In 1991 a new state was born when Eritrea, a sliver of Red Sea coast in the Horn of Africa, separated from Ethiopia. The fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had acquired hero status in Europe during their 30-year struggle for independence – for their discipline, success on the battlefield and for putting Kalashnikovs in the hands of women. Reporters celebrated their “cave schools” where children were educated beyond the reach of the bombs of the Ethiopian air force. The EPLF leader, Isaias Afwerki, was touted as a philosopher-king under whose rule the new country was bound to avoid all the problems of African states.
Europe forgot about Eritrea for a couple of decades while all those hopes turned to dust. Now it has returned to Europe’s consciousness in a very different form. As thousands of migrants from the African shore cross the Mediterranean to claim asylum in the EU, it has emerged that Eritrea – with a population of only 6 million – is second only to Syria in the number of EU-bound migrants. It is clear why Syrians are on the move. But why are Eritreans risking their lives to flee a country where there is no war, famine or civil conflict?
More than 34,000 Eritreans arrived by sea in Italy last year, including 4,192 children, some of them unaccompanied. It is worth looking at the Eritrean case now that the European countries are casting around for ways to stem the migrant flow. So intense is the pressure felt by European governments from anti-immigrant parties that ministers are even considering military strikes against boats used by traffickers, as if they were pirates on the high seas.
Many Eritreans fled their country during the long years of the liberation struggle. The outflow has increased as a result of a 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia and the continuing state of emergency, which has allowed president Afwerki to extend the mandatory 18 months of military service, almost without limit. The longer he has been in power, the more authoritarian he has become.
State control of the economy has deprived a growing population of jobs. One of the country’s major exports is people: perhaps a third of its gross national product comes from the remittances of Eritreans abroad. In these circumstances any Eritrean family would be negligent not to send a son to work in Europe; with its repressive political culture the word has spread that any Eritrean who claims to be an army deserter automatically gets refugee status.
European countries have taken fright at the prospect of Eritrea becoming a country where no one wants to live, and there has been some response from the Eritrean government. It has announced that military service will not be extended for the current draft. In March, the British government declared that Eritreans who abscond from military service would no longer be viewed in their homeland as traitors. In short, London feels that Eritrean asylum seekers of military age can now be sent home.
This is hardly likely to stem the flow. So long as economies do not create jobs, there will be surplus manpower, and it will be attracted to places where cheap labour is needed. Eritrea is an exceptional case – in its political repression, militarisation of the economy and lack of job prospects. So exceptional, in fact, some migrants from other countries in the region claim to be Eritreans when they get to Europe. But there are elements of the same weaknesses in many other countries.
The problem for Europe is that it is not able to approach migration as an entity with a common will. Immigration is not a competence of the union but of the individual member states. In an ideal world, the member states would agree to share out refugees according to a quota system, but that would be cast by politicians (who like to blame “Europe” for decisions they do not want to take responsibility for) as Brussels “forcing” immigrants on them.
Nor is the military option of much use. Destroying all the boats on the Libyan coast is not a policy. Establishing refugee processing centres on Libyan soil is unthinkable while there are two rival governments fighting for primacy, and jihadists are on the prowl looking for victims to kidnap and slaughter.
Will it come to European navies blockading the Libyan coast to send migrant ships back to shore, to face an uncertain fate at the hands of their traffickers, who have already been paid?
This is the harsh, military-led policy that Australia has imposed, where asylum seekers are turned back into Indonesian waters or placed in detention centres on Pacific islands. Australia’s message is that no one who lands illegally will be granted the right of residence. Its prime minister, Tony Abbott, has offered Europe help in establishing what he calls “sovereign borders” – an offer declined in Brussels. An Italian admiral said he could never follow a policy of expelling migrants by force of arms, having been trained to rescue those in distress at sea.
It is unlikely that the Australian solution could ever be applied by the European Union, where refugee rights are taken seriously, not least because there are no biddable island nations to dump the migrants on. In the absence of that, the European solution is likely to be one of muddling through: a mixture of cracking down on the people smugglers all the way from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean shore (though how that will be achieved is not clear), helping to restore stability in Libya, and quietly raising the bar for refugee status while continuing to rescue people at sea. And behind that is the generational task of finding ways to reduce the yawning gulf in living standards between countries like Eritrea and those in Europe.