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  • EU policy and Eritrean refugee nightmare 24 June 2015 | View comments

  •  Esayas Girmay (MA)

    An unfortunate human tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean, with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa losing their lives for the chance to find refuge in Europe. And the ones at the epicenter of this misfortune are Eritreans and the rogue regime in Asmara!


    In October 2013, 366 people, most of them of Eritrean origin, drowned close to the Italian island of Lampedusa. In April 2015, an estimated 800 migrants, making the same perilous journey, drowned when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Some 1,600 are believed to have perished since January this year alone. It is for this staggering and ever worsening death toll that some labeled the Mediterranean as the biggest marine cemetery in the world.

    The civil war in Syria, the state failure in Libya and the repression in Eritrea, among others, are playing the central role in this migrant surge to the EU and the subsequent human catastrophe which has not shown any sign of slowing down so far. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Italian Navy reportedly rescued more than 4,200 refugees within 24 hours. And just a little over a week ago, The Telegraph reported that 86 Eritrean migrants on their way to Europe were kidnapped by ISIS in Libya. Truly, the state of affairs represents a crisis situation.

    Migration from Eritrea is not a new phenomenon and it goes as far back as the beginning of the 1960s when Eritreans were fleeing to neighboring countries like Sudan and the Arab world. The liberation war and abject poverty, augmented by frequent droughts, are believed to have produced massive population displacement. Although Eritrean independence saw some refugees on their way back home, the suicidal military invasion its government committed against Ethiopia effectively halted political development and is now emptying the nation of its people, creating horrendously massive new exiles in the rest of the world.

    In an unprecedented statistical account, the UNHCR estimates that over the last decade, nearly 10 percent of the Eritrean population has fled the country. The figure includes unaccompanied children, physically disabled persons, liberation war veterans, religious leaders and elders in their 70s and 80s.

    EU’s swinging response

    Right away, after the Lampedusa tragedy, Italy launched a mission called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) to carry out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. However, European policies in the Mediterranean have been constantly vacillating between humanitarianism and border policing. And lately, Europe seems to show a patterned behavior of increasing obsession with border security.

    A mission reputed for saving the lives of tens of thousands of refugees, Mare Nostrum, therefore, came to a halt because of lack of funding and was replaced by a smaller EU mission, Triton, with a diminished budget and a narrower scope focused on security and border control. Accordingly, specific countries in the block that experienced a spike in Eritrean asylum seekers began tuning their policies regarding the Eritrean refugee crisis to be more in-line with this shift in policy. 

    In June 2014, after returning from his brief stay in Asmara, the Norwegian State Minister for Justice, Himanshu Gulati, claimed that Eritreans have been found not to have a need for asylum anymore. Similarly, the Danish Justice Minister, Karen Haekkerup, noted that Denmark would stop accepting Eritrean asylum applications until a proper assessment of the situation is carried out. On yet another occasion, in July 2014, Italy’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lapo Pistelli, visited Asmara in an attempt to persuade Isaias Afewerki to implement reform, which the Italians believe would help decrease the flow of refugees originating from Eritrea.

    As a follow up to these claims, a report published by the Danish Immigration Service in November 2014 argued that the situation in Eritrea was not as bad as previously portrayed and there are no longer any grounds for automatic protection to Eritrean asylum seekers. The report came under heavy fire both in Denmark and elsewhere. The international community, including contributors to the report, criticized the report as methodologically flawed and politically motivated.

    Then came the report by the UK Home Office that drew heavily from the already disgraced Danish report. It soon became clear that this report was either never honest or was a dispassionate assessment of Eritrea’s human rights situation because it embarrassingly defended the open-ended ‘national service’ program and the regime’s financial extortion of Eritrean diaspora.

    Finally, in the most significant change in EU policy in the decade, Neven Mimica, the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, disclosed an EU aid package to Eritrea as a quid pro quo where the latter would be expected to control migration.

    The charm and the floodgate, the carrot and the stick

    On a parallel course of development, the Eritrean regime released its charm offensive to the fullest. In October 2014, the African Union and the EU launched the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative or the 'Khartoum Process' with close to a dozen African countries and some EU countries as member states. The initiative focuses on controlling human trafficking and smuggling through coordinated efforts of countries of origin, transit and destination. Eritrea, as a member of the initiative, presented a proposal where it called for a review of EU policy towards Eritrean refugee crisis. In the proposal, Eritrea argued that migrants originating from Eritrea are economic migrants and should be treated as such. 

    On another note, in backdoor negotiations with some EU member states, Eritrean officials have reportedly promised that Eritrean army deserters are free to return to their county with no risk of reprisal whatsoever. Furthermore, the same officials also claimed that the open-ended “national service” program is reformed back to 18 months as originally stipulated in the proclamation for national service. Moreover, the officials have also committed that economic life in Eritrea will completely change for the better in the next three to five years to the point where Eritreans will no more migrate for economic reasons.

    It is clear that the regime is trying to use the refugee crisis as a political card to force the EU back in to cooperation. This technique had been effectively used by Isaias Afewerki’s former mentor, the late Muammar al-Gaddafi. Whenever Gaddafi wanted to hold Europe ransom, he used to threaten opening immigrant floodgate against it. Gaddafi had exploited Libya’s geo-political advantage as the last tip of African landmass that migrants use as a springboard to flood Europe. Similarly, Isaias is following suit to blackmail Europe by refusing to manage Eritrean refugee flow to Europe if the latter does not help bring Eritrea in from the cold and provide some sort of development aid.

    Crisis decision-making

    Politics of immigration in Europe is so important that it is often a subject of tense policy debate over questions of identity, integration, asylum and security. The attempt to forge an acceptable set of common EU immigration and asylum management system is mired with many challenges. Against this backdrop, the waves of migration flooding Europe, including the Eritrean refugee crisis, cannot be ignored. 

    Alex Mintz and Karl DeRouen, in their book Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making, argue that during crisis situations, decision-makers do not have the luxury of waiting to see how decisions play out. And because of the limited amount of time to solve the crisis, comprehensive rational calculations are typically compromised. In such situations, exhaustive and dispassionate assessment of the situation at hand, and careful sorting out of possible alternatives with their pros and cons are extremely difficult, if not impossible.

    It is within this context that EU's shortsighted policy reorientation regarding the Eritrean refugee crisis can be understood. If it were not a crisis situation, no one would believe that the Norwegian and Danish Ministers would have heeded the Eritrean officials' empty promises of reform. If it were not a crisis situation, it would be next to impossible for the Danish and UK government assessments of Eritrea's internal political environment to have deciphered anything positive out of the regime’s litany of multidimensional maladministration. If it were not a crisis situation, no one would have been ignorant enough to take seriously the Eritrean regime's illogical notion of economic miracles in what seems to be the magic number of 3-5 years.

    Engagement, no solution to curb migration

    There are more than enough reasons that safely lead any observer to conclude that engaging the Eritrean regime will not remedy the situation. 

    To begin with, the regime never assumes any responsibility for the refugee crisis besetting the country. The dominant narrative of the government is to explain the problem as a result of a conspiracy involving Eritrea's enemies and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who are attempting to empty Eritrea of its youth as a punishment to its pursuance of “independent” foreign policy in the Horn region. Credibility of the story aside, the fact that the government totally externalizes the sources of the disaster leaves no room for a meaningful engagement to change the situation from inside.

    Another issue that needs to be duly assessed before embarking on said engagement is the existence of political will in the part of the Eritrean government to control migration. Many observers argue that the regime considers Eritrea's youth population as a threat to its continued repressive mode of governance. Therefore, despite the loss of the most productive part of the society, the regime sees the mass exodus as a blessing in disguise. Moreover, the regime makes sure that exiles will contribute to their country once they are settled somewhere in Europe or America through the notorious taxation system known as the Recovery and Rehabilitation Tax. Furthermore, as the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) has indicated in its 2014 report, many high ranking Eritrean military officers are deeply involved in the complicated network of human trafficking that guides Eritreans from their backyards all the way to the Sinai Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. This makes the regime a huge part of the problem and an unreliable partner to finding solutions.

    Most importantly, if history is any guide, the regime has been repeatedly proven that it is averse to any kind of political reform that may put an end to the country's refugee crisis. The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea strongly argues that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that may constitute crimes against humanity are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the government. The crimes, which include but are not limited to forced labor, indefinite conscription, torture, sexual slavery, curtailment of freedom of speech, movement and religion, as well as extrajudicial killings, are the main drivers of migration from Eritrea. 

    Against this backdrop, the report concludes, “To ascribe Eritreans’ decision to leave solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people.”

    Therefore, engaging Eritrea will not yield the desired result in terms of curbing the crisis. Europe should get out from the current state of self-denial, stop prescribing shortsighted crisis-time solutions and look for a comprehensive assessment of the real causes of the problem. The causes are found in the political predicament of the country. Development aid will not stop desperate Eritreans from crossing borders in their hundreds of thousands, where the unlucky perish in the deserts and seas while the remaining flood Europe. If anything, aid will only provide a lifeline to the tyrannical regime in Asmara, leading to further repression, exodus and to a very likely scenario of yet another state failure in the region.

    Worst of all scenarios is the regime in Asmara using European development aid to boost its sabotaging activities against countries of the region, and then those countries being forced to use all available options on their table to protect their national interests. That is when Europe will be a culprit to a disaster.

    Ed.'s Note: Esayas Girmay is a political analyst in the Horn region with an MA Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at gres4000@yahoo.com.

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