Every month, thousands of Eritreans flee the country, crossing to neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, and increasingly, to Europe. Since the early 2000s, the flow of refugees has been on the rise, robbing the country and its rural communities, in particular, of a young work force, and exacerbating the already impoverished population after decades of war.

After Syrians, who dominate global headlines, Eritrean refugees are the largest group seeking asylum in Europe. Thousands of young men and women cross to war-torn Libya, hopping on rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea and risking their lives under atrocious treatment of human traffickers and terrorists. According to UNHCR, there are 131,660, 125,530, and 40,000 Eritrean refugees currently living in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Israel, respectively. The number of Eritrean refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

The root cause of this mass migration is severe repression, extreme poverty, and lack of employment opportunities, particularly for Eritrean youth. More than 50% of the population is below the poverty line, and 44% of children under the age of five are underweight. Around 40% of Eritrea’s five million population faces economic hardship. The low productivity of livestock and crops harm rural households, who are most affected by poverty. Nearly two-thirds of all the households in Eritrea lack food security. 

The Realities of Repression

While poverty is a key factor driving the Eritrean refugee flow, is that the only cause? There are severe shortages in basic necessities, power cuts are common, and for those living in cities, a coupon system has been imposed for imported basic necessities.

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea Report refers to the coupon system as a way the government controls the population:

The coupon system aims at controlling people. Its official objective is to deliver low-price articles. In practice, however, this system prevents someone from escaping as the whole family will be impacted and the coupons will be cancelled…Coupons are unofficial ID cards for the whole family… If you refuse to join the militia, your coupons will be cancelled and your life is in danger.” (page 97)

This method of control dominates all aspects of Eritrean lives in a manner only comparable to a repressive police state.

The extreme mass surveillance on Eritreans is systematically used to instil fear and paranoia. Forever wary of who is watching, the Eritrean people are continually forced into silence. In recent BBC coverage of Eritre, a journalist approached thirty-seven people in the streets of Asmara. All thirty-seven refused to answer. This paralyzing fear is reiterated in the COI Report, as a witnessed claimed:

“When I am in Eritrea, I feel that I cannot even think because I am afraid that people can read my thoughts and I am scared.” (page 101)

Another witness declared, “It is almost a crime to have an independent thought. Everything is tightly controlled by PFDJ. Should you not like what they are doing, wherever you are they have means of getting you.”

This systematic oppression has no other comparison than that imagined in George Orwell’s 1984. Such a system has granted Eritrea’s reputation as “Africa’s North Korea.” With these testimonies, is it any surprise that there has been a consistent Eritrean exodus for over a decade?

After the border war with Ethiopia ended, the Eritrean regime made national service indefinite, on the grounds of “national security.” An eighteen months programme became endless and created a generation with no future. Whatever hopes and aspirations young people have, has been squashed. The University of Asmara, the only institution of higher education in the country, was closed in favour of unaccredited colleges throughout the country.

European Commission DG ECHO

Eritrean refugee camp in Ethiopia (via European Commission DG ECHO on Flickr)

Though talk of reforming the national service to eighteen months has circulated online for a year, the regime has not officially declared this policy change by proclamation. While the ruling party released an article in English on an affiliated website, there has been no mention of a reduction in national service by the Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) or state television. If the conscripts themselves have not been made aware of this supposed shift in policy, then who is the target audience of this rhetoric?

The Role of the European Union

As Eritreans become of the largest groups flooding into Europe, the European Union is actively seeking to solve this mass exodus. The principal multilateral strategy has focused on providing the Eritrean regime with 200€ million of development aid, in a bid to reduce the exodus. The EU’s mention of “long-term development” is vague as it fails to tackle the deep-rooted issues driving thousands in search of security and livelihoods. What is the EU’s objective for giving aid? Will there be terms and conditions that hold the PFDJ regime accountable in how it disburses aid funds to the intended beneficiaries, the rural and urban poor?

The EU’s decision to aid the Eritrean regime demonstrates their lack of understanding of Eritrea’s domestic issues.

The underlining factor behind the mass exodus is the Eritrean people’s waning trust in the regime. Talk of “reform” has been welcomed by Europe, but major reforms have not been implemented. Reform should entail a complete change in the system that has alienated and oppressed Eritreans for far too long. This ultimately requires a shift in the mentality of those in power in the country. The EU should use its donor role to pressure the regime for fundamental and tangible domestic reforms.

By giving aid to a regime that systematically violates its people, the European Union merely casts Eritreans fleeing their homes as economic migrants, denying the oppression that is driving them out. With Yemane Gebremeskel as Eritrea’s new Minister of Information, the ex-Director of the President’s Office, the regime is attempting to improve its image by merely telling the international community what it wants to hear.

But can a leopard really change its spots? In a country that has no parliament or constitution and where the government has no accountability, can the regime be trusted to use this aid wisely? To the oppressed Eritreans twenty-five years after independence, promises of “reform” and “development” are all too familiar and cannot possibly stop the stubborn youth in their quest for freedom, peace, security, and a better future.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sudan, 20152015 UNHCR country operations profile – EthiopiaUnited Nations Human Rights, Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, 2015