Eritrea: Of Pressure Valves And Self-Inflicted Wounds

Last month, this column offered suggestions to journalists on how to do their job in Eritrea when they are given that “rare” access.  There is a reason why the access the Government of Eritrea grants journalists is inversely proportional to their knowledge and/or skepticism of the actions of the Government of Eritrea over the last 25 years: the more vacuous the journalists, the more access they are granted. This is because all the stories peddled are fresh and the journalist has no context, no reference point to compare with.   Today’s edition will attempt to give some context so that those whose profession has added Eritrea to their portfolio–journalists, pundits, researchers, politicians–can add it to their reference for fact-checking. The focus will be: migration, universal periodic review, and Eritrean foreign policy.

Claim # 1: Put In Context, There Is Nothing Unique About Eritrea’s Migrant Population

The migrant population is not as large as claimed by UNHCR because there are various actors who have a vested interest in inflating the number.  These include UNHCR itself (according to Eritrean Ambassador to the UN, Girma Asmerom in his interview with BBC’s Focus On Africa); Ethiopia (which is getting funded for hosting self-declared Eritreans and sees that as a profit center); “hostile quarters/teSabaeti” (Eritreans who are part of the smuggling business.)  Eritrean refugees who live in Sudan for generations don’t really count as migrants because “the Sudanese in Eritrea… we do not consider them refugees….They are naturalized and they are there and some have taken Sudanese citizenship and they are in Eastern Sudan.” (Presidential Advisor Yemane Gebreab interview with Russian Television.)  To the extent that there is migration, it is primarily due to pull factors and President Obama’s declaration that the US will  partner “with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers” which was part of the US attempt at “regime change”  (Foreign Minister Osman Saleh speech at the 71st session of the UNGA) as well as Europe’s automatic asylum-granting policies to Eritreans.  This has encouraged other nationals to claim they are Eritreans; and for all of them (Eritreans and other nationals) to lie ( “they know what to say”) to get asylum.  This is evidenced by the fact that “thousands” of Eritreans return home every summer: how can you possibly return to a country that you just swore on your asylum papers is a mortal threat to you?  In any event, migration is a global phenomenon: if that cause was denial of civil liberties, there are plenty of nationals who come from countries whose human rights record is not as scrutinized as Eritrea’s yet they are also migrating, which proves that migration is purely economic consideration.

Let’s unpack this by getting to scope and size for proper comparison.  Although the Government of Eritrea has not conducted an official census since it came to power in 1991, we know the population of Eritrea is less than four million because Presidential Advisor Yemane Gebreab told us so less than four months ago (video linked: begin at the 40:24 mark.)  If this four million figure includes the “almost one million strong” (source: statement by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2015) Eritreans in the Diaspora (presumably those of us who migrated during Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea between 1961 and 1991), then the population of Eritreans in Eritrea is about 3 million.  If you are really curious and want to geek out, check out a census report which was leaked to, and published by, awate:almost 20s ago, in 1997, Eritrea’s population (Eritreans in Eritrea) was 2,634,985.

Using average sub-Saharan Africa growth rates, the population of Eritreans in Eritrea is four million–consistent with what Yemane G said in his press conference.  That will be our denominator.  Let’s get to the numerator:  UNHCR says that, worldwide, the “population of concern” of Eritreans (refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced) in mid-2015 was 444,091.  Assume further that UNHCR is a respectable authority and Ambassador Girma Asmerom (get well soon, your excellency!) was just having a bad day.   Now,  for apple-to-apple comparison, we have to factor out “internally displaced” from the other countries numbers (because Eritrea has none, according to UNHCR and because the issue is MIGRATION), this is what the numbers show for migrants as ratio of population:

(1) Syria:  4,293,306/18,563,595 = 23.13%
(2) Central African Republic: 635,819/4,998,493 = 12.72%
(3) Eritrea: 444,091/4,000,000 = 11.10%
(4) Somalia: 1,174,686/11,079,013 = 10.6%
(5) Afghanistan: 2,987,269/33,369,945 = 8.95%

Every country on that list, The Top Five, with the exception of Eritrea, is a war zone.   Now, let’s say that many of the people who claim to be Eritreans are actually Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians.  Fine.  What is the discount rate?  If you say as much as 50% of them are not Eritreans, this would be the number for Eritrea:

Eritrea: 222,046/4,000,000 = 5.5%

This would still be higher than Burundi 405,025/11,552,561 = 3.51%.  It would make Eritrea not the 3rd but the 7th highest refugee-producer, on a per-capita basis.   You want to discount it further and say that actually 75% of those claiming to be Eritreans are not? Fine.  At 25%, it would be 111,023/4,000,000 = 2.78%, which, on a per capita basis, would be higher than Iraq and Democratic Republic of the Congo, two other war-ravaged countries.  It would make Eritrea the 9th highest producer of migrants in the world.   Using any discount rate, Eritrea would be still be, on a per-capita basis, in the top-10 of countries losing its population to migration.

And that is if we believe the ever-shrinking percentage.  If anything, the numbers reported by UNHCR are understated for the simple fact that many Eritreans–particularly those who escape via Sudan and have their own plans on where to migrate–never register with the UNHCR.  And here’s the evidence, as Bahlbi Yemane tweeted: in May of this year, Sudanese officials deported 313 Eritreans.  Of the 313, only 6 were registered with the UNHCR.  Extrapolating those numbers would give us a terrifying number of Eritrean migrants, registered and unregistered with UNHCR.

How about Eritreans who have been living in refugee camps in Sudan for generations?  It will come as a big surprise to them (and the Sudanese government) that they are “naturalized Sudanese.”  Here’s the right context: when the Government of Eritrea declared that all land belongs to the State, the refugees were not able to return to their ancestral land. When they were returned in the late 1990s–because UNHCR was tired of the longest settled refugee camp in the world (?) and eager to have a success–they were given plots of land in the middle of nowhere, a land with which they have no connection: plus no water, no social services, no schools, no clinics. After the border war broke out with Ethiopia, they returned back to their miserable conditions in Sudan and the Government of Eritrea has made exactly zero point zero effort to get them back home. Because “home” has been given away.

As for the oft-repeated quote of President Obama which has morphed into “regime change”, here’s one more place–The Clinton Global Intitiave– where the President gave the speech promising that his administration will work “with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers.” Does the President’s motivation appear to be “regime change” or that of the first African American president horrified that slavery is still alive and well in the world?  Here are the countries the Obama administration lists as worst offenders:


Does this mean the US has “regime change” plans for all of them? Or just Eritrea?

The inescapable conclusion is whether you claim Eritrea’s migrants are 100% of what UNCHR says, or 50% or even 25%, the rate of migration from Eritrea matches those who are escaping a civil war.   And from all the testimonies we have heard from thousands of Eritreans who fled the country,  it is not Ethiopia’s decision to refuse to demarcate the border; it is not US intent of regime change; it is not the host country’s accommodating asylum decisions that is the cause of Eritreans exodus.  The third largest host of Eritreans after Sudan and Ethiopia is Israel: some “accommodating country” that is: it calls Eritreans “infiltrators” and they kept on coming.   The second largest is Ethiopia: you can imagine the psychological barriers people have to overcome to ask asylum at an enemy country. The real reason is consistent with all the other war-torn countries: predatory state vs conscripted youth. People escaping a predator.  Moreover, Europe’s decision to grant “automatic approval” to Eritrean asylum-seekers was consistent with its international treaties obliging it to do exactly that.  Their recent reconsideration of that is entirely driven by domestic politics which punish politicians who are too accommodating of brown people.  As for the “thousands” of Eritreans who flock to Eritrea every summer: as the Commission of Inquiry discovered from the “40,000” coerced and scripted testimony they received, they are either Eritreans who migrated during Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea (pre-1991) or their children. They have one thing in common: all are exempt from the National Service and indefinite conscription.   So, of course, why wouldn’t they visit? There is only so much “defending the country” you can do in the Diaspora social media, only so much fist-raising-wearing-same-colored-T-shirt, and only so much remote supervision you can do of the home you are building in Eritrea.  The wonder is not that thousands who visit but, given that Eritrea’s Diaspora population is a million, why don’t hundreds of thousands do?

Claim # 2. We are making progress on human rights: we have accepted 92 recommendations in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), and when the international community engages us, we respond positively.

This refers to the February 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) where Eritrea was given a laundry list of recommendations, some of which it rejected (“noted”) and some of which it accepted.Those it accepted fall into four categories:

(a) Recommendations that it continue to work on children’s rights, women’s rights, as well as economic, social, cultural and developmental rights of its citizens;
(b) Recommendations that it co-operate with, and submit reports to, various UN organizations;
(c) Recommendations that it accept capacity-building technical assistance from the International community;
(d) Recommendations that it introduce constitutionalism and improve its citizens’s civil liberties.

Of the four categories, nearly all deal with (a), (b), and (c).  Don’t take my word for it: go to the source.  In other words, the recommendations accepted deal with issues such as gender equity, abolishing child marriage, female genital mutilation, achieving millenium developmental goals, food security, capacity building–all of which are important, but well within the agenda of the government requiring no international engagement and, more importantly, no threat to its power monopoly.  Almost all calls for improving citizens’ civil liberties (arbitrary arrest, independent access to detention centers, free press, Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, investigating allegations of, and taking effective measures against, extrajudicial killings, torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment and bring perpetrators to justice; comprehensive anti-trafficking statute, etc) were simply “noted”, i.e. rejected.

The last one, trafficking, is particularly note-worthy.  Congressman Chris Smith, who held the hearings on Eritrea last month and chairs the Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee, is most proud of his signature law: Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  As a consequence of that law, the US State Department issues an annual report ranking every country in the world for its culpability in human trafficking.  Eritrea consistently ranks dead last:Tier 3.  Why? At best, the Government of Eritrea has no understanding of the meaning of the phrases “modern slavery” and “trafficking in persons.”  Just as with the word “slavery”, “human trafficking” has changed its meaning and the Government of Eritrea is asleep at the switch.  Here’s how those words are understood in the 21st century:  when a government presses a citizen into menial, barely-compensated work where he or she has no right to resign, that is “modern slavery.”  When a government moves a conscripted kid from Tessenei to Tinkulahas to work on some government project (say, Nevsun), that is “human trafficking.” If the person going through this is under 18 (and the government’s own statistics show that some of the youth entering Sawa High School are as young as 15 and 16), then that is forced labor of a child.   Every year, the world explains this to the government, and every year the government has that dog-staring-at-the-ceiling-fan look.  It is not clear whether it is confused or malicious.  The weight of evidence suggests it is the latter.

Claim #3. All our problems are due to incessant hostilities from US and its client states who have tried to isolate us

So, sure, we are poor.  We inherited a war-torn country, devastated by 30 years of war. Poverty is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of the political program the ruling class favors.  During the 30 year war of liberation from Ethiopia, the rest of the world was either indifferent to us, or openly sided with Ethiopia and fought against us.  The United Nations, under the direction of the United States,  federated us with Ethiopia against our will, and sided with Ethiopia openly from 1961-1974.  And when imperial Ethiopia became communist Ethiopia in 1974, then the Soviet Union provided materiel and personnel support to Ethiopia until the eve of our independence.

Despite the fact that the United States, the European Union and the United Nations were witnesses to the Algiers Agreement–more than witnesses, but facilitators of the two year (1998-2000) effort to get the two feuding parties to sign the agreement– when Ethiopia decided to defy them and international law by refusing to live up to the terms of the agreement and vacate land ruled Eritrean, all refused to comply Ethiopia to live up to the terms of the agreement.  This has extended the state of animosity between Eritrea and Ethiopia and, rather than doing what international law calls for, they have been complicit and encouraging of Ethiopia’s defiance.  Moreover, they have either engineered or endorsed Ethiopia’s self-interested campaign to paint Eritrea as a terror-supporting nation: going to the extent of getting Eritrea sanctioned based on unsubstantiated allegations that Eritrea supported Al-Shabab or that Eritrea has a border dispute with Djibouti. All the accusations against us–that we support terrorists, that we enslave our people, that we do not respect civil liberties, that we commit crimes against humanity–are driven by the above and our insistence on following an independent political and economic path that rejects being America’s client state.

Do you have a feeling that, as far as the Government of Eritrea is concerned, the Eritrean people are a football between the Government of Eritrea and the Government of the United States? As a matter of fact, it is more than a feeling: it is a documented fact.  When President Isaias Afwerki met Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Asmara in 2002, he told him that…well, let’s allow The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan tell the story:

When I pressed Afewerki about human-rights abuses, which Rumsfeld had pointedly raised in their meeting two weeks earlier, he said, “If you just leave us alone, we will handle these matters in a way that won’t damage our bilateral relationship and won’t embarrass us or you.” He indicated that he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department. [Emphasis mine]

Everything that is bad in Eritrea is exacerbated by its massive militarization: modern slavery, trafficking, child labor, absence of rule of law, lack of constitution, enforced disappearance, mass exodus. “So, it is all your responsibility to fix this!” says the US to the Eritrean Gov. The Eritrean Gov says, “well, the whole reason we have a massive armed force is because you abrogated your responsibilities of a contract co-signor and refuse to compel Ethiopia to abide!” “No, no,” says the US, “we are merely witnesses to the contract; it is up to the two parties to comply…” And so on for 14 years.

But the point is: the United States owes the Eritrean people nothing. They don’t owe us reparation: maybe the Italians and Ethiopians do, but not the US.  They don’t even owe us an apology for federating us with Ethiopia: a sizable percentage of our population begged and pleaded to be unified, never mind federate, with Ethiopia.*

(* 100 shiny Nakfa bill to the first person who can show the original (non-Eritrean) document which quotes John Foster Dulles saying justice requires Eritrea be independent but US foreign policy requires that it be federated. You know the one that begins with “From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration…..” Have never found it, which either makes me a bad researcher or he never said it.  I am hoping that rather than repeat it, Bronwyn Bruton and her army of researchers will find it:)

A government’s first responsibility is to provide safety to its people. Not only has the Government of Eritrea failed at protecting the Eritrean people from outside enemies, it has become a predator chasing its own people out of the country. As my frenemy Bronwyn Bruton told her employer on the eve of the unveiling of the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea: “[C]ounter to the claims of the COIE— [Eritrea has] actively promoted migration over the years, both as a source of remittances and as a kind of pressure release valve, an alternative to those who are most frustrated with the regime.” [Emphasis mine]

There was a more precise description of the futile contest the Gov of Eritrea has entered with the US, and it was aptly described by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs in her testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on 9/14/16:

If Eritrea likes to portray itself as David and the United States as Goliath, I would argue that its wounds are largely self-inflicted and its sling shot hurls stones at its own people. Up to five thousand of them make this clear every month, risking their lives rather than remaining in the country.

She should know.  What do her predecessors, Jendayi Frazer and Johnnie Carson, and her former boss, Hillary Clinton have in common?  They were all senior State Department officials1 who were denied visa entry to Eritrea (Frazer and Carson) or denied having their calls taken by Eritrea’s president (Clinton) in the late 2000s.  Self-inflicted wounds indeed.

One more thing. Remember how the Government of Eritrea has been advertising the new Penal Codes, Civil Codes, Procedures and the brand-spanking new constitution (with a mysterious chairman and mysterious make up)–all necessary because, according to Yemane Gebreab (the only Eritrean named as a national security threat to the United States by President Obama, but is allowed to hold meetings 10 miles from the White House when the tetsabaeti are not reminding the US of its own damn policies?:)  the new generation of Eritreans can’t identify with the 1997 Constitution because, like, they weren’t born then, man? Last week, one of those who was pressure-valved out of the country in 2002 (Judge Daniel Mekonnen Rezene) welcomed to exile the very same individual–Judge Habteab Yemane Ogbazghi–who was the chief drafter of the new unimplemented, unpublished-in-the-Eritrean-Gazette Penal Codes that the Eritrean government is showcasing.

No tourniquet in sight for the self-inflicted wound.

1 Isaias Afwerki derisively refers to female, African-American State Department officials as “lete-mete”, roughly translated into “interchangeable nobodies.”  When Hillary Clinton called in 2008 or 2009, he told his office that if America is serious about engaging with Eritrea, her boss, President Obama should call.  After all, the president only takes calls from the president. He may have his chance depending on who is elected president, and if it is Hillary, I wonder if she will remember being rejected fondly?  All politics is local AND personal.


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