Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea

Asefaw Bariagaber


Social scientists and economists have argued that human beings imitate the behavior of others to maximize benefits and minimize costs; however, not much has been written on imitation behavior among refugees. I appeal to globalization and increased access to modern means of communication to argue that imitation does occur among them. I provide empirical support for refugee-imitation behavior through focus-group interviews with a recent group of Eritrean refugees in the United States. I conclude that imitation is an important variable in explaining current and recent refugee movements from Eritrea and other countries in Africa. The explanatory power of the variable will increase with further expansion of modern means of communication.


In a seminal work entitled “The Refugee in Flight: Kinetic Models and Forms of Displacement,” Kunz states that the movement of refugees across international borders resembles “the movement of the billiard ball, devoid of inner directions [and whose] path is governed by kinetic factors of inertia, friction[,] and the vectors of outside forces applied on them”; he adds that an “inner self-propelling force. . . is singularly absent from the movement of refugees” (1973, 131). The extant literature, therefore, treats refugees as irrational actors when faced with events that impel their flight. This contention runs in stark contrast to the rational and purposeful movement of migrants, who are assumed to plan well ahead of time when and where to resettle.[1] Later works have partially challenged Kunz’s contention and have argued that, given the limited amount of information available, prospective refugees make considered decisions to flee (Bariagaber 1995; Hansen 1981); however, the assumption that refugees have no inner self-propelling forces governing their flight still dominates the literature, and our knowledge of refugee behavior has remained limited because of the inability to apply migration models and theories.

With the recent rapid rise in modern means of communication—the internet, electronic messaging systems (e-mail), smart phones with various applications (apps), and the global reach of television broadcasting, such as CNN and Al Jazeera—prospective refugees have become more independent and autonomous because of their increased access to information, not only when deciding whether or not to flee, but also how to flee, which route to take, and where to settle. It is plausible to suggest that refugee movements nowadays increasingly resemble deliberative and purposeful migrant movements. This article will answer the following questions: What distinguishes current and recent refugees in Africa from refugees during the Cold War? Do prospective refugees imitate the behavior of those who have already become refugees? And if so, what factors facilitate this behavior? How, if any, have recent advances in modern communication affected their flight? 

I hypothesize that the more the diffusion of information, the more individuals in closed societies tend to consider exile an option. The higher rate of the diffusion of information at present has made it easier for prospective refuges to seek information from those who have successfully become refugees and to learn what to do to attain the same status when conditions deteriorate in their places of original residence. Increased information empowers individuals by lowering their threshold of tolerance for hardships. Therefore, prospective refugees are expected to make purposeful and strategic decisions about flight much like prospective migrants. I provide empirical support for this contention through an interview with a group of five Eritrean refugees who fled the country after the signing of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea on December 12, 2000 and who have been granted refugee status in the United States. 

Variables that impel flight in the extant literature remain as plausible as ever (Bariagaber 2006; US Department of State 2016). These include religious persecution, a suppressive political environment, arbitrary imprisonment based on political opinion, and so forth. Indeed, at present, many Eritreans are fleeing from rural areas to seek exile in neighboring countries and stay put until the opportunity to repatriate presents itself, and many of them, like their countrymen who fled to exile decades ago, are unlikely to use modern means of communication. This study, however, adds an explanatory variable that has recently become important because of globalization. Increased access to information brought about by the diffusion of communication technology, especially for those living in urban and semi-urban areas of Eritrea, has eased flight, and this has added to our knowledge of the dynamics by which refugees flee. 

The rest of the article is divided into four parts. The first part reviews the literature on imitation behavior and introduces imitation as a possible explanatory variable in the present outflow of Eritrean refugees. The second part talks about the magnitude and factors associated with current refugee formations in Eritrea. The third part identifies the factors associated with the flight of refugees during the War of Independence and the 1998–2000 Border War with Ethiopia and discusses how these factors differ from the factors commonly associated with the flight of the current group of refugees. The fourth part examines the effects of globalization on refugee movements and presents empirical findings based on interviews with Eritrean refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States. The article ends with a discussion of the academic and policy implications of the study.

Human Imitation Behavior and Refugee Movements Out of Eritrea

Many refugees are leaving Eritrea because of a host of factors (US Department of State 2016). Whatever the specific reason(s) for the flight, the outflow of refugees—the dependent variable—is a given. The independent variable is human imitation behavior, defined as behavior adopted after observing the behaviors and decisions of others. Imitation behavior is rather common, and very few acts are original because humans notice the past successes of others and factor them into their decision-making process (Ross 1908). As Birkhchandani et al. (1998, 152) have noted: imitation is “an involuntary adaptation that has promoted survival over thousands of generations by allowing individuals to take advantage of the hard-won information of others.” This is more so for individuals in the same or similar situations, who face the same decisions based on similar information, and who expect similar economic payoffs after potentially executing the decisions (Birkhchandani et al., 1998). Therefore, convergence of behavior is to be expected because it makes economic sense: imitation minimizes costs, maximizes benefits, and reduces anxiety because of added predictability of the possible outcomes. 

Social psychologists have also appealed to imitation behavior in their studies of personality traits. Indeed, the development of one’s personality does not occur in social isolation, and a given behavior occurs after an individual develops a drive or an urge to do something that potentially provides a reward; thus, in social situations that evoke action, individuals must notice and want something, do something, and get something (Apple 1951). Given this, it is not hard to imagine many prospective Eritrean refugees—and prospective refugees elsewhere—imitating the behavior of other refugees when they seek exile. 

Studies of refugees, however, have barely touched upon imitation behavior in refugee formations. The few studies that do only talk about refugees in exile and how settled refugees, including their children, try to cope in their new surroundings (Cohon 1981). Other studies link benefit-seeking and patterns of migration to explain the flow of refugees to countries with successful assimilation of previous migrants (Boyd and Richerson 2009). In other words, imitative behavior is associated not only with outcome predictability but with benefit maximization. 

Whether or not refugees imitate when they flee has been, however, conspicuously absent from refugee studies, probably because of problems associated with obtaining credible data. First, not many refugees will claim that they fled their countries of origin to seek exile only because they saw others fleeing; to make such a claim may take away a measure of respect they would otherwise have among their compatriots. Second, they are seen as illegitimate refugees if they took flight because they saw others fleeing; as a result, they would not enjoy the legal protection accorded to refugees under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Third, implementing strict procedures to identifying deserving refugees from among a mass of fleeing individuals poses a moral, ethical, and religious dilemma for international organizations and their personnel; it means withholding relief aid and legal protection in the country of exile from supposedly undeserving individuals who cross international borders and arrive at refugee camps in the same need of assistance as the deserving refugees. All these factors have made credible data hard to come by, either from prospective refugees or from relevant international organizations; however, at present, additional information makes it possible to determine whether imitation behavior among Eritrean refugees (and refugees from the developing world) is an important variable in the formation of modern-day refugee situations, even if some of the factors mentioned above still persist.

Therefore, when looking at the present emergency-like conditions in Eritrea, it is easy to notice that the policies of the government have been especially felt by the young and the single—a group that forms a large majority of those who seek exile. The policies include national service required of all (regardless of whether or not one is a conscientious objector), the closure of independent media, the outlawing of political activities not condoned by the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and so on (US Department of State 2016). Those fleeing the country in opposition to these policies defy the traditional picture of a refugee: hungry, poor, sick, helpless, hopeless, resigned, and so forth (Kibreab 2005). They see no end to the desperate political, economic, and security situations in which they find themselves, especially because the national service, initially adopted to last only two years, has become unending due to repeated extensions. In the present era of globalization, where numerous sources of information are available, they are likelier to have strong misgivings about the direction the country is taking and to show impatience with it. As a result, they have developed a strong desire to pull themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves. The intense desire to break loose from highly restrictive government policies has propelled this group of individuals to look for ways to actualize their desires. 

Given the present situation, where the Eritrean government is in a much stronger position vis-à-vis the opposition, to challenge with arms, as during the pre-independence struggle against the Ethiopian government, may not be a feasible way out, and the desire to extricate oneself from an undesirable situation can be satisfied only by seeking refuge elsewhere; however, there is no such reward in exile in Sudan or Ethiopia because of possible governmental restrictions and the lack of economic opportunity. Therefore, most of the young and the well-educated seek temporary refuge in either of these countries to pave the way for migration to a third country, where the payoffs are greater than the risks. Their goal and desire is to settle in prosperous countries in order to satisfy their wants. Thanks to modern communication, including regular visits to the country by the Eritrean diaspora, electronic messaging systems, and smart phones, they are aware that their relatives outside Eritrea have satisfied their economic, security, and political wants by settling in Europe, North America, Australia, and the Middle East. Such individuals are more prone to imitation, compared to refugees before independence. They find themselves in conditions that evoke a strong desire to want a big payoff. The present situation in Eritrea, where they see no future, evokes such a desire to want something and do something by way of settlement in more prosperous countries. What is crucially needed is information on how to go about doing it, and the expansion of the means of communication has provided the opportunity and the means.

The Current Refugee Flight from Eritrea

At present, there is increasing concern and apprehension about the outflow of Eritrean refugees. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), a US-based organization that advocates the protection of the rights of refugees and other stateless persons,[2] classifies Eritrea as one of the world’s principal sources of refugees consecutively for the seven years before December 31, 2007, and a major source of refugees in 2008 and 2009.[3] The result of an intractable thirty-year-old conflict that began in 1961 and ended in 1991, the Eritrean refugee situation has been one of the most acute in the world, and tens of thousands of Eritreans have been given asylum in the United States and other countries. 

Equally important is that Eritrea has been relatively peaceful since 2001; however, it remains one of the top refugee-generating countries in the world, not only because many of the long-time refugees have never returned home, but also because new refugees have continued to join their ranks since 2001. The number of “Eritrean asylum seekers entering Sudan has grown quite dramatically, from around 1,000 in 2003 to almost 33,000 in 2008, with a somewhat smaller figure (between 22,000 and 25,000) in 2009 and 2010” (Ambroso, Crisp, and Albert 2011). With regard to those who fled to Ethiopia in 2007, “between 300 and 600. . . Eritreans entered [Ethiopia] per month” in small groups of individuals or family members (USCRI 2008, 78). The flight continues up to the present. UNHCR (2014) reports that more than “10,700 Eritreans have sought refuge in Sudan [in 2014], an average of more than 1,000 arrivals per month”; and an estimated twice that number who fled to Ethiopia.[4] There were a total of about 383,900 Eritrean refugees in mid-2015, of which about 139,300 have sought exile in Ethiopia (UNHCR, 2015), and tens of thousands more in Sudan. Most of the refugees these countries as the first stop on their journeys for final settlement elsewhere.

With regard to their modes of flight, most have left, and are still leaving, in small groups and at greater risk to their lives because flight is seen as “voting with one’s feet,” an act not condoned by any government, including the Eritrean government, which authorizes the immediate killing of those caught while fleeing (US Department of State 2013). If refugees successfully cross the border into their first country of asylum, they are not received with open arms. Beyond that, their chances of third-country settlement are bleak because of the anti-refugee environment prevalent in the more developed countries. Despite this, however, many Eritreans have fled, not because of existing violence and threats to their lives, as during the War of Independence (1961–1991) and the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War (1998–2000), but because of a combination of persistent political and economic factors. 

The present flight dynamics of Eritrean refugees are very much unlike the flight dynamics during the years of struggle for independence, when continuous violence resulted in massive disruption of the means of livelihood, accompanied by the imminent threat of death. It was a time when exile was approvingly seen by Eritreans because it helped discredit the government of Ethiopia. Hence, fleeing was a sudden action, sometimes undertaken in waves of large numbers of people. About 26,000 Eritrean refugees fled to Sudan in 1967 in because of the large-scale Ethiopian army offensives and the burning of many villages in the lowlands of Eritrea (Kibreab 1987). The lack of a permanent presence of government and opposition forces in the contested territories made flight less risky. The chances that one would be apprehended then were lower than now, when the chances of being intercepted by government forces are not insignificant. Moreover, there was a more welcoming environment in Sudan and a more sympathetic international community for possible third-country settlement. 

Given the absence of violence-related factors after the cessation of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia since 2001, an imperative question is why Eritreans are fleeing at present, despite a much more restrictive anti-refugee and xenophobic international environment. Based on the opportunities that globalization and the recent diffusion of modern means of communication have presented and a focus-group interview conducted with a select group of Eritrean refugees in the United States, this article advances the proposition that individuals in countries with closed political systems who contemplate exile make good use of modern means of communication.

Eritrean Refugee Formation

From the early 1960s to the early 1990s, Eritrea suffered the longest continuous war in Africa. As a consequence, it generated more than 500,000 refugees who fled to Sudan and an additional 100,000 to 150,000 refugees and migrants scattered in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Australia, and Ethiopia (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 1998). All told, about one in four Eritreans left the country because of war-related factors (Bariagaber 2000). On a per capita basis, therefore, Eritrea has been one of the foremost refugee-generating countries, not only in Africa, but in the world. Refugees have included men and women, young and old, married and single, and the educated and the less educated. Violence affected almost everybody, and the composition of the refugee population matched the general composition of the Eritrean population. 

In 1991, Eritreans succeeded in establishing a sovereign state through sheer perseverance and patriotism. There was hope that such attributes would be an asset in establishing a peaceful and democratic Eritrea, ready to meet the challenges of state-building and nation-building, including the complete repatriation of the estimated half a million refugees in Sudan and the return of most of those residing in other countries; however, this hope has yet to be realized. In early 2005, nearly fifteen years after independence, an estimated 191,000 Eritrean refugees remained in Sudan, roughly 38 per cent of those who had sought refuge in the country (USCRI 2005), and in 2009, nearly twenty years after independence, an estimated 113,000 Eritrean refugees were still in Sudan; this apparent reduction in Eritrean refugee numbers was primarily due to “onward movements, both to urban areas of Sudan but also to other countries and continents, including Egypt, Israel, Europe and beyond” (Ambroso, Crisp, and Albert 2011). This does not mean that the percentage of those who did repatriate—either using their own means, or through assistance from governmental and nongovernmental agencies—is not significant, but tens of thousands failed to repatriate. Similarly, the anticipated return of many Eritreans from countries other than Sudan did not materialize. 

Eritrea and Ethiopia successfully established amicable relationships during 1991–1998, though conflicts over the exact border and economic disagreements began to emerge. They culminated in the 1998–2000 Ethiopian Eritrean Border War, when between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers on both sides are believed to have died (Negash and Tronvoll 2000; Prunier 1998). The war created about 85,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan, made hundreds of thousands of Eritreans internally displaced, and resulted in the deportation of about 70,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean ancestry from Ethiopia (Bariagaber 2000). Almost all these refugees returned home following the 2000 Algiers peace agreement between the countries; likewise, almost all the internally displaced persons have returned to their villages. Nevertheless, Eritrea still finds itself in a state of pre-war-like preparedness because of the government’s suspicion that Ethiopia is “intent on reversing Eritrean independence altogether, or pushing for an outlet to the sea, or at the very least, [bent on overthrowing] the existing government in favor of a new, [more] compliant government” (Bariagaber 2006, 9). Indeed, a few in the Ethiopian opposition have yet to accept the separate and sovereign existence of Eritrea, and demarcation of the border would make it harder to accomplish their envisioned union of Eritrea and Ethiopia in the future (Mengisteab and Yohannes 2005). 

Given this history, the Eritrean government appears determined to accomplish a single goal: to demarcate the entire border and establish Eritrean sovereignty over all areas that the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruled to be Eritrean.[5] Unless this is accomplished, the Eritrean government sees little reason to implement the 1997 Constitution, which would open up the political system. It has been unable to focus and give sufficient attention to the pressing economic, political, and other issues Eritrea faces. “Therefore, Eritrea finds itself under emergency conditions, accompanied by higher expenditure on defense, an open-ended national conscription program, the banning of independent newspapers, expulsions of various NGOs, various measures against [the now-defunct United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea], and of course, the imprisonment of dissident members of PFDJ” (Bariagaber 2006, 10). Members of religious groups who have been unable to reconcile the demands of the state with their religious beliefs have been put in jail. The above factors together have contributed to fresh refugee outflows from Eritrea. Also, unable to voice their opinions at home because of the government’s heavy-handed response to any opposition, some have fled Eritrea and have established staging grounds for opposition activities in exile, including armed opposition movements and civic organizations that advocate human and refugee rights, democracy, and so forth. 

Unlike the pre-independence-era refugees, who came from all sectors of the Eritrean social landscape, the new refugees are mostly young, single, and relatively educated. Most of those who fled to Sudan have settled in Khartoum and are now known as the Kosovo group because they are “well-dressed, well-fed, and disinterested in spending a single day in Sudan,” and do not “fit [the] stereotypical image of a refugee” (Kibreab 2005, 136–137). Unlike the earlier refugees, whose movements may be termed acute because of the wave-like influxes of large refugee populations, the movement of the new refugees may be termed anticipatory because of the deliberative nature of their trek to exile. The factors that have pushed out more recent refugees have been weaker than those that pushed out the earlier refugees.[6] Their flight was undertaken as individuals, families, or small groups. They have characteristics that resemble those of a typical European refugee who fled after the end of the Second World War because of fear of persecution based on political, religious, and other affiliations. 

For more than fifty years, conflict and displacement have remained unchanging attributes of the Eritrean political and social landscape. If it was possible to establish that a small percentage of pre-independence-era Eritrean refugees had sought exile because of mass behavior (or imitative behavior),[7] as Bulcha (1988) and Bariagaber (2001) have established, then it makes more sense to propose now that imitative behavior has become an important factor in the movement of Eritrean refugees. This is mainly due to the emergence of a new variable: the diffusion of modern means of communication, such as the internet, e-mail, the smart phone and accompanying applications, and so forth, brought about by rapid globalization.

Globalization, Communications Technology, and Prospective Refugees

Migration has been part of human history since time immemorial. Although there have been ups and downs in the rate of migration, sometimes depending on the social, economic, political conditions and at other times on natural disasters, population mobility as part and parcel of human history is incontestable. It appears that over the last few decades the rate of migration has increased as a result of many factors, including political upheaval in many countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the changeability of the international political economy, and the conditions of globalization. It is now easier than ever to make economic and other financial transactions across national borders, to traffic human beings without the knowledge of national authorities, to smuggle illicit materials undetected, to broadcast and disseminate information without the approval of the powers that be, and to enter countries illegally and seek employment, despite strict laws that prohibit this.

More importantly, because of the diffusion of modern means of communication, the public can now easily follow, send, and receive news and other materials critical of government officials and move from place to place despite strict government controls. Also, “flows of capital, goods[,] and services” are nowadays “increasingly. . . organized through transnational networks,” and not through state actors (Castlles 2002, 1146). The world is increasingly changing from a “space of places,” a feature that made the nation-state relevant, to a “space of flows,” a feature that is increasingly making the nation-state irrelevant (Castells [1996] 2000, 440–448). As a result, the movement of people across national borders, whether legal or illegal, has increased significantly over the last decade and has become an inseparable aspect of contemporary international affairs. In short, globalization has eroded state power and has empowered individuals to a degree never seen before. 

At higher levels, globalization has facilitated the uses of social-networking technology in the pursuit of group goals. Perhaps the most talked about are the uses of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, in mobilization and democratization endeavors following the 2009 presidential elections in Iran and the more recent popular revolutions in the Arab world, including Tunisia and Egypt. Protests against what the opposition saw as rigged elections in Iran were largely initiated, facilitated, maintained, and fed to the outside world by such social-networking outlets. Although the protesters did not succeed in their demand to annul the election outcomes, their persistence shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic. More recently, the effective uses of Twitter, Facebook, electronic messaging, and smart phones during the Tunisian and Egyptian protests is believed to have played a critical role in bringing about the downfall of long-entrenched regimes, not only because such media outlets provided credible news where the government-controlled media failed, but more importantly, because they provided like-minded individuals and groups with the means to cooperate, coordinate, and communicate various courses of action (Olsson 2008). In other words, access to social media has made the public more autonomous and less dependent on the nation-state and its functionaries. 

At lower levels, the internet has particularly advanced individual autonomy vis-à-vis governments because of the secure and confidential transmission of information that governments may find objectionable. In particular, e-mails and smart phones have been instrumental in providing an easier and secure means of communication in situations and places where information flows are highly restricted and controlled, or where access is minimal. One such situation is when one contemplates and agonizes over the decision to leave one’s country to seek exile. Granted that exile is tantamount to a no-confidence vote in a government, the need for private and secure communication in internet-sparse regions of the world is imperative. E-mails and mobile phones provide that means, especially since many governments in the developing world may not have the technical know-how and the resources to monitor and access information being transmitted. It is therefore reasonable to expect many modern-day refugees and migrants to use modern means of communication, especially instant messaging, such as the Yahoo! Messenger, and various applications in smart phones in their quest to optimize successful departure from the home country and arrival at their proposed destinations. 

Prospective refugees in Africa use Yahoo! Messenger as their main means of communication for many reasons. It was one of the earliest instant-messaging systems, although others have now become common; is the fastest program to use for e-mailing on the slow dial-up connection computers found in most African countries;[8] is easy to use with a low amount of internet connectivity; has a fast loading time and hence useful in Africa, where connectivity is low; was free (unlike AOL, which was not free in its early phase, or MSN, which had limited content); is available on mobile phones, and mobile phone use in Africa is cheap and more widespread than the use of regular telephone and internet connections; and is ready for use, without a password, anywhere in the world after an acquaintance, usually in a foreign country, has set it up. Given that there is the need and the opportunity to make such use and the certain payoffs to be had, the proposition that individuals in less developed countries would be more inclined to use Yahoo! Messenger and the likes in their private communications is rather solid. 

Eritreans find themselves in a closed society, where information is hard to get. There was no mobile telephone usage in Eritrea before 2003 and, by 2010, this increased to only 3.53 percent of the population who used mobile phones—the lowest rate in the Horn of Africa.[9] Also, Eritrea was the last country in Africa to establish local access to the internet—in 2000. In 2015, while the internet usage rate for Africa was 28.6 percent (that is, its penetration as a percent of the total population of Africa), Eritrea’s usage rate was 1 percent, one of the lowest in Africa.[10] Thus, existing mobile telephones and internet connectivity rates and the characteristics mentioned in the previous paragraph are expected to make Eritreans, at least those in the urban and semi-urban areas with better access, want to use them in their quest to leave the country and seek exile (Economic Commission for Africa, n.d.). Why would they not, given that Eritrea’s internet connectivity has been much lower, even by African standards, until recently? How could they not if they have to travel to the “United States by way of Sudan, Kenya, Gambia and Cape Verde, then Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico” (Vedantam 2011)? 

Nonetheless, to provide empirical support to the contention that current Eritrean refugees use modern means of communication in their effort to seek exile, I conducted a focus-group interview with five Eritreans in an American city on April 12, 2009.[11] All five had fled Eritrea after 2000, were male Tigrigna-speaking Eritreans eighteen years old or older, and had finished secondary school. Four had a bachelor’s degree and had been accepted for graduate study in the United States while they had still been in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. They all had fled to Sudan, their first country of exile, and had come to the United States directly from Sudan. 

The last two interviewee attributes—their higher educational levels and direct flight to the US from the first country of exile—may not strictly reflect the general composition of recent Eritrean refugees. The first attribute may suggest a higher, more frequent use of modern communications technology because they are well educated, while the second attribute may suggest a lower, less frequent use of modern means of communication because their direct flight from Sudan to the United States minimized the time (hence lowering the chances of their use of modern means of communication) to arrive at their destinations. In fact, the second contention appears to be more plausible because of the need to use, and the ease with which one can get, telephone and internet services in transit countries.[12] Given this, I make a generous assumption: that the opposing effects of the first and the second factors on the uses of modern means of communication will even out; that is, the information the interviewees provided is expected to be close to what is actually happening by way of usage of the internet and smart phones. 

Finally, all have been granted asylum under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and relevant US laws. The reasons for their flight—as to whether or not they sought asylum because of fear persecution on account of their political orientation, religious persuasion, belonging to a particular group, and so forth—are thus not examined because they have been declared legitimate refugees. What is examined, however, is the means of communication they used to reach their destinations. There was no set of structured questions the interviewees had to answer, except to share their general experiences with a focus on the contacts they had made when the decision to leave was being contemplated and made, and the means by which those contacts were made. Apart from statements that the interviewees made in passing, no specific questions as to whether or not they agreed with government policies were asked. 

With respect to their choice of Sudan and not Ethiopia on their way exile, all indicated that they had received information on the heavy Eritrean troop presence along the border with Ethiopia, and there was more freedom for refugees to move inside Sudan as compared to Ethiopia, where refugees were kept in strictly controlled camps;[13] there was a long history of Eritrean refugee presence in Sudan and an established route to get there; and information on all aspects of refugee issues in Sudan was readily available.[14] All five agreed with the statement one of them made: “You have to find a reliable guide or smuggler before setting [out] on the trip.”[15] Hence, the choice of Sudan as the first country of asylum was based on safety considerations, as well as on imitative behavior of refugees who had left for Sudan during the War of Independence. In short, the refugees who fled to Sudan did their homework before embarking on what could have been a dangerous journey. 

With regard to their use of modern means of communications, all but one indicated that they used Yahoo! Messenger while in Eritrea and/or Sudan to communicate with people in Sudan and/or the United States. It was important to do this because they had to make arrangements for their documents to be sent to them after their arrival in Sudan. Only one interviewee said he had kept his documents with him at all times during the trek to Sudan.[16] Asked about why they used Yahoo! Messenger as the main means of communication, one interviewee said many prospective refugees do not know how to navigate regular e-mail, but “Yahoo! Messenger was fast” and was easy to use.[17] Also, the cost of internet use in Sudan was “cheap.”[18] All but one said that they had used a telephone in Asmara and/or Sudan (not necessarily a mobile phone) to contact relatives in the United States. Although they did not indicate that they had contacted a recent refugee before they left, one interviewee said that he had received detailed information through e-mail from one of the interviewees who had arrived in Sudan earlier.[19] Finally, two of the five had relatives in the city in which they presently reside, and had made several telephone and e-mail contacts before coming to the United States.

The focus-group interview made it clear that safe arrival in the first country and mobility within that country was critically important for any refugee who planned to seek asylum in another country. If there were restrictions in mobility, as has been the case for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia a couple of years back, then the chances of successful transfer to the desired country became lower. That is probably the reason why many refugees avoid immobility and cross one international border after another until they reach their final destinations.

Concluding Remarks

The arguments on the effects of globalization in facilitating imitative behavior advanced earlier and the empirical support obtained from the focus-group interview strongly indicate that prospective refugees from Eritrea have used modern means of communication in the process of seeking exile, from the time they contemplated and made the decision to leave to the time they arrived at their final destinations. There are at least two reasons as to why refugees use modern means of communications. First, technology eases learning through the experience of others—that is, through imitation—because it provides added predictability of outcomes, maximizes the benefits to be had, and minimizes the costs to be incurred. Second, the availability of information provides prospective refugees with the knowledge to weigh and sort things out and to make considered decisions. Knowledge, in turn, reduces the fear of the unknown, builds confidence, and provides a sense of empowerment sufficient to challenge state authorities. Hence, the threshold of tolerance to put up with “life without a future,” as Interviewee #5 stated,[20] had become low enough for prospective refugees to be able to muster enough courage to take control of their lives and to decide to leave. Had this not been the case, it would have been difficult to imagine why current and recent Eritrean refugees (and refugees from neighboring countries) continue to leave despite the reported hardships on the way—including the rape of women, as in Libya; death in the deserts, as in the Sahara and Sinai; the risks of being taken hostages, as in the Sinai; and drowning in dangerous waters, as in the Mediterranean Sea. It would have been hard to contemplate how current and recent Eritrean refugees would traverse many thousands of miles through a dozen or so countries in three continents to reach the United States.

As hard as it might have been, pre-independence Eritrean refugees did not go through such travails to reach their destinations. It would have been rather rare for them to plan to traverse countries in Africa, followed by countries in Latin America and Central America, to reach the United States. Perhaps this was because they were fleeing violence and imminent threats to their lives. The push factors were so overwhelming that quick exit and safe arrival at their first countries of exile were critically important. In addition, they did not have as much information as the recent and current refugees have to weigh the pros and cons of exile other than the immediate safety to be had in the first, neighboring country of exile. 

At present, globalization has provided prospective refugees with much better access to information when compared to the access refugees had a few decades ago. Also, there is no war-related violence to flee from. Therefore, recent and present-day Eritrean refugees, in contrast to earlier refugees, have not been in a hurry to leave: they have had enough time and information at their disposal to think through the potential risks in transit and the pros and cons of exile. Consequently, in terms of the kinetics of their movements, they look more like migrants. The first implication is thus academic: the conceptual distinction between a refugee and a migrant has become increasingly blurred, and scholars of refugee studies may now appropriately apply the more elaborate migration models to advance the study of contemporary refugee movements. 

The second implication is related to policy. Pre-independence Eritrean refugees (and refugees from neighboring countries) fled because of violence and imminent threats to their lives. Nowadays, however, people are fleeing because they see no political and/or economic future if they stay home, much as many Central and Eastern European refugees did when they left their home countries for the West in the aftermath of the Second World War. They now have enough time at their disposal and more opportunity to access and process information because the push factors are not as overwhelming as they were decades ago. It appears that the days when Africans will seek exile only because of violence and imminent threats to their lives are gone. Gone also are the days when they would seek asylum in the next-door neighboring country, because now they are more informed of the legal and other rights accorded to asylum seekers in more prosperous countries. Therefore, the combined effects of the expansion of modern means of communication and closed political systems in many countries are expected to generate refugees, even in the presence of nominal peace, in the years to come. Of course, the more closed the political system is, the higher the number of refugees will be. This is a challenge that policymakers have to face. After all, because of globalization, we now find ourselves in a “space of flows” (Castells [1996] 2000). This is as true of Eritrea as it is of some countries in Africa.


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  1. Per the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees, a refugee is “an individual who flees from his/her state of nationality because of political, racial, ethnic, or other kinds of persecution or to avoid warfare or other forms of political violence.” A refugee is reluctant to uproot oneself and would rather return upon cessation of the conflict or other factors that impelled his/her refugeehood. In contrast, a migrant is an individual who voluntarily leaves his/her state of nationality and is optimistic about life in the new environment and has no intention of returning.
  2. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a century-old, highly respected organization. I have used refugee statistics provided by it because they are the most accurate estimates available.
  3. See annual publications of the USCRI, entitled World Refugee Survey. Each includes a section on the world’s principal sources of refugees or major sources of refugees, and it lists the top ten countries with such characteristics. The 2009 issue is the latest that is available online.
  4. The UNHCR estimated that about 2000 Eritreans crossed into Ethiopia each month during the first nine months of 2014, and about 5000 in October 2014. These puts the total to 23,000 in the first 10 months of 2014.
  5. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission was created to demarcate the border as provided in the 2000 Algiers Agreement between the countries. A full text of the agreement is available at
  6. These are borrowed from Kunz’s (1973) typology of the kinetics of flight.
  7. Bariagaber (2001) has documented that about 4 percent of a sample of 104 Eritreans who repatriated during 1992–1993 had left simply because they saw others leaving.
  8. Obtained from a conversation my graduate assistant had with a former Peace Corps volunteer, whereby the Peace Corp volunteers in Kenya a few years back had been instructed to create a Yahoo account before arriving in the country to begin their assignment. They were told Yahoo was the easiest electronic-messaging system in the country. I assume this is true of other African countries.
  9. See Index Mundi at
  10. See The Internet Coaching Library at Accessed on May 30, 2016.
  11. Because of institutional review board requirements of confidentiality and anonymity and my assurance that this will be the case, the city and the names of the interviewees are not disclosed. In another city where a focus-group interview was scheduled, only one interviewee showed up at the appointed place on time (a second came when I was about to leave); therefore, only the information from the focus-group interview in the first city is included in the discussion.
  12. For example, a friend of mine in the United States tells me that he received an unexpected telephone call in November 2009 from a relative in Libya who asked him for money to pay human traffickers for a clandestine entree into southern Europe. I myself received a telephone call sometime in June 2011 from a female relative of mine in Sudan (who has a mobile phone) to help her find ways to come to the United States as a refugee.
  13. The Ethiopian government has since relaxed its control and has adopted a policy whereby Eritrean refugees can now live outside of the camps. See,,,,ERI,,4c64f132c,0.html.
  14. All five interviewees. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  15. Interviewee #1. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  16. Interviewee #1. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  17. Interviewee #1. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  18. Interviewee #3. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  19. Interviewee #2. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.
  20. Interviewee #5. 2009. Interview by author, 12 April.


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