription, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture and persecution on grounds of religious belief are among the main reasons causing people to flee.

… Excessive militarization is affecting the very fabric of Eritrean society, and its core unit, the family.[1] The open-ended nature of national service is depriving the women and men of Eritrea of their most productive years, forcing them to cross borders to take their destiny into their own hands.

97. Even children as young as 7 or 8 years of age are crossing borders unaccompanied, citing dysfunctional family circumstances caused by the absence of one parent or even both as a result of conscription, detention or exile or forced military training as the reasons for flight.

98. There is no rule of law to provide citizens with a transparent legal system to protect them from the arbitrary use of power by the State, other institutions and individuals.

100. Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, indefinite incommunicado detention, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, all of which are prevalent in Eritrea, undermine the deepest values of any society committed to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

101. Freedom of expression and opinion, of assembly and association, the very cornerstones of an open society respecting the democratic principles of governance, are severely curtailed, creating a climate of fear fueled by rumors, propaganda and suspicion. The result is an all-encompassing feeling of fear and distrust, even within families, reflecting a pervasive intelligence network that the Government of Eritrea has established throughout the country.”

Routinely Eritrea is ranked among the countries with the lowest degree of press freedom (see: Reporters without Borders). By most other accounts, the country can clearly be described as a failed state; its fragility rated has high. (see for example the ‘Global fragility ranking.’)

2 (Source)

Obviously, stability, peace and economic development rankings are low for Eritrea [2] but it should also be highlighted, that especially under the decline imposed upon Eritrea by its unaccountable rulers, the country is losing important ground in the fight against environmental degradation, desertification and the overall risks resulting from climate change. (see Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index)

With thousands of Eritreans fleeing the repressiveness of their home country every month, international responses are overdue.

It is easy to shrug one’s shoulders and hope for things to resolve themselves in due time. Meanwhile, people are boarding rickety boats, hoping they will have a safe passage to Europe rather than meet the same fate of the refugees many before them who attempted to cross.

As a commentator in the respected German daily “Frankfurter Rundschau” stated

“Those who desire to better control migration, and wish to prevent hundreds more embarking on to ramshackle boats, need to face the difficult task of addressing the root causes. One way to do that would be to prevent our own financial institutions from being involved in land grabs and food speculation.”

(7. October 2013)

One should add to this, as the ongoing tragedy in Syria has demonstrated, that arms trading with dictatorial regimes needs to be stopped and criminalized, even if Governments themselves are involved in the transactions. There is no reason why those who authorize arms export licenses, who finance the deals, arrange the insurance and logistics of weapons exports (especially to conflict states), should not themselves be tried as war criminals or at the very least, as facilitating crimes against humanity as defined by the International Criminal Court. Those who have thus been involved in “past” conflicts as in Iraq, Congo or Afghanistan should not avoid investigation and possible prosecution.  It is not far-fetched to assume that some of these ‘business men’ are likely to be the very same people who triggered the 2008/09 global economic crisis and downturn which led to immeasurable, still continuing economic and social hardship, globally.

So at this point the question really is, how long will this go on, is there a chance that Eritrea can liberate itself again, this time from its very own oppressors?

For a brief moment in late January this year, some 200 soldiers had seized control of the ‘Forto’ in Asmara, a massive building housing the Information Ministry. After a brief skirmish, the revolt folded; arrests followed (Eritrea may have as many as 10,000 political prisoners). The armed forces appear to have lost much of their past motivation and presumably, military capacity. Forced, indeterminate conscription and low pay have triggered countless defections. In August it was reported that,

Some 108 Afar members of the Eritrean navy were massacred this month by the country’s border security guards along the Yemen coastline as they attempted to escape.

Yet still, as

 “stories of successful escapes spread, the all-powerful image of the Afewerki regime could disintegrate further.

…paradoxically, the regime actually benefits from its own restrictions being flouted. Those who escape join a diaspora which sends money home to relatives and keeps the country’s economy afloat. …. In the short-term, President Afewerki is seemingly faced with two equally difficult options: continuing with a policy that is undermining the regime, or softening his strategy and risking an all-out exodus.”

The New York-based International Crisis Group has presented some scenarios which might offer an idea on what is next in store for the people of Eritrea.

There is of course always wishful thinking involved in scenario planning, but nevertheless, elaborating scenarios does involve working through reports, research and documenting firsthand accounts (including from the survivors of the tragic boat disasters!) and thus, provide insights that serve as benchmarks for political engagement with the current regime or with whatever transitional system and its proponents emerge should the regime disintegrate.

The scenario report concludes that

  • “ Even though some degree of turbulence appears inevitable whenever and however Isaias departs the scene, a wider coalition of regional and international actors should work toward a controlled transition, as much preferable to unmanaged change.
  • If a power-sharing agreement is negotiated, it should be kept in mind that Isaiasis not Eritrea’s sole problem. Dissident factions within the regime will want to keep real power, and diaspora-based opposition figures and groups do not really know – or represent – the population inside the country or most refugees.
  • Specific attention should be paid to new, younger leaders emerging in the diaspora, including refugee camps, since demand for real change is more likely to come from these quarters.
  • In a historic moment for the Horn of Africa – with a leadership transition in Ethiopia; a decaying and embattled ruling National Congress Party in Sudan; recent electoral unrest in Djibouti; a new state in South Sudan displaying worrying ethnic divisions; a new government that still relies on foreign troops for survival in a Somalia vast swathes of which remain in the hands of armed groups; and physical proximity to a Yemen undergoing an unstable transition – there is an urgent need to pursue stability in Eritrea. That would benefit the entire region.”

There will be more, too many more escapes from Eritrea, undoubtedly. Probably, many Eritreans trying to reach the shores of Europe will fail to make it. The dire conditions they leave behind in Eritrea however have lasted for far too long. That they must change is clear, but when this will happen and under what circumstances, is obviously unknown.  Ideally, Afewerki could be indicted, arrested and tried in The Hague (seat of the ICC), but for now this is unlikely.

What we do know, is that ongoing public criticism of the oppression and political despotism in Eritrea is needed. We cannot wait for our Governments to “do something”, so advocating for international action on behalf of those who cannot do so, in Eritrea as elsewhere, is in my view every global citizen’s responsibility. Readers of Newtopia are part of such internationalism I believe, and are interested in becoming more aware of the root causes of refugees’ plight around the world. They will hopefully be able to share this awareness and perhaps decide to support human rights and progressive development organizations that are committed to supporting victims and addressing political causes of injustice, oppression and inequality. Eritrea is a good place to start.


[1]  Back in 2010, this painful disintegration of the family unit was the subject of social research  that also  built on case studies of individuals and families who have been subjected  by Afewerki’s  misrule and  resulting  uprooting of  the traditional cultural system and social structure.

“While young men often shoot or hang themselves, young women reportedly swallow liquid poison or burn themselves after pouring kerosene on their body and their clothes. The parents are

not supposed to talk about how their children died, as the government wants to maintain the

picture of the heroic youth serving their country with enthusiasm.”

Nicole Hirt, “Dreams Don’t Come True in Eritrea”: Anomie and Family Disintegration due to the Structural Militarization of Society, GIGA Research Programme: Violence and Security No 119 January 2010; http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/gigwpaper/119.htm

[2] For general information and data on Eritrea see:



Article Written by Glenn Brigaldino

Glenn Brigaldino is an independent political analyst living above the 49th parallel. He was a contributor to the 2002-2005 Newtopia Magazine venture and remains loosely affiliated with the new project.

In the early 1980s he was an active member in the German Green party, until it became absorbed in the political mainstream. As a specialist in international cooperation, he has worked for aid and relief organizations in Africa, Europe and elsewhere.


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