Published October 23rd, 2020 - written by: Simone Schlindwein

Window-dressing through EU aid and migration cooperation

For a long time, the small country had been isolated and its borders were closed. Millions of Eritreans seek protection worldwide from the authoritarian regime. A lot has changed since the opening of the border in 2018. 

Eritrea is one of the smallest, poorest, and youngest countries in Africa. In 1993, Eritreans struggled for independence from Ethiopia. Since then, the two neighboring countries had been in engaged in a stalemate akin to a cold war with highly fortified borders on both sides. In the summer of 2018, the archenemies suddenly signed a peace treaty to everybody’s surprise, thus setting a new dynamic in motion. Many Eritreans hoped for a democratization of their country – and were bitterly disappointed. Since then more Eritreans than ever before have fled the country.

To this date, the country at the Horn of Africa had been virtually isolated from the international community. The reason: the government of president Isaias Afwerki is considered one of the most brutal dictatorships on the continent. Eritrea is often called the “North Korea of Africa”. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions since 2009, including an arms embargo and travel restrictions for key members of the government. The development cooperation between Germany and Eritrea was rescinded in 2007. However, since the Balkan crisis of 2015, more commonly known as the ‘refugee crisis’, the collaboration has been gradually revived. Amongst Africans, Eritreans are second only to Nigerians in applying for asylum in Germany. Since 2015, more than 75,000 Eritreans have been granted asylum in Germany.

“Top producer” of refugees in Africa

The UN Human Rights Report of June 2016 accuses the repressive regime of committing crimes against humanity, enslaving, torturing and holding the population as prisoners. The accusations often focus on the so called ‘National Service’, the obligatory civil and military service, to which all young people are automatically drafted upon leaving school and from which they are not released. According to the UN report, Eritreans are basically forced laborers for their entire life, and women are subjected to systematic sexual abuse in the military barracks. Escape from the military can be fatal – and yet many attempt to flee anyway.

According to the 2010 census, Eritrea had only about 5.7 million inhabitants. More than one million Eritreans out of the total inhabitants are by now seeking protection in exile, the World Bank estimates. According to the UN Human Rights Report, about 5,000 people flee every month, making Eritrea a “top producer” of refugees worldwide – especially in comparison to other African countries.

The Eritrean government makes a profit from the diaspora: all Eritreans are legally obliged to remit two percent of their income earned abroad, the so-called ‘reconstruction tax’. In a 2011 resolution, the UN Security Council accused the regime in Asmara of employing its tax revenues to fund the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

More than half a million Eritreans seek refuge in neighboring countries: in Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and even in war-torn South Sudan. Up until 2012, Israel was considered a destination country for many Eritreans. However, as an increasing number of refugees fell victim to organ traders on their way through the Sinai desert and Israel started to systematically deport refugees to African third countries such as Uganda and Rwanda, most Eritreans now look for alternatives paths. So far, most Eritreans have fled Eritrea via Ethiopia and Sudan, passing Libya and Egypt on their way to reach Europe by boat via the Mediterranean Sea.

Until 2018, the escape from Eritrea was expensive and life threatening, reports Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean initiative for refugee rights ERRI and founder of a telephone hotline for Eritrean refugees in Sweden. According to ERRI it was difficult to flee from Eritrea’s capital Asmara. The border was very far away and the government monitored movements. Those who could afford it would bribe a government or army official in Asmara to be transported out of the country in a car with a diplomatic or government license plate number, sometimes even going as far as to the Sudanese capital Khartoum. According to ERRI, the price was up to 6,000 US dollars per person.

Extensive human trafficking networks

Just a few years ago, the border between Sudan and Eritrea was porous with few check points, providing an exit strategy for many. Even Eritrean Special Forces were able to enter Sudan unnoticed in order to stop migrants or to flee themselves. In 2016, UN investigators and European law enforcement agencies found that most of the trafficking networks spanning the route from Sudan to the EU via Libya are maintained by Eritreans. Trafficking and extorting ransoms are big business: at the beginning of 2016, fleeing from Eritrea to the EU cost about 3,500 US dollars, according to ERRI. In the following years the price rose to 15,000 US dollars due to extortions, especially in Sudan and Libya. There are increasing reports that Eritrean refugees are kidnapped by the Islamic State in Libya and are forcibly conscripted as fighters or sold off as slaves.

In recent years, the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF), notorious for brutally suppressing mass protests in Sudan’s capital Khartoum in the summer of 2019, are also responsible for border protection alongside Sudan’s migration authorities. Both the RSF and Sudan’s migration authorities have increasingly arrested and deported refugees and migrants on their way to the Mediterranean. “The Sudanese arrest Eritreans and deport them. Simply because they want to show the EU that they are doing something,” says Zecarias Gerrima, deputy director of Africa Monitors, an Eritrean human rights organization based in Uganda that works for Eritrean refugees and researches their migration routes. “They know very well that it is not safe for Eritreans to return. They send them to their deaths.”

In 2016, the dreaded militia chief Mohamed Dagalo, also known as Hametti, became the highest-ranking border official in Sudan. He commands the above mentioned RSF, which is considered to be one of the most powerful forces in Sudan since the fall of the long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Sudan experts say that the EU’s migration policies have empowered Hametti. Owing to his connection to the genocide in the Sudanese civil war region Darfur, he is an alleged war criminal.

From a European perspective, the collaboration with Sudan has apparently worked out. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has reported a significant drop in the number of new asylum seekers from Eritrea since the opening of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border in September 2018. Previously, about 11,000 Eritreans had applied for asylum in Germany every year. In 2018, that number halved. According to the BAMF, there was a particularly drastic decrease in the number of asylum seekers after the opening of the border in September 2018.

The route to South America via Uganda

But this does not mean that fewer people are fleeing Eritrea. In fact, the number of people fleeing Eritrea has doubled, Gerrima says. According to his research, up to 200,000 Eritreans have arrived in Uganda alone since the opening of the border. They flee from Eritrea to Ethiopia through the open border. But most of them do not want to stay there, according to Gerrima, because, “They don’t trust the peace and they fear that Ethiopia could soon deport them again”.

Since Sudan’s border protection forces have been arresting and deporting more and more Eritreans, most Eritreans avoid making their way to Europe. “The route to Libya is effectively blocked”, says Gerrima. This is why Eritrean or Ethiopian smugglers no longer guide Eritrean refugees north towards Europe, but towards south. The smugglers charge 1,500 US dollars for the bus ride to Uganda via Kenya. Uganda has one of the most liberal refugee policies in the world.

Eritrean smugglers who used to work in Sudan and Libya have moved their activities to Uganda. Due to the immense corruption in Uganda’s immigration authorities, it is easy to obtain new passports. From Uganda you can travel without a visa to neighboring countries or to Malaysia, a country Uganda has friendly relations with. From there visas for South America can be obtained through the globally active Eritrean networks.

“Eritrean refugees are now being smuggled all the way to North America,” says Gerrima, who is in touch via Facebook and WhatsApp with numerous fellow Eritreans on this new route. “They fly from African airports to South America, taking some detours like Uruguay. From there they continue by car,” Gerrima explains. “Because they have to avoid controls, it can take one, two, even six months – or even years.”

“The EU deal with Sudan and Libya to combat smuggling does not work,” Gerrima concludes. “It has only made traffickers smarter.” Now the routes go through several airports in different continents with several visas. “This is no longer easily controlled,” he says, and warns, “If someone puts so much effort and money into this then this network will continue even if there is peace in Eritrea.”

Fewer Eritrean asylum seekers in Europe

The shift in escape routes to South America is thus a direct consequence of the EU migration policy towards Africa. The EU has achieved its goal: in 2018, asylum applications by Eritreans in Europe halved within a short period of time.

In most EU member states, Eritreans were the group with the highest number of asylum applications after Syrians and Afghans – and the number had been steadily increasing. In 2010, there were about 4,500 applications throughout the EU, of which 3,000 were granted. In 2014, before the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, 37,000 Eritreans applied for asylum throughout the EU, and almost half of them were granted. In 2015, the number was slightly lower with about 34,000 applications. The number of granted applications rose to 27,000, and in 2017, it peaked with 33,000. In 2018, the year in which the border was opened and the peace treaty in Eritrea was signed, the number was down to 15,000 applications.

Already in the 1980s, before Eritrea gained independence in 1991, Germany was a popular destination for people of Eritrean descent. Frankfurt was particularly popular due to the Eritrean Orthodox community. In 2017, the German Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) had assessed about 12,000 asylum applications, all of them were explicitly examined on a case by case basis. In 2018, the number of applications had halved to about 6,000.

This was good news for the German government and the EU. Following the peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia, politicians in Europe hoped that a liberalization process would begin in Eritrea and that soon fewer people would flee. The BAMF confirms on request: Eritrea is not yet considered a safe country. BAMF staff had undertaken a delegation trip to Asmara with the Swiss sister authority SEM (State Secretariat for Migration) to assess the possible risks of returns in 2016.

BAMF and SEM’s final report states, “In the case of voluntary returnees from abroad who had previously refused service, deserted or left illegally, the draconian legal regulations do not seem to be applied at present if they have previously settled their relationship with the Eritrean state. A new unpublished policy will allow these persons to return with impunity. It can be assumed that the vast majority of people who have returned voluntarily in accordance with the regulations of this policy have in fact not been prosecuted. There are reservations however: As the policy is not public there is no legal certainty”. The report reveals a tendency in Europe to try to present the situation in Eritrea as “not so bad”. Similar tendencies can be found in reports from Danish, British, Norwegian, and Canadian immigration authorities.

In an internal message from the EU Commission to the EU Parliament on the new partnership under the European migration agenda, Eritrea was named a “priority country” shortly after the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015. “Fighting the causes of flight” is the new goal of the EU, which is why the EU and above all the German government are reaching out to help President Afwerki.

Good cooperation between Germany and Eritrea

In December 2015, Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller became the first German minister in 20 years to travel to the capital Asmara and meet President Afwerki. “We can support Eritrea in stopping the exodus of young people by improving the living situation on the ground and, if possible, by opening up prospects for return. We are offering talks and explore ways to help, for example in job training. But this will only be possible if the Eritrean government introduces economic and political reforms and improves the human rights situation,” Müller said at a press conference. Eritrean government delegations then travelled to Berlin and Brussels. In September 2016, two ministers and the influential presidential advisor Yemane Gebreab announced a new era of “bilateral partnership” in Berlin, while Eritrean refugees protested outside the building.

Shortly after Federal Development Minister Müller’s trip to Asmara, the EU pledged 200 million Euros to Eritrea from the EU Development Fund (EDF) for the next five years in an agreement signed in January 2016. This included 170 million Euros in the areas of energy and electricity supply, and 20 million Euros in improving governance. Eritrea is also a recipient of the 45 million Euros provided under the so-called ‘Khartoum Process’ and ‘Better Migration Management’ (BMM).

Lip service to the EU or real commitment?

Several German MPs inquired about the goals of the German government with regards to their policies in Eritrea. The answer: EU aid is intended as an incentive for the Eritrean government to introduce reforms. A key ‘recommendation’ of the EU is the reform of the controversial military service and to reduce the length of service to 18 months as stated in the constitution. President Afwerki has made a positive statement to the international community that he intends to implement these reforms soon. On the other hand, young men, who fled the military service after the peace agreement, say the situation in the army has become even worse, and that there is no hope for change.

In an article, the news agency Reuters refers to anonymous sources within the Eritrean government, who claim that the promise to the EU is pure lip service. “This is what our president promised the EU and not us Eritreans,” Estefanos of the refugee initiative ERRI criticizes the EU policy. “A change in government is only possible if no money flows to Eritrea, and if even more sanctions are imposed,” she says.

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