There is an overlooked refugee and humanitarian crisis occurring in Eritrea, a nation born from decades of struggle to gain independence from Ethiopia. Africa’s second-newest state receives little aid from Western governments and focus from media, despite being one of the largest sources of refugees globally.
Isaias Afwerki, a guerrilla leader in the fight for independence, has been president since the nation’s establishment in 1991. He is the head of the only official political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ. While at conception, strong military leadership may have helped the country’s security, the one-party system, disempowered legislature, and unimplemented constitution leave Eritrea a country in authoritarian limbo.
The second report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea found that “crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean detention facilities, military training camps, and other locations across the country over the past 25 years.”
Mike Smith, chair of the Commission of Inquiry, has labelled Eritrea “an authoritarian State,” with “no independent judiciary, no national assembly and … no other democratic institutions.” This lack of democracy has “created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated.”
The UN report is damning, detailing the systematic use of indefinite national service, forced labor, extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, forced disappearance, surveillance, and censorship. This regime creates a nexus of fear and repression, with private newspapers banned and the lack of a judicial system meaning there are no protections for those who might stand against the government.
Professor of refugee studies at London South Bank University, Gaim Kibreab, argues that Eritrea’s forced military service, which starts in civilians’ last year of school and continues until the age of 75, has made Eritrea “one of the most militarized societies in the world.” Kibreab believes that if “the UN and the wider international community sits by and does nothing to put pressure on” then the human rights abuse in Eritrea will develop “into a full-blown humanitarian disaster.”
Although the majority of the world’s refugees fled from conflict and tragedy in Syria and Afghanistan, over 47,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, representing a large and underreported proportion of global refugees. From a country of 6 million, over 500,000 Eritreans have fled the nation, most remaining in neighboring Ethiopia or Sudan.
The global refugee crisis and international response has largely been focused on ending conflict in the Middle East and stopping human rights abuses by state and rebel actors. However, ongoing conflict and a blatant disregard for human rights and basic freedoms has seen thousands fleeing Eritrea almost since the nation came into being.
Our capacity to act for Eritrea is restricted when the curators of information in our world focus attention on other issues and when governments fail to act loudly on the abuses being committed. Only by redefining the scope with which we view the global refugee crisis can we hope to aid Eritreans who have been fleeing foreign abuse for far too long.