Fleeing Eritreans Unaware Of Perilous Journey Across Mediterranean

Eritreans attempting the crossing make the choice to flee poverty and repression under a dictatorship in the hope of a new life.

Early morning, 17 miles off the Libyan coast in international waters, and the crews with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) hear a ping on their ship’s radar.

Over the subsequent few hours a familiar scenario unfolds.

In darkness and on rough Mediterranean waters, the organisation’s purpose-built vessel, the Topaz Responder, manoeuvres towards the radar ping.

With the help of floodlights, the rickety wooden boat is spotted. It is dangerously overcrowded; easily more than 300 men, women and children, few wearing life jackets.

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The rescue crew’s drill is now well-rehearsed. Two smaller and more manoeuvrable launches are deployed from the larger vessel and positioned alongside the wooden boat. One by one, people are counted off their wreck of a boat to safety.

Over more than an hour, 352 people were ferried from the smaller launches to the Responder vessel for medical checks.

But on board the fishing boat, three separate hold compartments were discovered. Inside them were four bodies and a number of other people in a critical state.

Most of the hundreds rescued said they were from Eritrea and had boarded the vessel in the Libyan town of Sabrath.

It is one of a string of towns along the Libyan coast where people smugglers operate with impunity.

In 2015, the going rate for a sub-Saharan African to secure a space on a rickety boat, which might or might not make it across the Med to Italy, was $1,000 (£760).

The lower the price, the less safe the journey. The four who died in the hold probably paid less than those above them, who survived.

The smugglers charge extra for life jackets. Those who volunteer to pilot the vessel, regardless of experience, get a discount.

Testimony from those who do make the journey alive suggests that few have any idea how long the journey across the Mediterranean is, not to mention how dangerous.

But even if they did know the dangers, few would make a different choice because the danger of war, the threat of terror or the hopelessness of poverty has compelled them to cross the Sahara desert in search of a new life.

Eritrea, which is home for all of those on this boat, has a human rights record on a par with North Korea.

It is a totalitarian state whose dictatorial president, Isaias Afwerki, allows no dissent and no foreign journalists either.

So it is hard to empathise with those fleeing the place because we have not really seen how bad it is.

A 2010 US diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks gives a hint.

It read: ”Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.”

Last month, on 5 July, more than 4,500 people were rescued in a single 24-hour period.

The Italian coastguard, which operates in the waters alongside charities like MOAS, said the survivors were picked up in 35 separate rescues.

Figures from the Italian government show that between January and June 2016, 70,222 people arrived in Italy from the north African coastline including 11,608 children, of whom 10,524 were unaccompanied by an adult relative.

In the same period the previous year, the total was 70,329 – but the number of unaccompanied minors was less than half at 4,410.

The known number of deaths since January 2016 stands at just over 2,900, a third higher than the same period in 2015.

The true figure will be higher as some bodies are never recovered.


Remittances To Eritrea Shrink As Refugees Spend Money On Helping Others Leave

Remittances to Eritrea, once estimated to account for about a third of the country’s gross domestic product, are shrinking with Eritreans in the diaspora now spending the money on helping people leave Eritrea instead of supporting relatives at home, an official told BBC.

Five thousand Eritreans leave the country each month, making it one of the world’s top producers of refugees, according to a U.N. commission report.

The scale of the migration has drawn Western interest and attention to conditions inside what is one of the world’s most closed countries. With a population of 3.5 million to 6 million, it’s one of Africa’s poorest countries. Eritrea is a one-party state with no functioning constitution and no independent media, BBC reported.

Youth who have risked their lives to flee Eritrea describe a long-standing system of forced labor, among other human rights violations. A U.N. commission said these may constitute crimes against humanity, according to the Council On Foreign Relations, a U.S. foreign policy think tank.

In the past, Eritrean authorities were happy for disaffected youth to leave the country, a diplomat told BBC. They were a potential threat to stability and once working abroad, were likely to end up sending remittances home if they made it safely to their destinations.

But Eritrea now faces a shortage of workers and is doing more to encourage youth to stay, including paying more. The Eritrean national service is increasing its pay from about $50 to $130-to, said Hagos Ghebrehiwet, economic adviser to the president, BBC reported.

The cost of living has shot up in Eritrea, and there are electricity and water shortages.
Families receive food subsidies for cereal, oil and sugar but other items are expensive. A liter of milk costs more than $2.

Taxi drivers, shopkeepers and hoteliers say their incomes have been cut in half since a new form of currency was introduced at the end of 2015 — part of a government effort to control smuggling and human trafficking. They say restrictions on imports and limits on the amount of money they can withdraw from banks are hurting business, BBC reported.

Conscription in the national service program is the factor most commonly cited by asylum seekers who have fled the country, according to the Council On Foreign Relations. The Eritrean government justifies the program as one that will develop the country and foster a common sense of national identity. A statutory requirement of 18 months of military or civilian service was extended in 2002, following the war with Ethiopia. In practice, many adults report serving into their 50s, often earning less than subsistence wages.
For many, desertion and immigration are the only way to leave the Eritrean national service, according to the U.N. Commission.

The Eritrean foreign ministry refutes the U.N. Commission report, saying it is part of a “politically motivated campaign to undermine the political, economic, and social progress the country is making.”

The Eritrean government is ambivalent about people leaving because it benefits from the large diaspora, the International Crisis Group reported. The government collects a 2 percent income tax from many immigrants through consulates or party affiliates overseas. In 2011 the U.N. Security Council called on Eritrea to “cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud, and other illicit means” to collect this tax, which yielded $73 million for the country from 2010 to 2013, the U.N. monitoring group found in 2014.

According to the International Crisis Group:

After initial, sometimes brutal attempts to obstruct emigration, a symbiotic system has emerged that benefits a range of actors, including the state. The government ostensibly accepts that educated, urbanised youths resistant to the individual sacrifices the state demands are less troublesome and more useful outside the country – particularly when they can continue to be taxed and provide a crucial social safety net for family members who stay home. Meanwhile, those who remain tend to be the more pliant rural peasant and pastoralist population. Yet, the exodus is not limited to urbanised and educated youth; migrants, including an increasing number of minors, now come from a wider cross-section of society.

Eritreans in the diaspora contribute to Eritrea’s economic survival by sending their families remittances, which provide the country with foreign reserves and help families survive.

Where do Eritrean immigrants go?

About 250,000 Eritreans live in refugee camps and cities in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In the first eight months of 2015, the top three recipients of asylum applications from Eritreans were Switzerland (7,475), Germany (5,500), and Sweden (4,645). The U.K. and U.S. have well-established diaspora communities.

Another well-traveled route for Eritrean immigrants goes through Egypt to Israel. In the Sinai Peninsula, Eritreans face torture, extortion, and rape at the hands of traffickers—at times with police and military cooperation, Human Rights Watch reported. From Sinai, they cross into Israel, where 33,000 Eritreans live, the country’s interior ministry said in August 2015.

After Syrians and Afghans, Eritreans are the third largest nationality to cross the Mediterranean Sea, Al Jazeera reported.


Fear in Eritrea

A man recalled the day he was sent, along with his friend, to Wi’a military training camp in Eritrea. The day after he arrived, the guards sent them on a training exercise that entailed a 15 kilometre hike to collect firewood.

Eritrean refugees wait for protection and assistance, May 2014. © EPA/YAHYA ARHABOn the way back his friend became terribly ill. He continued to struggle. The guards became enraged and started to beat him until he fell to the ground. A guard said he would suffer when he reached the camp. Four people would end up carrying him back to the camp. A guard later tied him up and beat him.

“He left my friend tied up on the burning ground,” he recalled. “Soon after my friend vomited blood through his mouth and nostrils and died on the spot.”

This tragic testimony is one of 833 interviews conducted by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in order to investigate gross violations of human rights in the country.

The Commission issued a new report on their findings, which stated that over the past 25 years crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrea – not on the streets of Asmara, but rather behind the walls of detention facilities and in military training camps and other places throughout the country.

Since 1991, Eritrean civilians have also been subjected to various human rights violations including enslavement, imprisonment, reprisals for the conduct of family members, discrimination on religious grounds, enforced disappearance, torture, persecution, rape and murder.

Indefinite military service

Eritreans are forced into indefinite military service subjected to horrific abuses, often being used as forced labour. This is a main driver for so many people trying to leave the country. In 2015, 47,025 Eritreans have applied for asylum in Europe.

According to a former military trainer at a military training camp at Sawa, trainers are given strict instructions to abuse their trainees. He reported a trainer who once tied up two people and left them in a tent. “He tied them up so tightly that we heard them screaming,” he said. “Later, one was dead and the other’s hands were crippled.” But, he said that if trainers don’t treat the trainees this way, they could end up in prison.

Without a trace

The Commission interviewed several Eritreans who have family members that have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared and have never been heard from again. A woman interviewed said her husband was arrested outside their home in 2009 and she has never found out what happened to him. “I searched for him, but the authorities finally told me just don’t bother coming back; there’s no point.”

A man also reported that he hasn’t seen his father since 1999 when he disappeared. “There is no law,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything. You can’t ask about someone who has disappeared. You risk being arrested yourself.”

Raped and tortured

Life in Eritrea continues to be a struggle for many women and young girls. Girls are being forced into early marriage and removed from school. Women and girls who try to flee the country are also at a bigger risk of being raped and tortured. Rape and domestic servitude in military training centres and detention centres are being ignored. A woman imprisoned for six months at a police station said she was raped every day by the officers. “After he finished, he threatened me not to say anything,” she said. “He told me that if I would report the rape he would find me wherever I go and kill me.”

No rule of law

These abuses continue without any consequences because rule of law in the country is virtually non-existent. Eritrea has no real constitution, an independent judiciary or any democratic institutions.

“There is no genuine prospect of the Eritrean judicial system holding perpetrators to account in a fair and transparent manner,” said Mike Smith, Chair of the Commission. “The perpetrators of these crimes must face justice and the victims’ voices must be heard. The international community should now take steps, including using the International Criminal Court, national courts and other available mechanisms to ensure there is accountability for the atrocities being committed in Eritrea.”

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Ignore them not: Eritrean Veterans

Many of our Veterans came to a foreign country after they were deceived by what surrounded them.

Some left when their group was dissolved for reasons they still do not understand (ELF).

Some left our liberated country when the conditions surrounding them did not fit what they expected and did not testify to the reasons they left their families and joined the armed fight (EPLF).

Some others, a younger generation, left because – they say – the system crashed them instead of helping and respect them (Warsay – Ykaalo).

These groups of Veterans are totally ignored by the media. Foreign media or Eritrean media likewise.

Suicide in the Eritrean communities is concentrated mainly among Eritrean Veterans. For them facing unemployment, absence of college education, shortage of family’s and community’s support when they arrived in the foreign country, made them more vulnerable and – at times – prone to point a gun barrel into their mouths and pull the trigger (many died of self-inflicted wounds  in our beloved country, Eritrea). There was never a structural system built to help our Veterans, let alone providing them with the basic survivals kits of finance, medical, educational and emotional support.

Married and un-married Veterans were likely to face the thought of committing suicide, but divorce rate are tied to the aforementioned reasons.

Suicide comes with a stigma.

The families left behind are marked as one that had son or a daughter that committed suicide maybe for mental problems or family’s problems. The “blame” is squarely put on the person that committed suicide and those the victim left behind.

The system is never blamed even though it should be kept responsible. For, it never tried to reach out to Veterans and involve educated Eritreans to reach out to our Veterans. Suicide, drug use, alcohol cannot be prevented by talks in our comfortable living rooms or over the phone to fill up our office’s break time. These are problems that should be addressed with immediate attention.

The rule is that most people committing suicide are those ignored by society around them.

Neglect of our Veterans is not a “flu-like-virus” that we can heal with a medical prescription, or with offering some money to buy said medication and then walk away.

Along with a day for our Veterans, we should include a rule to assist those we lost to drug, alcohol, lack of financial support and more shortage of assistance. We should reach those that are living in shelters and being abused by the physically stronger gang members.

We need to acknowledge the elephant sitting at the center of our lives: we ignored them and focused only to compete and make our life, our kids’ and our bank accounts larger and fuller.

We need to rescue them from poverty and from “giving up” on life.

We need to tell them that we are their families composed by Veterans and sisters, brothers, daughters and sons and elderly parents. We should make them believe that they are not alone.

An Eritrean martyr said: “An Eritrean is never alone”. Let us follow that quote and make it our daily choice to fulfil.

Suicide, drug use and surrender to alcohol is a problem that existed since, but it is a shame when our great Veterans fall Eritrean veterans 2 into the crevices of life and stretch their hands screaming for help. Most of the times we ignored them because we are so taken away with our own lives.

There is no government policy to help our Veterans, there is no prayer created for them. There is no music or symphony composed for them.  There is no book that tells our young generations about their sacrifices.

But they do exists! Our Veterans are around us.

We meet them and greet them as if they are only our neighbours, the valet parking our car at hotels. The waiter cleaning our table after lunch at a fancy restaurant.

They stayed behind in education because they were liberating our land and we were enjoying education at Ivy League colleges.

They stayed behind with high employment skills, because by the time they joined us abroad, they were of old age, illiterate and had a family to sustain.

They accepted to clean our garages and stared at us driving our fancy cars, because they could never cope with the time between us.

The time between us is like a huge spiral they are not able to come afloat from.

They were fighting a war for us and we were building security for ourselves.

The list is long and unbearable to read and then have the courage to look at them while enjoying a free country we all call Eritrea. Because they gave us a free Eritrea!

It might be late for some to go back to school. It might be late for some to get their minds rotten with drugs and hopelessness to remember us.

But is never late to hold their hands and say: Thank you!
To say: I honor you because you honored me by giving me freedom!

The day to appreciate them is today! It is all our tomorrows and it was all our yesterdays.

The time is now and the time is forever!
April 29, 2016 , by Kiki Tzeggai

Dedicated to:  
Tegadalay Dawit “Shaleka”
You took your own life.  We will never forget you!

UN calls on African Union to respond to Eritrea violations

The United Nations rights council has called on the African Union to investigate Eritrean leaders over alleged crimes against humanity after a damning report by a UN commission.

In that report, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Eritrea said the government of President Isaias Afwerki had committed heinous crimes since independence a quarter-century ago, including the “enslavement” of 400,000 people.

Many of those abuses are allegedly linked to a harsh national service programme in the secretive Horn of Africa state, which for many is almost impossible to escape and which the COI compared to lifetime enslavement.

The AU should set up an investigation with a view to examining and bringing to justice those responsible for violations and abuses of human rights identified by the commission of inquiry, including any that may amount to a crime against humanity.
In a resolution that passed with consensus by the body’s 47 members, the Human Rights Council said it “strongly encourages the African Union to follow up on the (COI) report.”

“The AU should set up an investigation… with a view to examining and bringing to justice those responsible for violations and abuses of human rights identified by the commission of inquiry, including any that may amount to a crime against humanity,” a statement released by the UN Human Rights Council said.

The AU, based in Addis Ababa, capital of Eritrea’s bitter rival Ethiopia, has no prosecutor or court system.

But the AU played a leading role in setting up a special court to prosecute former Chadian military dictator Hissene Habre, who was sentenced to life in May for war crimes and crimes against humanity over his brutal 1982-1990 rule.

Experts said that model could be replicated, including to avoid the involvement of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which many African leaders have condemned for allegedly focusing excessively on the continent’s leaders.

The rights council resolution broadly endorsed the COI’s findings and urged Eritrea to resolve a range of systematic abuses.

Those include extrajudicial killings, torture and indefinite detention allegedly committed by people at the top of Isaias’s government.

Eritrea has rejected the COI’s findings.

By: Ken Karuri