Eritrean Refugees at Risk

Dan Connell


Thousands of Eritreans have fled a repressive dictatorship since 2001, making their small nation (population 3–4 million) one of the largest per capita producers of asylum seekers in the world. Some languish in desert camps. Others have been kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed—or killed—in the Sinai; left to die in the Sahara; or drowned in the Mediterranean. Still others have been attacked as foreigners in South Africa, threatened with mass detention in Israel, or refused entry under draconian “terrorism bars” in North America. But when one avenue closes, they seek others, often posing new dangers. This chapter draws on interviews in refugee camps and communities in Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas to put a human face on this crisis, sketch out the risks refugees face on their perilous journeys, and discuss the basic elements of a strategy to mitigate such risks built on refugee engagement and empowerment.


A woman I will call Abinet spent six years completing her national service in one of Eritrea’s ministries, keeping to herself but always doing her job as directed. However, after authorities discovered she had joined the clandestine congregation of a banned Pentecostal church, she was arrested, interrogated, and threatened before being released and shadowed in a clumsy attempt to identify other congregants. Faced with this, she arranged to be smuggled out of the country in 2013 and enrolled in a graduate program in human rights in Oslo, where I met her a year later.[2] 

Abinet, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her family within Eritrea, was one of thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers who were finding their way to Europe in flight from a repressive dictatorship that had consolidated its control over the society after a border war with its neighbor, Ethiopia, in 2001. Thirteen years later Eritreans were second only to Syrians in the number of arrivals crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats to reach Italy or tramping through the Balkans, though the country was only a fraction of Syria’s size and there was no civil war there (Connell 2015c; Laub 2015; OHCHR 2015; Tronvoll 2014). 

The small northeast African country, which has a population of 3–4 million and was once touted as part of an African “renaissance,” was by then one of the largest per-capita producers of asylum seekers in the world (Laub 2015). Many languished in desert camps. Some had been kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed—or killed—in the Sinai by brutal human traffickers. Others had been left to die in the Sahara or drowned in the Mediterranean. Still others had been attacked as foreigners in South Africa, threatened with mass detention in Israel, or refused entry to the United States and Canada under post-9/11 “terrorism bars” based on their past association with an armed liberation movement—the one they were now fleeing (EASO 2015; HRW 2014a; ICG 2014; Jacobsen 2013; OHCHR 2015; RMMS 2014; Monitoring Group 2012). 

The most horrifying of their misfortunes—the kidnapping, torture, and ransoming in Sinai—generated attention in the media and among human rights organizations, as did a tragic 2013 shipwreck off Lampedusa Island within sight of land that cost more than 500 lives (Jacobsen, Robinson and Lijnders 2013; HRW 2014b; Van Riesen, Estefanos and Rijken 2012, 2013; Van Riesen and Rijken 2015). But the public response, like that to famine or natural disaster, tended to be emotive and ephemeral, turning the refugees into objects of pity or charity with little grasp of who they were, why they took such risks, or what can be done to halt the hemorrhaging. 

This was abetted by the Eritrea government, which masked the political origins of these flows by insisting they were “migrants,” not refugees, and no different from those of other poor countries like their neighbor and archenemy, Ethiopia, or that half or more were actually Ethiopians masquerading as Eritreans (DIS 2014; Laub 2015). These are fictions and exaggerations convenient for destination countries struggling with rising ultra-nationalist movements and eager for a rationale for turning the Eritreans (and others) away. But this is not a human—or political—crisis amenable to simplistic solutions. Nor is it going away any time soon. 

The reason most Eritreans cite for leaving their homeland has long been conscription for national service of an indefinite duration, with pay so low their parents have to subsidize them (Connell 2012; Kibreab 2013; HRW 2014a, 2009; UNCHR 2013). But I heard other compelling reasons from most of those I interviewed over two years in 19 countries in North America, Europe, Israel, Africa, and Central America—more than 450 in lengthy personal conversations. Many cited unrelenting abuse and humiliation, constant threat of imprisonment or torture for offending someone in authority, often without even realizing how they had done this, or for abetting someone else’s escape or practicing a banned religious faith. 

The EU and many of its member states have responded to this crisis by offering aid to Eritrea with the aim of reinvigorating its stagnant economy based on unofficial assurances that national service will be scaled back in the future and a faulty assumption that economics lies at the base of this exodus.[3] But they are missing an essential point: The crushing repression of Eritrea’s citizens, especially its youth, is as much a driver of the outflow of people as the lack of economic prospects. Nor are they separate, as the economy is almost completely dominated by the state and ruling party. Money alone will not change this.

The Source

Eritrea’s history has been marked by conflict and controversy from the time its borders were determined on the battlefield between Italian and Abyssinian forces in the 1890s. A decade of British rule was followed by federation to and then annexation by Ethiopia. Finally, in the 1990s, after a 30-year war that pitted the nationalists, themselves divided among competing factions, against successive US- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian regimes, Eritrea gained recognition as a state (Connell 1997; Iyob 1995). 

Since then Eritrea has clashed with all of its neighbors, climaxing with an all-out border war with Ethiopia in 1998–2000 that triggered a rapid slide into repression and autocracy (Jacquin-Berdal and Plaut 2005). It has survived by conscripting its youth into both military service and forced labor on state-controlled projects and businesses, while relying on its diaspora for financial support, even as it produced a disproportionate share of the region’s refugees. This paradox underlines the strength of Eritrean identity, even among those who flee (Kibreab 2010; Hepner and Tecle 2013; Hepner 2009). 

Eritrea is dominated by a single strong personality, former rebel commander and now president, Isaias Afwerki. He has surrounded himself with weak institutions, and there is no viable successor in sight, though there are persistent rumors of a committee-in-waiting due to his failing health. The ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), a retooled version of the liberation army, functions as a mechanism for mobilizing and controlling the population (Connell 2011; Kibreab 2010). No other parties are permitted. Nor are non-governmental organizations—no independent trade unions, media, women’s organizations, student unions, charities, cultural associations, nothing. A constitution ratified in 1997 has never been implemented (Habte-Selassie 2003). All but four religious denominations have been banned, and those that are permitted have had their leaderships compromised (EASO 2015; ICG 2010; Tronvoll and Mekonnen 2014; UNHCHR 2015). 

Refugees cite this lack of freedom—and fear of arrest should they question it—as one of the main reasons for their flight. But the camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, the first countries of refuge for the overwhelming majority of those fleeing, reflect a highly unusual demographic: Most such populations are comprised of women, children, and elderly men, but UNHCR officials in Ethiopia and Sudan say that among those registering in the camps there, close to half in recent years have been women and men under the age of 25. The common denominator among them is their refusal to accept the undefined, open-ended national service (HRW 2009). 

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) had registered more than 380,000 Eritreans as refugees by 2015, and many more have passed through Ethiopia and Sudan without being counted (UNHCR 2010).[4] The UNHCR representative in Sudan in 2013, Kai Lielsen, told me he thought 70–80 percent of those who crossed into Sudan didn’t register and didn’t stay.[5] Thus, a conservative estimate would put the total at more than three-quarters of a million. For a country of only 3–4 million people, this is remarkable. And it is the combination of their vulnerability and their desperation that has made them easy marks for traffickers.

The Trafficking

For many years after the crackdown on dissent in Eritrea and the indefinite extension of national service, the main refugee route for those fleeing the country ran through the Sahara to Libya and thence to Europe. When that was blocked by a pact between Libya and Italy in 2006, it shifted east to Egypt and Israel. Smugglers from the Arab tribe of Rashaida in northeastern Sudan worked with Sinai Bedouin to facilitate the transit, charging ever-higher fees until some realized they could make far more by ransoming those who are fleeing (HRW 2014b; Van Reisen, Estefanos, and Rijken 2013). 

The smugglers-turned-traffickers eventually demanded as much as $40,000–50,000, forcing families to sell property, exhaust life savings, and tap relatives living abroad. In international law, smuggling rises to the level of trafficking not just when it becomes outrageously exploitative but rather when it involves force, coercion, or fraud for an “improper purpose,” which is what happened in this case with a vengeance.[6] As the voluntary flow dried up, the smugglers in Sinai paid to have refugees kidnapped from UN-run camps after identifying those from urban, mostly Christian backgrounds (those most likely to have relatives in Europe and North America), effectively turning the trade into modern-day slavery (This American Life 2013). 

I spoke with one survivor in Israel in 2013 whose story was typical. Philmon, a 28-year-old computer engineer, fled Eritrea in March 2012 after getting a tip he might be arrested for public statements critical of the country’s national service. Several weeks later, he was kidnapped from Sudan’s Shagarab camp, taken with a truckload of others to a Bedouin outpost in the Sinai, and ordered to call relatives to raise $3,500 for his release. “The beatings started the first day to make us pay faster,” he told me.[7] 

Philmon’s sister, who lived in Eritrea, paid the ransom, but he was sold to another smuggler and ransomed again, this time for $30,000. “The first was like an appetizer. This was the main course,” he said. Over the next month, he was repeatedly beaten, often while hung by his hands from the ceiling. Convinced he could never raise the full amount, he attempted suicide. “I dreamed of grabbing a pistol and taking as many of them as possible, saving one bullet for myself.” 

Early on they broke one of his wrists. Later, they dripped molten plastic on his hands and back, during many of his forced calls home to beg for money. After his family sold virtually everything they had to raise the $30,000, he was released. But his hands were so damaged he could no longer grip anything. He couldn’t walk and had to be carried into Israel. Because he was a torture victim, he was sent to a shelter in Tel Aviv for medical care. In this regard, he was one of the lucky ones. 

For some 35,000 Eritreans who came to Israel after 2006, each day was suffused with uncertainty, as an anti-immigrant backlash developed (Hotline 2014, 2015). The government called them “infiltrators,” not refugees, and threatened them with indefinite detention or, what many feared most, deportation to Eritrea. Philmon has since moved on to Europe for treatment of his injured hands where the reception was more welcoming, though there, too, a virulent anti-immigrant movement was growing. 

Late in 2013, the Sinai operation began to contract due to a confluence of factors: increased refugee awareness of the risks, the effective sealing of Israel’s border to keep them out, and Egyptian efforts to suppress a simmering Sinai insurgency among Bedouin Islamists. But this didn’t stop the trafficking—it just rerouted it. What I found in eastern Sudan that summer was that Rashaida were paying bounties to corrupt officials and local residents to capture potential ransom victims along the Sudan-Eritrea border and even within Eritrea and Ethiopia and were holding them within well-defended Rashaida communities there. Such captives would not be counted by government or agency monitors and would not show up at all were it not for the testimony of escapees and relatives (Connell 2013b). 

In the fall of that year, Lampedusa survivors also revealed that Libya was becoming a site for ransoming and kidnapping, illustrating that as one door closed for the traffickers, new opportunities arose across a region of weak states and post-Arab Uprising instability (Connell 2015c, 2015b, 2013a). What Sudan and Libya had in common was not the predators but the prey. And the practice was expanding as word spread of the profits to be had, much as with the drug trade elsewhere. And it will continue to expand as long as there’s a large-scale migration of vulnerable people with access to funds and no coordinated international response to stop it (HRW 2014b; IOM 2014; Van Reisen and Rijken 2015). 

Eritrean refugee flows run in all directions. They’re facilitated by smugglers with regional and, in some cases, global reach. The gangs behind this engage in a range of criminal activities, within which human trafficking is just a lucrative new line of business. Some have ties to global cartels and syndicates. Some have political agendas and fund them through such enterprises. Most are heavily armed. Under such conditions, a narrowly conceived security response can quickly spin out of control and escalate into a major counterinsurgency, as in Sinai in Egypt. For weaker states across the Sahel, the risks of ill-thought-out action are infinitely greater. Meanwhile, Eritreans blocked from Israel and frightened by the risks of crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean found other routes to freedom that carried new risks. One these ran through South and Central America to the back door of the United States.

The Road to the U.S.

It was not hard to find the Eritreans in the laconic, Pacific coast town of Tapachula, Mexico, a few miles from the Guatemala border. They gathered on the front steps of the Palafox Hotel with the only other Africans here—Somalis, Ethiopians, a handful of Ghanians, all of them migrants—or they crowded a bustling internet café across the street. One afternoon in the spring of 2015, I met two who had been released from a maximum-security detention center here the night before. They were surprisingly at ease, giddy at the thought they had passed the last major hurdle to reach the United States. All they had to do now was fly to northern Mexico and walk across a bridge. But it had been a long, arduous journey, and I could see they were still jumpy (Connell 2015a, 2014a). 

Tesfay, a Catholic from the market town of Keren, a crossroads for Eritrea’s diverse cultures and religious faiths, left his country in 2007 at the age of 20 after being caught in a giffa [round-up] and taken to the Sawa Military Training Center for induction into the national service, fearing he would be in for an indefinite term at pay so low his parents would have to subsidize him for the foreseeable future. But there was nothing he could do. At the end of his training, he walked out of the camp and kept going until he reached Kassala, Sudan.[8]

After a year in Sudan, Tesfay became ever more frustrated at his lack of prospects and fearful of Eritrean security forces who frequently crossed the border in search of escapees, so he got on the phone to relatives and raised $3,500 to pay smugglers to take him to the Egyptian Sinai so he could cross into Israel. In September 2008, he reached Tel Aviv where he thought he would be safe. 

But after six years of relative quiet, he was swept up in another giffa, this time by Israeli authorities who were rounding up Eritreans and sending them to the newly constructed Holot Detention Center in the Negev Desert. By then there were 35,000 in the country, along with 15,000 Sudanese, and anti-African sentiment was reaching a fever pitch, as demagogic politicians stoked the anger among ultra-nationalists who wanted the Africans out. One member of parliament from the right-wing Likud Party, Miri Regev, had termed the refugees “a cancer in our body.” 

At the end of 2012, the government had begun to implement measures to reverse the influx. The first step had been the completion of a high security border fence running from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea to prevent new arrivals. The second, a year later, was opening of the Holot detentions. Deportation or “voluntary” departure was to be the final one (Connell 2015b). 

Holot was a desolate place with no facilities for its inmates apart from a cafeteria and beds, which I saw for myself on a visit in January 2015, though its gates were open during the days and evenings, so residents could go in and out and conduct interviews with a visiting researcher, so long as they got back for evening roll call. In this respect, Holot functioned as a kind of halfway house, designed to house refugees for limited periods while pressuring them to leave—but only under Israeli auspices. 

When Tesfay joined a protest there in June 2014 and marched to the Egyptian border with hundreds of other detainees to demand they be allowed to leave then and there, he was jailed at the maximum security Saharonim Prison across the road from Holot for three months. When he was released, he decided to give in to the pressure and go on Israel’s terms. The choices he and others were offered were: self-deport directly to Eritrea or accept a deal Israel worked out with Rwanda and Uganda to go there. In either case, the refugees got a cash payment—$3,500—and temporary travel documents that would be taken from them upon their arrival. 

Tesfay took Rwanda, and the money. As soon as he got to Kigali, however, he arranged to go to Uganda to meet his wife, who came from Sudan to escape what she had said was harassment and abuse because she was an Eritrean Christian. No place seemed safe, so they agreed that he would try to get to the United States and send for her. 

Once he had arranged air tickets and forged travel documents with smugglers in Kamapala, he flew to Turkey, then to Brazil and finally to Ecuador, taking this roundabout route because the flights on Turkish Airlines were cheap. From Quito, he went by bus and foot across Columbia and up through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to the Mexican border, following a well-trod path used by hundreds of Eritrean refugees each year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Tapachula. 

Ghebre was from Adi Quala in south-central Eritrea, close to the Ethiopian border. He’d been sent to Sawa for military training in 2010, but on his first home leave twelve months later, he refused to go back. Three months after that, he was arrested and sent to the notorious Aderser Prison near Sawa, where he spent the next two years under what he described as unrelentingly harsh conditions. He escaped in 2013 by going to the hospital and slipping out with a guard he’d befriended.[9] 

Ghebre and his friend went straight to Khartoum, where the former prison guard, also a national service conscript, arranged to be smuggled to Libya. Ghebre, who’d fallen ill, stayed behind. He choked up as he told me he learned a few months later that his friend had died in the Mediterranean trying to get to Italy. Others he knew had been detained in Sudan and sent back to Eritrea, leaving him scared to stay and scared to go to Libya. He said he’d heard about the option of flying to South America to get to the United States and decided to try it. It took him several months to raise the money, but once he had it he flew to Brazil and followed the same route through Ecuador and Columbia as Tesfay had. They met in Panama and traveled the rest of the way together. By the time I encountered them, they were describing each other as “family.” 

Ghebre and Tesfay moved along this modern-day “underground railroad” with dozens of refugees and migrants from Somalia, Pakistan and India, as well as Eritrea, traveling in small groups that met up at major transit stops. All this was done under the direction of a network of smugglers—“agents,” they called them—who got them through checkpoints and led them along little-used footpaths to bypass border posts. In Columbia, they boarded boats for an eight-hour, middle of the night ride on a small fishing boat to reach Panama, where they had plunged into the dense, largely uncharted wilds of the Darien Gap. Some of the time they walked, some they rode in long wooden canoes paddled by indigenous Panamanians whom the smugglers hired. 

For two days, they were awakened before dawn to hike through undergrowth so tangled with vines and brambles they often could not see where they were putting their feet. The thick canopy overhead blocked the sun, but punishing temperatures and suffocating humidity left them drenched in sweat. Brief but intense bursts of rain offered some letup but left them dripping even more. No one wore long pants, they said, because it was too hard to walk once they were wet. Some threw away clothes, food, even water when they became too much to carry, forcing them to drink from rivers the color of cappuccino. But if they did so, they paid the price with crippling bouts of diarrhea. At least one in Ghebre’s group gave up, he said. 

Throughout the trek, they kept as quiet as they could to avoid attracting the attention of Colombian drug runners that use the trails, or the heavily armed border police who hunt them. When they emerged, though, they stumbled onto a military camp and were immediately detained. They were also fed. It was a relief, he said. After four days he was loaded onto an army truck and taken to another camp, the second of four en route to Panama City. Each time he moved he was asked for a bribe. At the fourth one, he met Tesfay. In Panama City, they were questioned and photographed and then issued 10-day passes to get to Costa Rica. It took six days to get the money from relatives to pay for the trip. On day seven, a local “agent” put them on a bus. 

For the next two weeks, they worried about being detained in one of the other countries they had to pass through or, worse, taken off a bus by one of the many drug-smuggling gangs that operate there. “I’m every day scared,” said Ghebre. “I’m not ever relaxed.” None of this was made easier by their lack of Spanish. “We had very little contact with the people,” he added. 

As it happened, the trip was uneventful—harrowing midnight treks along barely marked mountain paths, a pick-up truck jammed with migrants careening along back roads in Nicaragua, hour after hour on rickety hand-me-down school buses in Honduras and Guatemala, but no hostile confrontations. 

Detention finally came in Tapachula, just as they had expected. Nearly all the migrants were aware of what awaited them at the Mexican border. Many Central American migrants, fearing they would be turned back, avoid it by slipping across to the north near Tenosique to catch a freight train known as “The Beast” to the US border. Most African and Asian migrants, coached by their smugglers, go to the authorities instead. 

Mexico gives them two choices: Either petition for asylum and permanent resident status, which can take two to three months, or plead their case, ask for a travel permit and promise not to remain in Mexico.[10] If they take the second option and are granted safe passage, they get 30 days to get through and out of the country. Mexico detains more refugees and migrants than nearly any country in the world, but it grants asylum to relatively small numbers (451 in 2014). In 2012, they held 90,000 (not all at once). In the first 11 months of 2014, the number jumped to 117,00, most from violence-plagued Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala. By way of contrast, the U.K. detained 25,000 over a similar period. The Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI in Tapachula is the largest detention site in Mexico, with a capacity of 960, but many people are held a week or less, giving it a revolving door feel, and very few ask for asylum. Most Eritreans view this as a minor irritant, after all they’ve been through.[11]

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has an office there, but staff said they could only guess at the number of Eritreans who come through based on detention statistics from the federal government, as almost none register as refugees. “They don’t approach the UN,” said Ana Silva Alfonso,[12] “They know the way, and they are very well organized.” 

I met Tesfay and Ghebre after they’d been inside for seven days. Neither was fazed. All they talked about was where to go next, California or Texas. They appeared to have no plan and no relatives to call upon there, but they’d been reading posts on Facebook. They inclined toward the Hidalgo Bridge at McAllen, Texas. Asked why the United States, Tesfay merely shrugged and said: “I like freedom.”

What Needs to Happen

An effective approach to this crisis would start with education and empowerment of the target population and involve efforts to identify and protect refugees throughout their flight. A key step would be the early, uncoerced determination of status according to international standards and an expanded program of resettlement that gave the refugees a credible opportunity for relocation—including young single men who are often excluded or put to the bottom of the list. This could be coupled with an expansion of incentives to deter onward migration, including education, training, employment, and, where appropriate, integration into host communities. Employment is a key, though, for training that leads nowhere only propels onward movement. But none of this could work without refugee engagement in the process itself. 

Then, and only then, would a security operation targeted at the smuggling and trafficking have a chance for success. But it, too, would need to be multidimensional in substance and regional in scope with the key states sitting down with one another and cooperating in the implementation of a strategy to curb, if not end, illegal activity. Each country in this region has a tendency to act independently of the others, attacking aspects of the problem but not dealing with it in its totality. Sudan has arrested individuals implicated in trafficking, including one police officer, but has not cracked down on corrupt officials or gone into Rashaida communities to take down the ring leaders. Nor does it have an urban refugee program to recognize and accommodate the many Eritreans from urban backgrounds who do not adapt to rural camp life (Jacobsen, Robinson and Lijnders 2013). Ethiopia has instituted security measures within the refugee camps on its northern border and has an effective urban program based on what it calls an “out-of-camp” policy, but it is not working with Sudan on cross-border movement and it lacks funding to accommodate the large number of camp-based refugees who want to live in the cities. Egypt has launched military operations in the Sinai where the torture camps are situated, but the announced aim was to break up an Islamist insurgency—the government denies there is trafficking taking place. 

An effective approach would begin with a conference of affected states, and it would have to be supported by donor states and appropriate agencies (Interpol among them), not only in terms of aid but also intelligence, logistics, coordination, and communication. The meeting that took place on November 28, 2014 in Khartoum—dubbed the “Khartoum Process”—was a good start in this direction, but the proof of its value (or its absence) will be in the follow up, which has to date been less than encouraging.[13] 

If the trafficking operations are truly to be rolled up, the marginalized populations from which they arise and on which they depend need to be offered sufficient incentives to withdraw support for the criminals. This means access to resources, economic alternatives to off-the-books trading, involvement in the local political process, education for their children, and more. These people need to be made stake holders in the states where they live, which is not the case today for the Sinai Bedouin or the Sudan-based Rashaida or most of the other groups involved in Trans-Sahel smuggling. 

Meanwhile, to dry up this particular supply of prey, political change is needed at the source, in Eritrea. That means at a minimum opening up the political system and the economy, limiting (but not necessarily ending) national service, releasing political prisoners, implementing the long-stalled Constitution, and ending controls on travel so those who do want to go abroad as migrant workers can do so without illegally crossing borders and going through illicit smuggling networks. 

The most important thing the United States and other interested countries could do to facilitate this process would be to work with Ethiopia to resolve once and for all the border dispute with Eritrea. The clash centers on a frontier town, Badme, which both states claim, but which a 2002 Border Commission ruled belonged to Eritrea.[14] Ethiopia has held out for negotiations that would address normalization of relations, among other concerns. For its part, the US has done little more than protest, while the Asmara regime has used the impasse as a rationale for continued repression and one-party rule. 

Despite Eritrea’s appalling human rights record and its belligerent behavior in the region, which have long left it isolated, there is an opportunity for engagement given that prominent regime officials indicated a willingness to revise the terms of national service in private sessions with European officials and in media interviews, though no official policy change has been announced apart from a promise of salary increases. But if the EU and individual states jump too rashly and simply throw money at Eritrea, they risk entrenching the very practices that lie behind much of the exodus, while doing precious little to stem it.[15] 

Although Eritrea’s three branches of government—cabinet, national assembly, and high court—provide a facade of institutional governance, real power is exercised through informal networks that shift and change at the president’s discretion. Every important decision is made in secret (Connell 2011; Kibreab 2013; ICG 2010; Tronvoll and Mekonnen 2014). Under these circumstances, taking private pledges of reform at face value is a risky proposition. At a minimum, a date for an end to the practice of requiring indefinite national service should be announced, along with a plan for a rolling demobilization of those who have already served longer than 18 months (Mehreteab 2004).[16] 

Making this public would make it difficult—not impossible, but harder—for the government to renege on a promise it is quietly making to visiting delegations. Given President Afwerki’s unbending resistance to such moves in the past, however, there is reason to be skeptical. In any case, such an announcement would at best only slow the migration rate of those now in military service and those about to be called up, but not halt it. More is needed to turn the tide. 

When I’ve asked refugees, especially recent arrivals, what it would take to get them to go back, there are two things they mention right away: the release of political prisoners, including those jailed for their religious convictions, and the implementation of the Constitution, which was ratified in 1997 but has sat on a shelf in the president’s office ever since. It is deeply flawed and needs revision, but it would be a start. Many also talk about the need for basic freedoms—of press, of speech, of movement, of religion—but the rule of law tops the list, as everyone wants to know what the rules are and that those in power have to play by them, too. Without this, few are likely to take promises of reform seriously. Those policymakers in other countries inclined to re-engage with this regime and offer aid need to use this opportunity to demand hard evidence that change is coming and that it’s more than cosmetic. 

There are more steps needed to ensure that Eritrea is really on a path from dictatorship to some form of nascent democracy with increased transparency in state affairs, reform of the deeply flawed judicial and penal system, and the nurturing of a political culture in which stable political institutions can take root. Eritrea also needs a structured process of truth and reconciliation to give people back their history and start a process of healing on which this once promising new nation can build a future. And there has to be movement toward normalizing relations with its neighbors, especially Ethiopia. 

One thing is certain: if the wrong steps are taken at the outset—or false hope is raised and no steps taken—what little hope that still flickers within the younger generation inside Eritrea will be further dimmed, more will flee, and it will be much, much harder to convince any of them to go back soon.


Connell, Dan. 2015a. Eritrean Refugees’ Trek Through the Americas. Middle East Report no. 275, Summer.

———. 2015b. An Eritrea in Israel. Foreign Policy in Focus, February.

———. 2015c. From Sinai to Lampedusa: An Eritrean Journey. Middle East Report Online, January.

———. 2014a. Central America’s Other Refugees. Foreign Policy in Focus, October.

———. 2014b. Eritrean Refugees at Risk. Foreign Policy in Focus and The Nation, April 11.

———. 2013a. Refugees, ransoms and revolt: An update on Eritrea. Middle East Report no. 266, Spring. 34–39.

———. 2013b. The rerouted trafficking in Eritrean refugees. Middle East Report no. 268, Fall. 40–45.

———. 2012. Escaping Eritrea: Why they flee and what they face. in Middle East Report No. 264, Fall. 

———. 2011. From Resistance to Governance: Eritrea’s Trouble with Transition. Review of African Political Economy, September.

———. 2004. Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press.

———. 2001. Inside the EPLF: The Origins of the “People’s Party” and its Role in the Liberation of Eritrea. Review of African Political Economy 28, 89: 345–374.

———. 1997. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press.

Danish Immigration Service. 2014. Eritrea—Drivers and Root Causes of Emigration, National Service and the Possibility of Return. Copenhagen: DIS, August and October.

European Asylum Support Office. 2015. Eritrea Country Focus, A Country of Origin Information Report. European Union, June.

Habte-Selassie, Bereket. 2003. The Making of the Eritrean Constitution: The Dialectic of Process and Substance. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press.

Hepner, Tricia Redeker. 2009. Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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  1. This chapter is adapted from Dan Connell, Eritrean Refugees at Risk. Foreign Policy in Focus and The Nation (April, 11 2014); Crushing repression of Eritrea’s citizens is driving them into migrant boats. The Guardian (April 20, 2015); and Eritrean Refugees’ Trek Through the Americas. Middle East Report, no. 275 (Summer 2015).
  2. Interview with the author, Oslo, October 24, 2014.
  3. For a summary of the EU initiative for 2016–2020, see European Commission, “Eritrea,”
  4. UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR subregional operations profile – East and Horn of Africa,”
  5. Interview with the author, Khartoum, June 23, 2013.
  6. See for example the discussion of trafficking by the United States National Institute of Justice,
  7. Interview with the author, Tel Aviv, January 1, 2013.
  8. Interview with the author, Tapachula, Mexico, March 24, 2015.
  9. Interview with the author, Tapachula, Mexico, March 24, 2015.
  10. Mexico’s refugee policy and statistics on refugees and asylum-seekers can be found at the website of the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR),
  11. For more on this, see the Global Detention Project,
  12. Interview with the author, Tapachula, Mexico, March 25, 2015.
  13. In November 2014, representatives of the European Union, the African Union and some 40 individual states, including all those in the Horn of Africa, agreed to work together on human trafficking between the Horn and Europe, though there were substantial disagreements over the causes of the outflows. For a brief summary of the outcome, see European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “Khartoum Process: EU and African Union launch initiative against smuggling of migrants” (December 5, 2014),
  14. “Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission Decision Regarding Delimitation of the Border” (April 12, 2002),
  15. A Danish Immigration Service report issued in November 2014 and later cited by U.K. immigration authorities claimed that conditions in Eritrea had changed, that human rights reports were outdated, and that Eritrea’s terms of national service were being eased ( Speaking on a panel on the political situation in Eritrea sponsored by the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna on April 8, 2015, Yemane Gebreab, a top presidential advisor and head of the political affairs department of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), announced that the decision had been taken to scale back the terms of service to eighteen months ( However, this was never implemented.
  16. The Eritrean government twice planned and organized a major phased demobilization program, once in the mid-1990s after the independence war and again after the Border War in 2001, though the latter plan was not implemented. For details of the second program, which could serve as a template for a program now, see


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