Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

The tiny Red Sea nation of Eritrea is at peace, yet its people are flooding across its borders. As many are being caught reaching the shores of Europe as come from Syria, caught up in a bloody civil war. Hundreds of desperate men and women are now trapped in Calais, attempting to reach Britain. Eritrea has been described as the “North Korea” of Africa. In this blog I will attempt to explain why this exodus is taking place, and why attempts to halt it at Calais are unlikely to succeed.

 1. Why the exodus?

I can really not improve on the excellent work of the Crisis Group in its recent paper, Eritrea: Ending the Exodus? Meticulously researched, it lays out the fundamental reason for the vast outflow of young people – an event seldom matched in recent history.

At its core this unfolding catastrophe for the Eritrean nation is the result of the political stalemate that was the legacy of the border war with Ethiopia (May 1998 to June 2000). The war is said to have resulted in 100,000 death. My belief is that the real total was considerably higher. The war left the border unresolved and resulted in a terrible stalemate with Ethiopia. President Isaias ordered that conscripts should continue to man the border. They faced more or less indefinite military service. The stalemate also allowed the president to justify the postponement of the constitution, including the introduction of a multi-party system.

In the aftermath of the war President Isaias found his power challenged and – in 2001 – imposed a crackdown on all facets of life. Dissent of any kind was crushed and the president’s closest allies, who had questioned his disastrous blunders during the border war, were imprisoned. These were the group known at the G15.

The Crisis Group report describes what happened next.

“The post-war period saw entrenchment of the idea that tegadelay (liberation fighters) were the “vanguard of the people” and must decide the destiny of liberated Eritrea without debate, until new generations have been imbued with the same values forged during the guerrilla period. The president and an inner circle of tegadelay further concentrated power and created “a state of exception”, in which rule of law was dismissed for emergency reasons, and the country was ruled by decree. The outcome was a highly militarised state, “shaped by war and run by warriors”. If peasants and pastoralists silently accepted these measures, urbanised and better educated sectors increasingly did not.

This was especially true for urban youth, who were most affected by the national service that was instituted in 1995 to promote “nation-building, imbue the youth with loyalty and discipline, as well as stifle regionalism and create national consensus to build a national identity”, but was broadened into conscription during the 1998-2000 war.

Once the peace agreements were signed, many soldiers expected to return slowly to normal life; however, gradual demilitarisation announced after the cessation of hostilities never materialised. Instead, the government expanded national service to boys and girls in their last years of high school. From 2002, national service was tied to the “Wefri Warsai Yika’alo”, a development campaign. Many national service men and women were deployed in parastatal companies controlled by senior army and party officers. To ensure compliance, travel within the country and beyond was restricted and severely regulated.

The University of Asmara was all but closed and replaced with tertiary colleges located outside the capital, run by army officers and conducted “more along the lines of a military camp than an institution for further education”. Their creation evinced “a more general unease within the [ruling party] about the aspiration of the younger generation which it suspects of being less concerned with the ‘revolution’ and more with individual achievement”.

It was increasingly evident that the PFDJ viewed urban, middle-class youths, mostly from Asmara, with particular suspicion. The more the PFDJ tried to extort loyalty from the population and forge an “experiential” link between young people and tegadelay by militarising Eritrea, the more urbanised youths felt alienated. The alternative to indefinite service was to join the segre-dob (those who crossed the border).

Internally, the exodus is symptomatic of social malaise and growing disaffection with the regime. Externally, such a substantial, unending stream of young people from a country essentially at peace is at odds with the official self-image of a proud, self-reliant young nation.

To stem the flow, the president reportedly initially turned to Brigadier General Teklai Kifle “Manjus”. Manjus fell back on his guerrilla instincts, allegedly imposing a shoot-to-kill policy for deserters and retaliation against their families. But the prevalence of conscripts in the army made implementation difficult, since it required targeting peers and undermined morale. Border garrisons faced a surge in insubordination, and more conscripts absconded.

In the face of growing desertions, Manjus allegedly sub-contracted border policing to remnants of the Rashaida paramilitary groups active in eastern Sudan that were previously trained by Eritrean forces and were backed by Asmara before the 2006 Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement). They reportedly deployed on both sides of the border to fire at deserters. “Unlike the conscripts, they had little compunction in killing deserters. But soon, they started detaining them, and ordering [them] to contact families inside [Eritrea, asking] for a ransom to avoid execution”. The money reportedly was paid in Eritrea to Manjus’s representatives, mostly members of the Eritrean Defence Forces.

Once money was involved, business interests rapidly expanded in both Eritrea and Sudan. “These people paid ransoms first [to avoid being shot]; they were willing to pay [even] more to continue their [e]migration”. Deserters and the growing number of other Eritreans fleeing civilian national service obligations saw Sudan, as well as Ethiopia or Djibouti, as mere transit points to third countries where Eritrean communities already existed, and they believed they could find political asylum and better economic opportunities.

The economic logic for all actors has been to facilitate the exit of ever greater numbers. The apparent shoot-to-kill policy evolved into a chaotic “pay-to-leave” trade in which the threat from the Rashaida ex-paramilitaries “was crucial to generate revenues”.

Connections were established with other Sahelian and Saharan criminal elements (already active along traditional smuggling routes toward Europe) to establish a complex smuggling network through which Eritrean migrants were channelled. The situation rapidly degenerated into vicious human trafficking that exposed migrants to gross human rights abuses.”

A report from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, published in May this year, had this to say:

“Eritrea is plagued by widespread poverty, an increasingly militarized society and an authoritarian government. Many Eritreans try to flee these oppressive conditions which include compulsory military conscription for indefinite periods of time, arbitrary arrest, and torture. Without obtaining an exit permit, their attempts to escape are viewed as defection and a shoot-to-kill policy is targeted at those trying to leave. Thus it is not surprising that although Syrians were the most detected nationality, Eritrean nationals constituted the largest increase of illegal crossings into Europe in 2013 compared to the previous year.”

If this explains why the Eritreans flee, the next section will consider how this takes place.

 2. The flight

The Eritrean situation can be summed up in two comparative statistics. In the first quarter of 2014 one Syrian for every 3887 of the population was found to have crossed illegally into the European Union. By comparison, one Eritrean for every 3411 of the population fell in to the same category.[1] There is one major difference: Syria has been caught up in the most terrible of civil wars since March 2011 – a war in which over 100,000 have died. Eritrea, by contrast, is meant to be at peace. Yet it has a higher ratio of refugees per capita being captured by the EU police force.

This is how the Eritrea exodus is described by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

“The East African routes are used mainly by migrants from the Horn of Africa: the routes depart from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, usually pass through the Sudan, Egypt and then Libya, and eventually on to the shores of the Mediterranean. Along the route from Sudan to Libya, one of the main nexus point may be located in the Al-Kufrah area, 950 kilometers south of Benghazi. From Egypt, migrants travel through the town of Salloum, located along the border with Libya.

Gino Barsella, head of the Italian Centre for Refugees in North Africa, says, “They come mainly as asylum seekers (Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Somalis). They enter Sudan, where often they obtain the status of refugees from the UNHCR; knowing that they then have to wait too long to be able to hope for resettlement in a country which guarantees international protection, they put themselves into the hands of the traffickers in the Omdurman market (north-east of the capital Khartoum) and leave for Kufra (Libya) from where they continue to Tripoli and then by sea to Lampedusa”. Migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia usually pay a few hundred dollars to Sudanese middlemen for travel across the Sudan, using the border area of Al Awaynat to enter Egypt.

After a 10-day journey they are in Libya. Egyptians, since they do not need a visa to enter Libya, are able to access Europe for a single payment made in their home country as arranged by a “wasit” (intermediary) who is generally based in their village of residence. Migrants are instructed exactly where to go during their journey and remain in contact with the wasit throughout the trip.”

Bilateral arrangements often entail African countries entering into agreements with European nations, promising to take measures to readmit individuals who have crossed illegally in exchange for aid and development, as well as financial and material support for their joint border controls. Under these agreements, African states commit to stricter migration controls, and there are reports of migrants being deported to locations in Algeria and Niger where they are abandoned in the desert.

“To get rid of refugees, the Libyan soldiers often abandon them in the south, in the middle of the desert. Some days ago they found 80 bodies; they died of hunger and thirst at the border between Libya and Niger,” said Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest and founder of the Hadesha Humanitarian Agency.

Such measures fail to consider the various protection needs of migrants. Under Italian-Libyan agreements established in 2009, surveillance has been carried out in their shared waters in order to intercept vessels attempting to reach Europe and pushing or diverting them back to Libya…

Bilateral agreements between individual European governments and African states make it more difficult to align and harmonise migration policies at a regional level. Since these agreements are often negotiated without consulting neighbouring countries (both in Europe and Africa), they form discrepancies that may conflict with an integrated and coherent regional policy that that best addresses all African migration issues.

In addition, migration policies tend to focus on stopping migration flows rather than the addressing the demand for smuggler’s services, reducing their long-term sustainability and effectiveness.

“The whole of Europe has preferred to strengthen Frontex, instead of providing more funds for international cooperation to establish peace and create acceptable living conditions in the countries of origin or transit of these people.” says Mussie Zerai.

 The tragic consequences

We have all heard about the tragedy of Lampedusa – which cost the lives of 387 Eritreans. But the detail is still shocking. This is how it was described in The Guardian:

“At 2am on 3 October last year, an overcrowded fishing boat drifted less than half a mile off the Italian island of Lampedusa. For the 518 people packed on board, the twinkling lights of the island signified the end of a long and difficult journey. Each had paid $1,600 (£964) to make the crossing.

With land in sight, they stirred and began excitedly to prepare for their arrival in Europe, dressing in their best clothes and gathering their few possessions in plastic bags. After 36 hours of clattering diesel engine, there was silence. The only sound was the slap of waves against the old wooden hull. The captains of migrant vessels such as this often cut the engines within sight of land and wait for the Italian coastguard to tow them in. This allows the crew to disappear into the crowd and avoid arrest for people-smuggling.


Now drifting with the engine off, the boat’s bilge pump was no longer active and sea water began to pour in. Alerted by worried passengers, the captain left his small wheelhouse on the top deck and climbed down to the engine bay, stepping over the huddled shapes of people sleeping. According to witnesses, he became agitated at the sight of the leak, tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine, and then poured petrol on to a blanket and set it on fire: he appeared to be trying to attract attention from the shore, or to bring fishing boats to their aid. But the fire burnt his hand, making him drop the blanket. Petrol had spilled on the deck and instantly ignited. Flames shot into the air.

Disturbed by the commotion, the passengers woke to the sight of fire. As they scrambled for safety, people stampeded to one side of the overloaded vessel, which listed and began to capsize in a terrible, slow roll. Those below deck stood no chance. Those on top were thrown into the sea, or tried to cling on as the boat went over.


Three hours later, at around 6am, a group of friends returning from a fishing trip on a small private boat heard a noise that sounded like distant seagulls. Through the early morning light they saw arms in the distance, moving in the air, waving. As they got closer, they realised that all around their boat there were 150 to 180 people in the water. The horrible thought dawned that they could not save all these people.


By the time the coastguard arrived, many people had been in the water for four hours. They were taken to Lampedusa’s small hospital. Of the 80 women on board the migrant boat, only five made it out alive. No children under the age of 12 survived. As the story became international news, grieving relatives began to arrive from the Eritrean diaspora across Europe.

Two weeks after the tragedy, a state funeral was held in Sicily. Members of the Eritrean government were invited – representatives of the very regime the boat’s occupants had been fleeing – but the survivors were denied permission to attend. Many had lost family and friends, and their exclusion sparked an anguished protest in the overcrowded immigration centre on Lampedusa.”

After the disaster EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström called it a “horrible tragedy.” The coffins lined up in a hanger at the Lampedusa airport were incompatible with the image “we Europeans have of ourselves,” German President Joachim Gauck said in Berlin in late June, as he urged the EU to accept more refugees.

But European policies remain unchanged, despite the Lampedusa calamity. The Italian coast guard and navy have frequently rescued boats in distress since last October, when operation Mare Nostrum began, bringing about 70,000 people onto Italian soil. But there was another disaster in late August, when 200 refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in similar circumstances.

Italy has also announced that it will end its rescue operations, which cost the country €9 million ($11.7 million) a month, saying it wants Frontex to take over. A division of the border agency called Frontex Plus will now assume at least a portion of the Italians’ duties, although funding remains unclear.

One number that Frontex does not record, however, is how many people die on Europe’s external borders. A consortium of European journalists found that more than 23,000 people have lost their lives while attempting to reach Europe in the last 14 years. Many thousands were Eritreans.

UK response

Britain has attempted to halt the flow of Eritreans into the country. This has proved to be singularly unsuccessful.


There is really no way of ‘bottling up’ this problem by fencing or more draconian measures. What is needed is a solution at the source. Only by improving the position of Eritreans in their home country will the exodus cease, and the pressure on Britain’s borders be reduced. This will require concerted pressure on the Eritrean authorities to improve their human rights, without which the flight into exile is certain to continue.



Syria: 18 million
Eritrea: 6 million
Source: CIA World Factbook

Illegal border crossings Q1 2014
Syria: 4630
Eritrea: 1759
Source: Frontex, FRAN Quarterly Jan-March 2014