A country of origin report on Eritrea produced by the Danish Immigration Service has led to a war of words in the media and on various internet platforms. To be sure, the report is of shockingly bad quality and little thoroughness and some of its sentences are simply non-sensical or outright laughable. People spoken to do not represent in any way sections of the general population in Eritrea and it seems clearly the case that the report was written with the purpose of limiting the number of Eritrean refugees or immigrants who are entering Denmark. Also, everybody who has any knowledge of the work of Gaim Kibreab (which the report’s authors evidently did not have), the academic who is cited in the report as an expert, knows that he has been quoted wrongly and out of context and is sympathetic to his immediate expression of shock and his dissociation from the report and its findings.
I do not wish to add to the many voices that have meanwhile condemned the report. Rather I find it more interesting to consider what these critiques reveal about the general dynamics that have led to the one-dimensional interpretation of Eritrea by a powerful human rights lobby that seeks to monopolize what the world should know about Eritrea – and to morally condemn those who do not fall in line. The general ‘truth’ about Eritrea as advanced by this lobby is of a dictatorship where it is simply impossible to live a normal life in any way, and where therefore people flee und endure horrific abuses while on the way – either during their clandestine crossing of the border, or once out by human traffickers ultimately related to the long arm of the Eritrean state. This narrative, advanced by organisations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, is not being recognised by anybody who actually visits Eritrea or for example volunteers to teach at one of its colleges, as a young academic based at a prestigious UK university has recently done for three months.
I not so long ago, in 2012, actually sat in the Amnesty Office in Tel Aviv and spoke about a visit to Eritrea I carried out in 2011, during which one could see a number of cautious openings on the ground. The staff member mainly responsible for issues around Eritrea replied in no uncertain terms: ‘We do not really want to hear that the situation is not uniformly bad, because our campaign is based on painting the picture of an 100% oppressive regime’. Subsequently, I was prevented by a vocal group of so-called self-selected leaders among the Eritrean refugee community in Tel Aviv from giving a talk to volunteers from a local refugee organisation. Their mechanisms – including intimidating phone-calls by somebody, named, rather ironically, Issayas, like the Eritrean president or ‘dictator’ – mirrored those of the young PFDJs, the government supporters, who are well know for being highly organised and very efficient in disturbing public academic or other meetings where Eritrea is being discussed in any ‘Western’ city.
We are thus trapped in a vicious circle here. There are organisations like Amnesty who claim the moral high ground – nuance is not welcomed here, even if that is what would be needed to actually make the lives of many of those Eritrean refugees trapped in various difficult situations in ‘Western’ settings more promising. It also seemingly ignores the divided loyalties of many of those who have left Eritrea for good reasons but who still find themselves sitting in the cafés of Tel Aviv, watching the broadcast of the state television channel ERI-TV with its usual mix of patriotic music, videos of heroic fighters in Eritrea’s past wars, Eritrean soap operas and the occasional speech by the president or other high ranking officials. It seemed to me at first rather ironic to find groups of Eritrean youth spending their days watching the propaganda of a state they have escaped from. But for many Eritreans it made perfect sense. Even though in the official rhetoric of their government they are labelled as ‘traitors’ – as all those who leave the country and are regarded as not fulfilling their citizenship obligations are – this is not how they see themselves. In contrast, many remain deeply loyal to the Eritrean state consolidation project and committed to contribute their share to its success. What they reject is the state’s securitisation agenda, the militarisation of society and the demands that spring from it, in particular that there is no time limit on national service obligations for various population groups.
Above all, this one-dimensional interpretation makes flight the only viable option for more and more youth, even those who have not been exposed to any state-harassment, and those who have chosen to stay behind are made to feel the worse for it. This ‘imitation behaviour’ often leads to misery in refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan, and even those who make it to other settings in the ‘West’ often find life much harder and less greener than they envisaged, and many become completely disillusioned – as the quote in the title from an Eritrean in Tel Aviv allures to. More generally, privately many yearn to go back, and try to convince others to stay rather than embark on similar hazardous journeys – but their words, unsurprisingly, fall on deaf ears. The lure of the promised land of the ‘West’ is simply too big, and of course not only for Eritreans. But their plight seems particularly harsh: The one-dimensional narrative of what their country has become makes any change on the ground and engagement between Eritrea and the outside world less rather than more likely – while at the same time the waters of the Mediterranean are as treacherous as ever.
Time, one would think, for the human rights lobby to look into the mirror? There is little sign of that. It is left to organisations like the International Crisis Group to advocate for a more nuanced approach (as happened in a recent briefing). And initiatives like a recent symposium at the University of Oxford, co-organised by Chatham House, that brought together people working on Eritrea and Rwanda – a gathering that included two Eritrean academics who are still working in and travelled from Eritrea – a rare chance of a measured and productive form of dialogue and engagement. If only there were more of those!
I have written the following two articles that deal with recent developments in Eritrea: Review of African Political Economy (2012), 39: 133, ‘Beyond the siege state – tracing hybridity during a recent visit to Eritrea’, see: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03056244.2012.710839 and Geoforum (2012), 43: 4, ‘From rebel governance to state consolidation – Dynamics of loyalty and the securitisation of the state in Eritrea’, see: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718512000346 (feel free to email me for a copy of the articles)
The International Crisis Group Report ‘Eritrea: Ending the Exodus?’, can be accessed at: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2014/africa/eritrea-ending-the-exodus.aspx
Assefaw Bariagaber has written on ‘imitation behaviour’ in the article ‘Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea’, Africa Today, 60: 2, 2013, see http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2979/africatoday.60.2.3?uid=28864&uid=3738032&uid=2134&uid=28861&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=5910784&uid=67&uid=62&sid=21104782447461