Migration policy in Eritrea: With a little help from the EU

For many years, this small country was shut off from the world. Millions of Eritreans have sought protection in countries around the globe. Now the EU is showering Eritrea with money to combat the root causes of migration.

2014: Homeless refugees from Eritrea in Sanaa, Yemen Foto: dpa

Eritrea is one of the smallest, most impoverished and youngest countries in Africa. Eritreans won a hard-fought battle for independence from Ethiopia in 1993. In 2016 the regime was busy patting itself on the back in a self-aggrandising show of celebration, with President Isaias Afwerki portraying himself as his country's great freedom fighter; as Eritrea’s saviour. And his new partnership with the EU undoubtedly helped enhance his legitimacy.

Until recently, this country in the Horn of Africa was more or less cut off from the rest of the global community. Since 2009 the UN Security Council has adopted a string of resolutions concerning Eritrea, including an arms embargo and travel restrictions. Development co-operation between Germany and the African country was suspended back in 2007.

A UN human rights report published in June 2016 accuses the repressive regime of committing crimes against humanity as well as enslaving, torturing and imprisoning its people. The report frequently highlights the country’s national service. After completing secondary school, all young Eritreans – male and female – are automatically enrolled in mandatory military service that can last indefinitely. Eritreans can thus end up spending their whole lives trapped in a form of slavery; according to the UN report, women are also systematically subjected to sexual abuse in army barracks. Absconding from the military can lead to death – and yet it is a risk many take.

According to the 2010 census, Eritrea has a population of just 5.7 million. The World Bank estimates that now over a million are seeking exile abroad. According to the UN human rights report, roughly 5,000 people flee the country every month. That makes Eritrea one of the world’s top refugee-producing nations, especially in comparison with the rest of Africa.

Perilous journey

Eritrea’s government still profits enormously from its diaspora. There is a law in place which demands that Eritreans pay two percent of their foreign earned income back to the government in the form of a so-called ‚reconstruction tax’. In 2011, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that accused the country’s government of using taxpayers’ money to finance the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

More than half a million Eritreans have sought refuge in surrounding countries (in Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and even in South Sudan, a country beset by civil war). Until 2012, Israel was the favoured destination for many Eritreans. However, an increasing number of those fleeing began to fall victim to organ traffickers in the Sinai desert, and Israel started deporting refugees to specific third countries in Africa, such as Uganda and Rwanda. Now most Eritreans try to make their way to Europe through Egypt or Libya.

The journey is expensive and perilous, says Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights (ERRI) and creator of a hotline for Eritrean refugees in Sweden, in an interview with taz. She explains that it is difficult to flee from the Eritrean capital of Asmara as it is far from the border and refugees’ movements are monitored. Those with money find a government or military official with access to a vehicle with a diplomatic or government licence plate and pay to be driven out of the country. Some of them ask to be taken all the way to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. According to the ERRI, this can cost up to $6,000 per person: government officials are corrupt and open to bribery.

Vast people trafficking networks

In the beginning, most Eritreans fled to Sudan, mainly as its border was porous and poorly monitored. Even Eritrean special forces were able to enter the country unnoticed to intercept migrants or to flee themselves. Estefanos says that some of those who have fled have heard that Sudan’s newly deployed border units have been trained by the Germans. She adds that this creates more fear. That is why, over the past 18 months, Eritreans have been first crossing into Ethiopia and then entering Sudan from there.

UN investigators and European law enforcement agencies have recently ascertained that the majority of people trafficking networks, which stretch from Sudan to Libya and all the way into the EU, are operated by Eritreans. Trafficking and extortion are a huge business: until April 2016, passage from Eritrea to the EU cost around $3,500 according to figures obtained by the ERRI. Now that price has risen to $15,000 due to ransom demands, mainly in Sudan as well as in Libya where there are growing reports of Eritrean refugees being kidnapped by ISIS. They claim so-called Islamic State is not demanding a ransom: it is forcing migrants to become IS fighters.

In most EU member states, some of the highest numbers of asylum applications are submitted by Eritreans (only Syrians and Afghans submit more) – and this number grows every year. In 2010, 4,500 applications were made across the EU, 3,000 of them approved. In 2014, 37,000 Eritreans asked for asylum across the whole of the EU. Just under half of these requests were granted. This figure dropped slightly in 2015 (to roughly 34,000), but the approval rate rose to 27,000.

‘Not all that bad’

Even before their country gained independence, Germany was a popular destination for Eritreans. One of the most favoured locations was Frankfurt, where there is an Eritrean Orthodox church. Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) processed 14,000 asylum applications between January and August 2016. However, each was expressly decided on a case-by-case basis. Together with the Swiss migration and refugee authority SEM (State Secretariat for Migration), in 2016 BAMF sent a delegation on a fact-finding mission to Asmara to explore the potential risks of readmission.

Its final report concluded that “although persons crossing the border illegally are not shot at systematically, there are cases of shots being fired“ and: “It appears that the draconian legal provisions are, at present, not being imposed on those returning voluntarily from abroad who have refused military service, deserted the army or crossed the border illegally, provided they had previously reached an agreement with the Eritrean government. A new, undisclosed policy allows these individuals to return without facing punishment. It can, therefore, be assumed that the vast majority of people who have returned voluntarily in accordance with the provisions of this policy have not been subjected to torture. But some caution should be exercised. As this policy remains secret, there is no legal certainty,“ states the report seen by taz. The document suggests that in Europe there is a tendency to present the situation in Eritrea as being 'not all that bad’. Similar trends can be found in reports published by immigration authorities in Denmark, the UK, Norway and Canada.

In an internal communication from the EU Commission to the EU Parliament concerning the new partnership created as part of the European Agenda on Migration, Eritrea was named a “priority country“. “Combating the root causes of migration“ is the Europeans’ new objective, which is why the EU, and, most notably, the German government, are now extending a helping hand to President Afwerki.

“Fairly good“ partners

In December 2015, German development minister Gerd Müller became the first German cabinet member in 20 years to visit the Eritrean capital of Asmara and meet President Afwerki: “We can help Eritrea stop this exodus of young people by improving prospects here and, if possible, creating opportunities for Eritreans to return home. We are open to discussion and to exploring assistance options, such as professional training. However, this will only be possible if the Eritrean government initiates economic and political reforms and improves the human rights situation,“ Müller said during a press conference. Shortly afterwards, Eritrean government delegations travelled to Berlin and Brussels. In September 2016 in Berlin, two ministers and an influential advisor to the president, Yemane Gebreab, launched a new era of “bilateral partnership“ whilst Eritrean refugees protested outside.

“We cannot solve these problems simply by looking away. That is why we have chosen to co-operate,“ Christian Manahl, head of the EU delegation to Eritrea since 2014, explains in an interview with taz. When asked how he would describe the EU’s relationship with Afwerki’s regime since independence, he responds “fairly good“, signalling that the two partners were set to work even more closely together.

Shortly after Müller’s visit to Asmara, the EU signed an agreement in January 2016 promising €200 million from the EU’s development fund (EDF) over the next five years. Of this, €170 million would go towards energy and electricity generation and €20 million would help improve governance. Moreover, Eritrea is also involved in the Khartoum Process and is responsible for implementing its stipulated measures to facilitate “better migration management“. As part of this, Eritrea will receive an estimated €45 million.

A country without a budget

This aid from the EU should act as an incentive to the government in Asmara to proceed with certain reforms. This is the conclusion that can be drawn from several questions submitted to the German government concerning Eritrea. “We haven’t outlined any prerequisites. We can only apply pressure to the government so that they will implement our recommendations,“ Manahl explains to taz.

One of the EU’s core 'recommendations’ is a reform of the country’s controversial military service, with suggestions that it be limited to 18 months as per the constitution. In an article on Eritrea, news agency Reuters quotes anonymous sources inside the Eritrean government who state that the promise made to the EU was nothing but lip service. “That was our president’s promise to the EU, not to us Eritreans,“ criticises Estefanos from the ERRI refugee organisation when discussing the EU’s policy. “It will only be possible to change the government if all aid money to Eritrea is stopped and further sanctions are imposed,“ she says.

EU delegation head Manahl explained to taz that not a single euro would be transferred from Brussels to an Eritrean account: measures would be implemented by European consortia as Eritrea’s government does not publish an official budget plan. Any “concerns“ that the corrupt government could secretly siphon off EU development funds and pump them into its enormous military apparatus to commit further human rights atrocities would be “baseless“. What’s more, he claims corruption has recently been on the decline. “The majority of EU member states are still cautious about working together with security agencies,“ says Manahl. “But this hasn’t been completely ruled out for the future.“

UN investigators as well as researchers working at the Sanah Institute in Kenya put forth in their 2016 reports that Eritrean government and military personnel were involved in the trafficking of their fellow citizens to Europe. In 2015 Italian authorities arrested an Eritrean smuggler who had previously visited Europe as an official member of an Eritrean government delegation. Eritrea’s foreign ministry subsequently launched its own investigations into people trafficking networks and signalled their willingness to share their results with the UN. When asked for his opinion on this latest occurrence, EU delegation head Manahl responded: “There is no evidence that the government is systematically involved in people trafficking.“

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