Since 2001, Eritreans have added new words to their exile vocabulary. They have new words for new destinations and new graveyards: Lampedusa, Italy. Calais, France. Almeria, Spain. Tel Aviv, Israel. They have new entry points to further destinations: the Tijuana-San Diego border. The Quebec-Vermont border. The Buffalo-Ontario border. They have traveled to countries no Eritrean had before: to places with strange names like Cartagena, El Latal, and San Andres. They have walked the landscape of Gambia, Cape Verde, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. They have died in the Moroccan Coast; they have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea; and they have been raped, beaten, tortured and harvested for organs in Sinai, Egypt. Eritrea has become, on a per capita basis, one of the world’s largest exporters of human beings and, it stands to reason, that, on a per capita basis, Eritreans are some of the biggest victims of human trafficking. Eritreans have justifiably focused their wrath on the inhumanity of human trafficking—that in Sinai—but not enough outrage has been focused on why exactly are Eritreans leaving their country at such an alarming rate.
Like all complex issues, the increase in human trafficking has multiple causes—economic and political. It is the result of pull factors, push factors, and facilitators.
The West: The Pull Factor
There is no doubt that the destination countries (mainly the West) are a magnet to those seeking the help of human traffickers: (a) they provide economic opportunities that are not available in most states in Africa, Asia and South America; (b) they provide a welfare state that makes starvation and homelessness almost impossible; (c) they provide legal protection that give people a fighting chance to avoid instant deportation. These are the “pull factors” and they explain why, for many countries in Africa, remittances from abroad far exceed revenues the governments generate from exporting products and services or foreign aid the receive from the West. In other words, human trafficking is simply another export—one which generates a reliable and sustainable source of income—and the countries of origin will not only turn a blind eye to it but, when they can get away with it, they will facilitate it. The UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has amply documented this, in the case of Eritrea.
In a world where the disparity between wealthy nations and least developed countries continues to grow, human trafficking will continue no matter how many panels are convened to stop it, and no matter how many reports or condemnation are issued by the State Department. The human trafficking conference that is being organized by the AU and scheduled to be held in Cairo this fall should also be seen within this context.
The West knows that it has to take aggressive measures to curtail it. One of the least noted aspects of Italy’s offer to pay Libya $5 billion in reparations for its colonial occupation was what Italy sought: the right to patrol Libya’s coast for 25 years. This is to stop immigrants at their point of departure. The West and Israel are already reconsidering the pull factors: to make it harder for immigrants to get a job and education and to expedite the deportation process. In 2012, Israel called all who cross its borders “infiltrators” and empowered its law-enforcement officials to imprison them for three years, no questions asked. And, globally, according to the UNHCR, the number of people asking for asylum has, after a spike, decreased.
But the pull factors are not pulling all Africans equally. Senegal and Guinea are closer to South America, than Eritrea is. Mali is closer to Spain and Malta than Eritrea is. Many African countries are, financially speaking, only marginally better off than Eritrea. In fact, many of the countries that Eritreans travel to on their way to their destination points are just as poor and their people are just as incentivized as Eritreans are to make more money—if money was the only issue. Still, Eritreans—on a per capita basis—leave their countries at rates far in excess that of most nations. And, on a per capita basis, their traffickers are most inhumane. Why is that? Let’s begin with the latter.
The “Rashaida” Traffickers
There are many routes Eritreans are using to make it to their destinations in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and Israel. Most of the human smugglers Eritreans use appear to do their “job” well—it is a simple, if costly, transaction. The smugglers get their money, and the Eritrean gets to his destination. The steep increase in the price which occurred in 2009 is a simple function of supply-and-demand. (The State Department says the increase is attributed to global economic meltdown of 2008.) There are all sorts of traffickers engaged in every sort of activity—in fact, the first documented case of Eritreans being trafficked to Australia in 2001 was carried out by UN employees in Kenya.
Of all the traffickers, the ones that have been documented to being the cruelest are the ones trafficking us from Egypt to Israel. Actually, it should more accurately be described as the Eritrea-Sudan-Egypt-Israel route since the trafficking begins either in Eritrea or Sudan, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and ends up in Israel or, sadly, in Sinai. Kidnapping refugees from Sudan, and smuggler-to-smuggler sale or transfer is increasingly common. There has been one clan that has been named as a facilitator—and that is the Rashaida group. As Rachel Humphris writes in a UNHCR report, “It is necessary to stress only a small number of people from the Rashaida ethnic group are involved in this type of smuggling and an even smaller number commit abuses.” Indeed. No matter how frustrated and angry we get, we do need to remember that. Just as it was wrong to vilify the entire Amhara ethnic group for the crimes committed by some of its ruling class against Eritreans, it is wrong to throw the collective name of “Rashaida” to describe a few people who commit heinous crimes.
Ethnographers say that the Rashaida arrived in Sudan and Eritrea in the mid 19th century. Nomadic, with deep ties to the Gulf States, they focused on cross-border trade, which later became known as smuggling. Because of Sudan’s politics, the Rashaida have no land in Sudan. Unlike other ethnic groups, their chief—Nazir—has no land and, therefore, no prestige or influence. We mention this because there is often some frustration that the cruelty inflicted on Eritreans must be sanctioned by the entire Rashaida because all that would have to happen is for a “tribal chief” to tell them to stop and they would stop it. There simply is no go-to person.
The Rashaida live in one of the more marginalized parts of Sudan—Eastern Sudan. It is to address this neglect by Khartoum that the Beja Congress was established in the early 1990s and joined by the Rashaida Free Lions in 1999—forming the Eastern Front, which was based in Western Eritrea. (Read a primer by author John Young on this subject.) In 2006, when the Eritrean regime gave up on the Eastern Front’s military capacity, it mediated a settlement between Khartoum and the Eastern Front. The founder of the Rashaida Free Lions, Mebrouk Selim Mubarek (himself mentioned as one of the beneficiaries of human trafficking in a UN report), was given a government portfolio; the fighters of the Beja Congress and the Free Lions were integrated into Sudan’s Armed Forces; Khartoum maintained security control for Eastern Sudan, and the Eritrean regime evaded the threat of the Sana’a Axis (Sudan-Ethiopia-Yemen) by breaking off Sudan from the trio. That is: Khartoum got what it wanted, Asmara got what it wanted, but Kassala and Port Sudan didn’t. Since 2006, there hasn’t been any change to the marginalization of Eastern Sudan.
When Khartoum clamped down on “contraband trade,” it disproportionately affected the Rashaida. A few moved on to the one other occupation they know: arms and human smuggling. This was facilitated greatly by the Eritrean regime which has become a key driver of the contraband trade. According to the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the Eritrean regime—and specifically General Tekle Manjus—is at the center of the contraband trade which is carried out on a vast network and profits handsomely from the illicit trade.
The Eritrean Regime: The Push Factor
In several interviews, representatives of the Eritrean regime have tried to downplay their role in the creation of the circumstances that have resulted in Eritreans risking injury, death and far worse to leave their country of birth. According to them, those responsible are (a) Ethiopia, for failing to abide by the final and binding boundary decision which has forced Eritrea to maintain a large army for the purposes of war-readiness; (b) the US and the UN for failing to compel Ethiopia to abide by the ruling; (c) the West for creating such an attractive magnate that the youth find irresistible.
This negates the fact that the Eritrean strongman has publicly stated that he doesn’t care if Eritrean youth leave the country because he can, thanks to globalization, always replace them with people from India and the Philippines. He made this speech to Eritrean university students in Durban*, South Africa in 2002.
This negates the fact that the Eritrean president had, in an interview, said that youth abandoning their country is not a big deal: they are just going on a short vacation and will be back.
This negates the fact that, when it mattered most, Eritrea’s ambassador to Egypt told an Egyptian newspaper that Egypt has no responsibility for the well-being of Eritrean refugees in its land.
This negates the fact that it is unnatural to demand that the Eritrean youth remain in conscription indefinitely.
This negates the fact that the alleged reason for maintaining a conscript army—to defend against Ethiopian aggression—was proven to be bunk when Ethiopia twice invaded Eritrea in 2012 at will to conduct military missions against its own armed opposition based in Eritrea and there was no response from Eritrea.
This negates the fact that beyond waiting for Ethiopia to change its mind, there is no strategy, no initiative, no Plan B to change the status of the stalled demarcation of Eritrea-Ethiopia border. This state of “let’s wait” has been going on since 2002.
This negates the fact that neither the border ruling, nor Ethiopia’s refusal to abide by it, nor the West’s immigration policies have anything to do with the Eritrean regime’s refusal to have a country that has a functioning constitution that guarantees its citizens fundamental rights.
The “new normal” that the Eritrean regime has created—a land without a constitution, a people without any rights, an economy with no participants besides military and ruling party executives, a youth in indefinite conscription—may work for the regime because it is immune to it, but it is not working for the Eritrean youth primarily because they don’t see a reason to hope.
After all, there are many countries that are just as poor, or only marginally better, than Eritrea. The difference is that the citizens of those countries—at least enough of them—feel a bond to the land and have a hopeful preview of the future. When one can’t even till the land of his forefathers because he is carrying a weapon, when one can’t sit in the shop of his father, because he is carrying a gun and his father is, too; when one can’t look forward to a wedding, to raising a family, to enjoy the company of family and friends—in short to a NORMAL LIFE—what would keep the person in his own country?
Eritreans are spending a lot of time talking about human traffickers involved in inhumane activities. And they should. Unfortunately, not enough Eritreans are outraged by the fact that a large number of Eritreans—apparently using “humane” human smugglers—are leaving their country in droves to far-off lands.
The Eritrean strongman’s letter of protest to the UN regarding human trafficking is half-hearted and too late. It is half-hearted because the regime is profiting handsomely from human trafficking and has given strong messages that it doesn’t care if the country is emptied out of its youth because they can always be replaced and that, in any event, they will come back. It considers it a means to easy money now, and a large base for remittances in the future.
There will always be human smugglers and there will always be Eritreans who will leave Eritrea in search of a better life elsewhere. What is scary now is the magnitude of it: and, no matter how unattractive the “pull factors” are, it won’t be reversed until the “push factors” are changed. Almost 90% of the new refugees in Israel are Eritreans and, in interviews, they describe their primary reason for leaving Eritrea: lack of freedom. By freedom they mean ownership of their own life: the ability to dream of a better future. Unless that changes and changes quickly, Eritrea will continue to empty itself out of its youth who will continue to discount the horror stories of Sinai because, in the words of an unnamed Eritrean who was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor (February 22, 2010), “If you’re going to die either way, it’s better to die trying to live.”
* An earlier edition of this article misidentified the South African city as Dublin and did not have active links of the sources for some of the information cited. These have now been corrected.