Analysis 2016/6: Eritrea as a powder keg of irregular migration to Europe

November 21, 2016

Gyorselemzés 2016/9: Eritrea mint az Európa felé irányuló irreguláris migráció egyik puskaporos hordója

Analysis 2016/6: Eritrea as a powder keg of irregular migration to Europe

Eritrea as a powder keg of irregular migration to Europe

– an analysis of the most important political and social triggers of migration

(in cooperation with Bence Kőhegyi, student of the Corvinus University of Budapest)

Nowadays, about five thousand people leave Eritrea on the north-eastern part of Africa each month. Since the neighbouring countries do not welcome them, they come to Europe in ever greater numbers. In this analysis, we set out to answer this question: Why do large numbers of people leave for the old continent from a country where there is no war, and several religious views live together in peace?

In the most recent news we hear that the European Union drew an agreement with nine countries in the Middle East and in Africa, the essence of which is „payment” for these countries if they can keep people from heading for Europe. Surprisingly, Eritrea is not among these countries, even though most refugee arrivals using the Mediterranean route were from there. But let us look a bit further.

Hundreds of Eritrean refugees were drowned at sea when the boat carrying them tipped over at the shores of Italy in October 2013. This is when the public first heard about Eritrea and the hardships of refugees arriving from there. While several Europeans were shocked by the tragedy and Italy declared a national day of mourning, Eritrea tried to conceal the fact that the perished were its own citizens, and the state media reported that over 300 „illegal African immigrants” died near the Italian shores[1]. When it became clear that the victims were of Eritrea, the government said that the incident was a crime committed by the human traffickers, supported by the United States of America.[2]

Leaders of the sub-Saharan country most likely did not want to disclose the citizenship of victims, because the international community would have then posed an uncomfortable question: Why do people flee from Eritrea in such great numbers? Presently, about 5000 people leave the country illegally, despite the authorities imprisoning, torturing and often shooting down the fugitives.

The procedure did not start with the 2013 boat accident. In 2007, refugees from Eritrea filed the most asylum applications, apart from Iraq and Somalia[3]. In 2008, Eritrea remained the top third country of migrant departure, even though it is the 113th smallest state on the earth with regards to population.[4]. From 2011–2012, 3–4 thousands have left the country each month, and this number accelerated to about 5 thousand per month after 2015.

Following a short introduction, we will now look at the political and social factors that prompt the population to flee the country. We shall also see why Europe seems to be the best alternative for the refugees after they leave Eritrea. The analysis will look at the following aspects in detail:

  • Introduction – towards a dictatorship;
  • Compulsory military service – institutionalised slavery, economy in decline;
  • The contradictory relationship of diasporas and the state;
  • Free press and free speech;
  • State and religion;
  • Why Europe?

Introduction – towards a dictatorship

Eritrea with its 5.3 million population on 125 000 km2 land gained independence from Ethiopia de facto in 1991, and de jure in 1993, after a referendum supported by the United Nations. Nine different ethnic groups have official recognition within the country, conflicts arising from religious differences will be dealt with in a later chapter. The country has three official languages: Arabic, English, and Tigrinya.[5]Even though the country is small, it has a geopolitical significance with a 1150 km long shore by the Red Sea, a hub of commercial activities.

Since this was the interest of the United States, Ethiopia „obtained” Eritrea in 1952, when Haile Selassie, emperor or Ethiopia allowed Americans to set up a military base in Asmara. Even though Eritrea had partial regional and political autonomy in theory, Ethiopia repressed all independence efforts within a decade. The UN and the world powers shut their eyes on this oppression. When battles of independence broke out in 1961, the Eritrean rebels did not receive any assistance, neither from the Eastern, nor from the Western block. [6]

After the declaration of independence, the same political and military element came into power in Eritrea, whose members had been fighting for the country’s independence against enemies within and without for thirty years. This group, socialised in battle, exercising authoritarian power, allowed for a bit of civil society to form in Eritrea between 1993 and 1998, with NGO-s, independent educational institutions, independent media and the free exercise of religion.[7]

The turning point was a devastating war between 1998 and 2000, Eritrea fought against its neighbouring Ethiopia, with about 100 000 lives lost. The bloody fight had three important home affair consequences,[8] which can be regarded the direct antecedents of the present wave of refugees:

  • The moderately authoritarian system moved toward a totalitarian dictatorship.
  • The fundamental freedoms (of speech, of the press, of movement, and of religion) have been gradually restricted, and there have been more and more verdicts without trial since 2001. In addition, the constitution ready by 1997, the installation of a multiparty system, the organisation of free elections remained mere promises, and since 1993, the country is run by a former leader of the rebellion, Isaias Afewerki.
  • The conflict with Ethiopia, the continuous – imagined or real – perception of danger prompted the leadership to militarize the society.
  • Since 1995, the compulsory military and civic service has no time limits.
  • Eritrea gets more and more secluded from the world; its foreign policy is characterized by isolationism.
  • After World War II, Eritrea was not included in the decision of its fate, and it had to fight for independence on its own. In consequence, state leaders came to conclude that the international community (especially the neighbouring Ethiopia, and the western block led by the USA) was unreliable.

These were the landmarks that have mapped out the present political vista of Eritrea, not in its entirety, but for the most part. We shall now examine the negative factors that trigger migration.

Compulsory military service – institutionalised slavery, economy in decline

Eritrea is a military state led by warriors. Soon after gaining independence, in 1995, the government enacted a law, that all citizens of Eritrea (including women) between ages 18 and 40 had to participate in basic military training for six months, and then offer „voluntary national service” for the next 12 months. Following the war with Ethiopia, however, the time frame of the compulsory service period became unlimited, and the age limit went up to 50.  Deserters may receive an unrealistically high fine, that is the mild form, or face prison, torture, or even death. Those who would flee from service and escape into foreign countries are often shot down at the border.[9]

Even though the law requires citizens between ages 18 and 50 to enlist, in real life, service starts earlier (generally, at age 16) and lasts until age 55 or longer.[10]

Eritrea supports several opposition groups in the region, one of these is Al-Shabab in Somalia. It is not proved, but strongly suspected that this terrorist organization likes to enlist – by force – Eritrean child soldiers, with the implied consent of the Eritrean government.[11]

Compulsory military service supports the perception that weapons can solve any problems. In addition, the highly centralized system, corruption, rivalry between captains, and the misuse of resources impair the army’s vitality. Captains taking advantage of their authority often use these soldiers for their own purposes: to build a house, to repair roads, or to serve as household attendants. State and army leaders make these people work in their companies under the slogan of compulsory national service. And the pay is not enough to support a normal standard of living.[12]

The more the government tries to extort loyalty from its citizens through compulsory military service, the more alienated the youth become. A refugee from Eritrea recalled: „[We had] individual and collective expectations from independence and peace. When the war [against Ethiopia] happened, we fought. Then, we just wanted to live as part of the Eritrean nation, but according to our will and skills. Instead, we found ourselves demoted to the lowest rank of the society, forced to dig useless trenches and treated like animals in a cage, forever, in the name of the revolution. We lost faith.[13]

It is interesting that the Eritrean diaspora is exempt from compulsory military and civic service by paying a 2% „diaspora tax” (see the next chapter). Emigrants are free to come and go across the country borders anytime. This prompted the following common joke: “A group of people tries to escape from Eritrea and is caught at the border by soldiers. The soldiers ask them, ‘Why do you want to leave?’ They answer, ‘We have been giving one hundred percent to this country and this has not been recognised, those already outside the country just give two per cent and this is being recognised, they can come and go, they can buy houses, they can do everything – so we want to join those who give only two percent’”.[14]

The state tries to control all areas of life. What has damaged the country most is the war economy, in which labour and financial capital is concentrated in the hands of the ruling party and the military. One of the most extreme examples of nationalization took place in the construction sector, where the authorities gave all private construction companies a ten-day notice to shut down.[15]

„Although no official figures are available, it is estimated that some 250,000–300,000 Eritreans are mobilized in the Eritrean Defence Forces – making it one of the largest standing armies on the continent. And to further militarize the country, Afwerki, decided in 2012 to create a ’people’s militia’ by arming a large section of the civilian population and forcing even the elderly to bear arms. Because of the military service, Eritrea’s economy has been starved of young labour.” Instead of productive or economic activity, the youth are engaged in compulsory national service. And the pay, as we already indicated, is not enough to support themselves and their families.[16]

The contradictory relationship of diasporas and the state

Several Eritreans – especially before the country gained independence – have left their homeland to help remaining relatives from abroad. According to recent data, Eritrea has a 5.3 million population.[17] Emigration is high in comparison: over one million Eritreans left the country during the fight for independence (between the 1960’s and 1993), and this number is on the rise each month.[18]

Ironically, even though the state of Eritrea does not allow its citizens to legally leave the country, it would not be able to support itself without contributions from the diaspora, because at least 1/3 of Eritrea’s GDP comes from remittance by emigrants living abroad.[19]

The state has levied several direct and indirect taxes on remittances. Eritrean embassies around the world keep track on the amount of money sent home – to their country of origin – by the Eritrean diaspora living in that country. The state of Eritrea has a fixed, 2% tax on this amount.  Families at home can access remittances only though state-monitored banks, and the incoming foreign currency must be exchanged to local currency. The state makes this possible only at a rate much lower than the world market rate. If someone is caught by the authorities for exchanging foreign money not according to the prescribed rules, several years of prison can be due.[20]

Emigrants trying to avoid tax can also face serious sanctions. For example, the Eritrean embassy can revoke their passport, which could be a serious problem for migrant workers in the Middle East, where they cannot access state services without a passport.[21]

In the 2000’s, the government not only monitored incoming money, but also the free movement of products coming from foreign countries. Everything had to be reported to the authorities, items arriving by mail were taxed, and laptops were confiscated until the government approved their use. No one knows what the authorities did with the computers during the confiscation.[22]

Freedom of speech and freedom of press

After the devastating war with Ethiopia, and the political turn of 2001, all independent media was suspended (the last in 2007) in the country. At present, Eritrea is the only country in Africa with no independent media at all. Several journalists have been arrested since 2001, many of whom disappeared. According to CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) reports, Eritrea is next to North Korea in the strictest censorship of journalist activities and internet use. The same analysis reveals that only 5.6 % of the population owns cell phones, which also works against the freedom of information.[23]

As Human Rights Watch reports, people who work for the state media cannot be sure of their safety, either. In 2006 and 2007, several journalists working for the state-run media agency were arrested, because some of their colleagues had fled the country, and the authorities suspected that they wanted to flee as well. Paulos Kidane was a popular figure on state television. He came out of jail in 2007, and decided to flee the country. The authorities arrested him at the border, and soon informed his family that Kidane had „died accidentally” at the border.[24]

Teachers and students should think twice before raising issues and formulating criticism about the system. “Seventy to 80 percent of university students are trying to leave because they feel politically marginalized and they can’t speak freely”– an Eritrean teacher says, who once questioned the technical correctness of the curriculum in front of his superiors, and received this answer: “You are a teacher. We taught you. You are in the university because we helped you. Now you try to go against our curriculum. If you go on you will be in prison, even you will be killed.”[25]


State and religion

Although there is no reliable data on religious distribution, and various sources give different data, estimates hold that about 40% of the population are Muslim, 40% are Orthodox Christians, and the remaining 20% belong to branches of the Christian religion.

The state recognizes only four of the many denominations: a Sunni Muslim community, and the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelic denominations.[26]

In the spirit of restrictions after the war with Ethiopia, the state withdrew much financial support from various churches (especially the Catholic), and significantly limited their range of activities.[27]

The most persecuted group since the country gained independence is the group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are the ones who did not vote for independence in 1993, and whose religious prescriptions are strongly against compulsory military service. These two factors served as suitable reasons for the Eritrean government to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses from government employment, and deny them access to state services (including education and healthcare). In addition, they cannot get the papers necessary to start a business, buy property, receive travel permits or visas.[28]

In the most recent, 2016 report of USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) – which declares itself independent –, there is no sectarian conflict in Eritrea, and the various religious groups have a peaceful attitude toward one another. On the other hand, the state persecutes the representatives of non-registered denominations, and frequently disturbs religious groups with official recognition. The number of religious prisoners is presently between 1200 and 3000.[29] According to the UNSCIRF report, religious prisoners are often confiscated in metal shipping containers, where they have to endure extreme temperatures. In addition, they are brutally treated, they are denied of medical care, and they cannot freely exercise their religion within the prison walls. Dying of mistreatment is not infrequent.[30]

Abune Antonios, the Eritrean Orthodox patriarch, who had been placed under house arrest, died at age 80 last year, according to government reports. The charge against him was that he called on the government to let the political prisoners go free. In addition, he was not willing to report the names of his followers whom he knew to be members of secret opposition groups.[31]


Why Europe?

There are four basic alternatives for those who leave Eritrea: the neighbouring Sudan or Ethiopia, Israel or Europe. The rest of the analysis will shed light on why Europe is the most inviting destination among these countries.

Ethiopia and Sudan

Although the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia was not too friendly between 2001 and 2015, about 180 thousand Eritrean refugees arrived to Ethiopia.[32] The daily portion in Ethiopian refugee camps is far less than the amount a healthy body needs, so a large part of the population – especially women and children – suffers from malnourishment. Healthcare and living conditions, the ban on employment, and the poor circumstances pose further challenges for the refugees. Thus, all they do is struggle „with boredom and distress” all day.[33] In consequence, the 180 thousand Eritreans will not stay in Ethiopia permanently, and many arrive with the intention to move on to Israel or Europe within a short time.

Eritrean refugees in Sudan face the same challenges as those fleeing to Ethiopia. According to late 2015 data, there are 125 530 Eritrean refugees, many of whom have been settled in refugee camps or cities for about thirty years.[34]

The doors of Israel closed

The Jewish state was traditionally employing Palestinian workers, mainly in agriculture and construction. Due to hostile relations and distrust, Israel gradually exchanged the Palestinian workforce with African migrants from the 1990’s. In addition, from the early 2000’s, several Jewish political and public figures argued for the protection of Israel’s „Jewish character”. In consequence, a new amendment to the already established Prevention of Infiltration Law was approved. The new ruling makes it possible to imprison irregular migrants from Africa for up to three years, or hold them in detention camps for an indefinite period without a formal charge or trial. Under these circumstances, the refugees could not find employment, could not enter the land of Israel, and had to take part in three daily roll calls that prevented them from staying too far from the camp. A year later, compulsory roll call became a daily practice, and refugees had to spend each night in camp.[35]

Recent strict measures of the central government have made the situation of sub-Saharan refugees, including Eritreans, completely hopeless in Israel. At the same time, tension became high against the tens of thousands of African residents living in Israel for a long time. Knesset Member Miri Regev made a statement that asylum seekers were a „cancer in the body of Israel”. Eli Yishai, former Minister of Internal Affairs, called Africans criminals and a demographic threat.[36] In 2012, various Jewish and nationalist groups held several protests, demanding the departure of African migrants from Israel.[37]

The doors of Libya opened: en route to Europe

Life became unbearable for Eritrean refugees in the neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, and in Israel from 2012. As an interesting correlation, civil war broke out in Libya, and the North-African country descended into chaos around the same time the anti-migration law was adapted in Israel. As an important consequence, there was a lack of effective border control both in the southern and the northern border, and the mass of refugees and migrants could head for Europe through the Mediterranean Sea without control.[38]

In 2015, 154 thousand refugees chose the Mediterranean route, which is a 400% rise in comparison to year 2014. Most refugees arriving on this route from the sub-Saharan region are Eritreans. In 2012, there were only 1889 arrivals from the East-African country, and this number went up to 10 398 in 2013, then up to 33 559 in 2015, with 39 thousand arrivals last year.[39]

The most important pull factor is still the fact that the European Union has prioritised Eritreans and Syrians, and international protection is most likely granted for these nationalities. If one is proven to have escaped from Eritrea, refugee status is almost certain.[40] The same as with protection granted for Syrians, it can be observed that several refugees from the sub-Saharan region (especially those arriving from Ethiopia) claim to be Eritreans, in the hope of an easy way to refugee status.[41]

In 2015, the most popular refugee destinations in Europe were Switzerland (7475), Germany (5500) and Sweden (4645). In addition to these countries, there is a large Eritrean community in the United Kingdom, which is also an important pull factor.[42]



The push factors outlined above – both individually and collectively – all contribute to people fleeing Eritrea in ever increasing numbers each month. If the local leadership wants to stop this course, the following suggestions should be considered – in view of the observations of international organizations and other observers:

  • Cut the time frame of compulsory national service, and integrate the youth into various sectors of the economy, to have their useful work raise the country’s GDP;
  • End the corruption and the authoritarianism of captains and various army and civic leaders;
  • Make it possible for a civil society to form: put the constitution prepared by 1997 in place, install a multiparty system, and organise free elections;
  • Respect basic human rights, where each citizen, regardless of ethnicity and religion, has the same rights and bears the same responsibilities.
  • Reconsider the neighbourhood and regional policy: seek consensus instead of seclusion and isolationism, to establish normal political and economic relations, beneficial to both parties; this is especially true for Ethiopia, which used to be one of the most important partners of Eritrea before the war.

Besides the „weak” Europe image and the high recognition rates on the top of it, migration pull factors include the severely limited opportunities offered by neighbouring countries in Africa and in the Middle East. It is important to stress, though, that a sustainable solution of the problem will not be found in Europe. To avoid such a flow of refugees, solutions should be found and alternatives offered at a local level. The government of Eritrea should be supported with investments and other financial instruments to start with, so that the government can create an economic and political environment residents will not want to escape from.[43] Of course, both parties should be willing. It is also essential to have a sustainable state structure in Libya, and – in consequence – restore a strict border control system. Europe should provide full assistance.


[1] Isaias Regime and Lampedusa: A Week Late, A Weak Explanation, Awate News, October 10, 2013,

[2] Press Statement by the Government of Eritrea, Eritrea-Ministry of Information, 9 October, 2013,

[3] Kagan, Michael. 2009. ‘Refugee Credibility Assessment and the “Religious imposter” Problem: A Case Study of Eritrean Pentecostal Claims in Egypt’. Cairo: Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, CRMS Working Paper No. 9. pp. 1197. PDF:

[4] Jopson, Barney. ‘Inside the Insular and Secretive Eritrea’. Financial Times19 September. 2009.

[5] Country Information and Guidance, Eritrea: Religious groups, UK Home Office, 20 OCtober 2014, Profile – Eritrea, In: Library of Congress – Federal Research Division,

[6] Eritrea: The Siege State, In: Africa Report N°163 – 21 September 2010, International Crisis Group, pp. 3,

[7] Tricia Redeker Hepner: Religion, Repression, and Human Rights in Eritrea and the Diaspora, In: Journal Of Religion In Africa 44 (2014) 151-188. pp. 161. (EBSCO)

[8] Nicole Hirt: The Eritrean Diaspora And Its Impact On Regime Stability: Responses To Un Sanctions, In: African Affairs, 2014, 114/454, 115–135, pp. 118.  (EBSCO)

[9] Gaim Kibreab: The Open-Ended Eritrean National Service: The Driver of Forced Migration, In: Paper for the European Asylum Support Office Practical Cooperation Meeting on Eritrea 15-16 October 2014 Valleta, Malta,

[10] Case Study Eritrea: Widespread conscription of children goes unchecked, In: Louder than words – An agenda for action to end state use of child soldiers, Child Soldiers International, 2012, pp. 41. Downloaded:

[11] Louder than words: pp. 42.

[12] Service for Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, Human Rights Watch, April 16, 2009,

[13] Eritrea: Ending the Exodus? International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing N°100, 8 August 2014, pp. 6. PDF:

[14] ICG (2014) pp. 6.

[15] Goitom GebreluelOut of Eritrea – The Real Story About One of Europe’s Largest Group of Asylum Seekers, October 26, 2015. Foreign Affairs,

[16] Goitom Gebreluel:ibid

[17] Countries in the world by population (2016), Worldometers,

[18] World Bank, ‘Eritrea: Options and strategies for growth’ (World Bank Report) 1994.

[19] Gaim Kibreab: The Eritrean diaspora, the war of independence, post-conflict (re)-construction and democratisation’, In: Ulf Johansson Dahre (ed.), The role of diasporas in peace, democracy and development in the Horn of Africa (Research Report in Social Anthropology 1, Lund University, 2007), pp. 103–104;

[20] Nicole Hirt (2014): pp. 120.

[21] Nicole Hirt (2014): pp. 117.

[22] Amanda Poole: Ransoms, Remittances, and Refugees: The Gatekeeper State in Eritrea, In: Africa Today 60(2), pp. 66-82, pp. 76. (EBSCO)

[23] 10 Most Censored Countries, CPJ, 2015,

[24] Human Rights Watch Service For Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April, 16, 2009,

[25] I.m.

[26] Tricia Redeker Hepner: Religion, Repression, and Human Rights in Eritrea and the Diaspora, In: Journal Of Religion In Africa 44 (2014) 151-188. pp. 153. (EBSCO)

[27] Tricia Redeker: pp 161.

[28] Amnesty International, Eritrea: Religious Persecution, December 2005, pp. 7.

[29] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2016 Annual Report, pp. 40. PDF:

[30] USCIRF, pp. 41.

[31] Eritrean Orthodox Christian patriarch dies: government, DailyMail, 22. 12. 2015.

[32] Günter Schröder: Migratory and Refugee Movements in and from the Horn of Africa, November, 2015, pp. 2,

[33] Mogos O Brhane: Understanding why Eritreans go to Europe, In: Forced Migration Review, January 2016, pp 34.

[34] Mogos O Brhane: ibid.

[35] Galia Sabar, Elizabeth Tsurkov: Israel’s Policies toward Asylum-Seekers: 2002-2014, Istitutio Affari Internazionali (IAI), 20 May 2015, 12.

[36] Elizabeth Tzurkov, “Cancer in Our Body”. On Racial Incitement, Discrimination and Hate Crimes against African Asylum-Seekers in Israel, January-June 2012, Tel Aviv, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, July 2012,

[37] Max Blumenthal’s David Sheen’s video presentation about the sentiments against African migrants in Israel.

[38] Christopher S. Chivvis, Jeffrey Martini: Libya After Qaddafi Lessons and Implications for the Future, RAND, 2014,

[39] „Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route”, Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP), 2016 February, pp. 11.

[40] Laurence Peter: Migrant crisis: Who does the EU send back?, BBC, 9 September 2015, , Also: Zachary LaubAuthoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis, Council On Foreign Relations, November 11, 2015,

[41] „Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route” pp. 12.

[42] Zachary Laub: ibid.

[43] Accepting that there is only a limited chance to change a state’s form of political organization and extreme ideologies, as is the case with the major reasons behind several kinds of persecutions.