In the days following one of the latest incidents of death in the Mediterranean on 19 April 2015 that saw more than 800 refugees and migrants drown, articles about Eritrea have appeared almost daily in some of the major British broadsheets or on their internet platforms. Eritrea has indeed become one of the principal sources of refugees/migrants worldwide in relation to its overall population size for a number of years now. Among those who try to make their way by boat from Libya across the Mediterranean, Eritreans are often the largest group. The boat that capsized on 19 April is said to have had 350 Eritreans on board. Clearly, this exodus is being triggered by much that is wrong within Eritrea, in relation to political and religious freedoms and rights as well as in relation to economic development. Those who apply for political asylum commonly cite the obligations tied to compulsory national service that have been extended from 18 months to an indefinite duration, and been analysed as a form of forced labour.
But this one-dimensional representation of Eritrea in much of the media and by a vocal human rights lobby that refers to and cites each others documents in an often circular fashion not only distorts Eritrean reality on the ground. It also hampers any search for a forward-looking political solution. At the same time, it is not easy to critique. The human rights violations documented in these reports are real, as are the more recent dynamics of kidnapping, torture and blackmail along various refugee and migration routes – and nobody wants to be seen to object to the publication of human rights abuses.
This narrow representation of Eritrea that almost co-opts any independent scholarship engrains Eritrea as a place in the public imaginary as not only another African disaster zone, but zooms in on a particular period, the years after 2001, as if history has stopped afterwards. Thus we are presented with a quasi ‘end of history’ in reverse that makes life impossible in Eritrea, where in reality dynamics have always been very much in flux. This makes it worthwhile to interrogate Eritrea’s continuous representation based on the frozen image of the ‘siege state’ that Eritrea has moved beyond.
Staying for a moment with the recent media coverage following the multiple incidents of refugee and migrant deaths and rescue in the Mediterranean, the first notable observation is that most pieces of reporting state that Eritrea is a closed off country that no journalists can visit, and thus it is not possible to know what is really going on. The latter is actually not the case, as recently television teams from for example the BBC, as well as Swiss and German stations were allowed to film. The BBC report shot during that visit on the one hand shows marked improvements in health services and other developmental gains in the country, but also gives voice to some of those now outside Eritrea who had been imprisoned and tortured in the country, raises issues of media freedom with government officials, and is critical of the way its visit has been choreographed. Taken together, it is a balanced and critical report, but its existence is largely ignored in the wider media coverage.
Instead, the representation of Eritrea repeats the trope of a closed off dictatorship about which we only have knowledge through the stories of those who have fled, without questioning their motives, nor even analysing the contradictions in the narratives they present. When it comes to Eritrea, it seems, any journalistic rigour can be dispensed with. A recent comment on the Guardian online edition is typical: Entitled ‘Mediterranean Migrant crisis: why is no one talking about Eritrea’ it states that in ‘the world’s most censored country’ citizens face the ‘stark choice’ to live ‘in misery or risk death by leaving’. In another article it is stated that ‘crushing repression’ drives Eritreans ‘into migrant boats’. Interestingly, all those pieces appear under the migrant theme, thus following the UK discourse in which asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are all merged together into a common threat that ultimately undermines the rights of those who flee persecution.
But leaving that aside for the moment, the picture such stories evoke, of a place where nobody can live a normal life and people are not only oppressed but also without food, does not correspond to Eritrean reality. How that reality looks is of no interest to those who sustain a particular representation and in fact aim to control information flows and analysis of Eritrea. This can have quite bizarre consequences at times. During fieldwork among Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv in March 2012 I was for example told by a self-proclaimed Eritrean political-leader that ‘no young people are left in Eritrea, of the five millions [population], less than one million people are left’ and when I replied that I had been to Eritrea a few months earlier and Asmara was indeed full of young people, he accused me of lying. While one can perhaps understand why a leader of an organisation with the ultimate aim to overthrow the Eritrean government has a vested interest in presenting Eritrea in that way to a generally ignorant Israeli public, this becomes more worrying when replicated by an organisation like Amnesty International. In a conversation with staff in their office in Tel Aviv, I was asked about a visit to Eritrea in 2011. When I gave an account of the rather messy picture on the ground, including the fact that to my surprise people everywhere were keen to engage in critical political discussions, the team member dealing with Eritreans in Israel said: ‘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 self-elected 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.
And Eritreans, far from being closed off from the world as suggested in this hegemonic representation, are acutely aware of the way their country is being portrayed. Thus, those who have left without any concrete oppressive encounter with the state tend to repeat a version of the story as it appears in the media and human rights literature. This can be summed up in the dictum that ‘one cannot live as a youth in Eritrea’, where ‘youth’ extends up to the age of 50 in relation to national service obligations. This confuses the stories of those who have indeed been imprisoned or exposed to unlimited national service with those who had actually lived a normal life but chose to follow those who left out of their own accord. This ‘imitation behaviour’ in the words of Bariagaber, summed up in statements like ‘I imagined people would go to a better place when I saw them leaving’, also has to be put in the wider historical context of Eritrean migration movements. These have seen what is now Eritrea over long periods of time export significant parts of its population, who then provided important economic and other support for those who stayed behind. It also enforces a general gloom that makes those who have chosen to stay behind feel the worse for it.
These dynamics become evident in one of the poster-stories in the recent media coverage, even if not being analysed as such. It counters the narrative of ‘being driven into migrant boats’ but shows that people have very clear agendas in relation to where they wish to live. The story is that of a Greek army sergeant who rescued a group of people when their boat struck some rocks off the coast of Rhodes. One of those rescued was Nebiat, an Eritrean woman, and one picture showing how he lifted her out of the water became to ‘symbolise desperation and valour’. We then learn that her parents back in Eritrea paid US$ 10.000 for her ‘voyage (…) to freedom’ – but also that she had flown to Istanbul on a false passport and from there took that fateful boat to Greece, in a conscious decision, in order to eventually reach Sweden. We do not learn anything about why she left Eritrea apart from the fact that she fled ‘war, dictatorship, repression in distant Eritrea’, and meanwhile is said to be on the continuation of her journey. The frank admission that her parents in fact paid for her also contradicts the often repeated claim that people who have left Eritrea illegally need to disown their relatives left behind, as otherwise those relatives would be imprisoned and/or punished by the Eritrean government.
The deaths in the Mediterranean clearly raise important questions, not only in relation to the European Union’s culpability, but also in relation to the countries where many of those who have drowned come from. But an analysis of the latter should not be held hostage to the moral high ground that underlies the condemnations of a human rights lobby that seeks to undermine any views different from its own. It should equally not be driven by the desire to limit the numbers of those who try to come to European shores and slam the door into their faces.
Many of those who flee and cite national service as the cause point out that they want to be ‘free’. This links the current ‘exodus’ from Eritrea to all those African youth driven by what Ferguson in his book Global Shadows calls the ‘aspiration to belong’. In fact, the stories I have heard from Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv about their motivations are strikingly similar to those I have been told by Senegalese refugees in Thessaloniki. Among Eritreans the draw to the abroad is being enforced by the fact that almost every Eritrean family has some of its members in the diaspora, often since many decades.
This brings us back to the deaths in the Mediterranean. People are not drowning because of oppression and war in the places where they come from, be it Eritrea, Syria or any other of the multiple countries that make up the passengers in those overloaded fishing boats. They are dying because there are no legal routes into Europe, neither for asylum seekers nor for those who seek work and/or a better life, regardless of whether their skills might be needed. The right to political asylum is clearly defined in International Law and those who have a valid case should be able to bring that case without risking their life first, something that those who board boats in Libya and other locations are being denied. And the European Union needs to develop an immigration policy that provides clear rules for people to come, after all workers are being sought in many areas, skilled and unskilled alike. In relation to Eritrea, one should welcome renewed efforts of engagement with Eritrea as propagated by some, and be wary of calls for ‘intervention’ as for example issued by politicians of Eritrea’s former colonial power, Italy.
In relation to the youth-exodus, it remains to be seen if the prospect and/or reality of demobilisation and a limit of national service to 18 months, as in fact promised by the Eritrean government, and even a new political order based on the rule of law, will dampen the desire to join those who have embarked on the journey to greener pastures. It seems rather naïve to bet on it within a global order based on increasing inequality and exclusion.