Behind Eritrea's oppressive regime — why refugees flee

EPLF fighters.

Eritrea, a small country in the horn of Africa, generally receives little attention in the international media. But in recent years there have been occasional reports of mass drownings of Eritrean refugees in the Mediterranean.

As of June 2015, there were 383,869 refugees from Eritrea registered with the UNHCR. There were also 60,157 asylum seekers who had applied for refugee status.

Most Eritrean refugees cross the border into Sudan or Ethiopia, but many then try to reach Europe. Early last year, Eritrea was the second largest source of refugees arriving in Italy by boat, the Guardian reported.

Some other refugees have gone to Israel, crossing Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on their way. Initially some were accepted, but Israeli policies have become increasingly harsh, with the expansion of detention centres and the building of an electrified fence along the border to keep refugees out.

Why do they flee?

The refugees have been leaving Eritrea to escape the dictatorial regime of Isaias Afwerki. According to , “Thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including former politicians, journalists and practitioners of unauthorized religions, continued to be detained without charge or trial, and lacked access to a lawyer or family members. Many had been detained for well over a decade”.

In its 2008 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that many political prisoners “are packed into unventilated cargo containers under extreme temperatures or are held in underground cells. Torture is common, as are indefinite solitary confinement, starvation rations, lack of sanitation and hard labour. Prisoners rarely receive medical care, even when severely injured or deathly ill. Death in captivity is common”.

Similarly, a found that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government”. The commission found that “individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed”.

Dan Connell is an academic expert on Eritrea who was a long-term activist in solidarity with Eritrea's independence struggle. In a 2011 article in the Review of African Political Economy he said: “Two decades after winning its de facto independence, Eritrea's constitution, ratified in 1997, has yet to go into effect, and there have been no national elections. Critics, including top government and party officials, have been jailed in their hundreds, independent organisations banned, and the non-state press shut down altogether”.

Eritreans are subject to military conscription for an indefinite period. Many have been kept as conscripts for more than ten years.

Conscripts are used for civilian tasks, such as construction or teaching. They are slave labourers, subject to military discipline, with no right to strike.

Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890. In the 1930s, Italy (ruled at the time by Mussolini's fascists) used Eritrea as a base from which to carry out an invasion of Ethiopia.

During the Second World War, Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany. Britain invaded Eritrea in 1941.

Britain continued to rule Eritrea until 1952. Eritreans called for independence, but the United Nations, dominated at that time by the United States and its allies, adopted a plan for Eritrea to be forced into a federation with Ethiopia, which was ruled by an absolute monarchy.

In theory, Eritrea was supposed to have some degree of autonomy within the federation, but in practice the Ethiopian regime ignored this. An Eritrean independence movement arose. In 1958, there was a general strike. Ethiopian troops opened fire on the demonstrators.

In 1962 the Eritrean parliament was dissolved. By this time an armed independence movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front, had been formed. A war for independence began. The US supported the Ethiopian monarchy in its war against the Eritrean independence fighters.

Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front

In the early 1970s the ELF split, and in 1973 a rival organisation, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), was formed.

The EPLF adopted a radical program, including land reform, the encouragement of agricultural cooperatives and women's rights. It aimed to promote universal literacy and to bring health care and education to remote areas. These policies began to be implemented in the liberated zones. Elections were held for Peoples Committees in EPLF-controlled villages.

In 1974 the Ethiopian monarchy was overthrown by a military coup. A council of officers, called the Derg, came to power in Ethiopia. By 1977, Mengistu Haile Mariam had become the dominant figure in the Derg after murdering his rivals.

The Mengistu regime claimed to be leftist, but was highly repressive and continued the war against Eritrea. It received aid from the Soviet Union.

Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 by a rebel movement called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which was willing to accept Eritrea's right to self-determination. The EPLF, which already controlled much of Eritrea, took over Asmara, Eritrea's capital.

Eritrea had de facto independence from 1991 on. The Eritrean people voted for independence in a referendum held in 1993.

The EPLF had popular support during the independence struggle. Yet it was also very authoritarian in its internal regime. In part, this was a result of the severe repression to which it was subjected by the Ethiopian regime. But it was also partly due to the influence of Stalinist ideology within the EPLF.

Dan Connell said: “The roots of the present despotism lie within a movement that arose under conditions of unrelenting political repression necessitating secrecy and subterfuge for its very survival, that came under attack at one time or another from nearly every major regional and global power ...

“In Isaias's case, this was reinforced by training in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, during which he received intensive exposure to Maoist doctrine whose themes of extreme 'voluntarism' and populism continue to define his world view”.

Connell says that after Eritrea gained de facto independence in 1991, there were mixed signals. On the one hand, Eritrea “embarked on a three year highly participatory constitution-making process”. But this constitution was never implemented. And the decision was taken to “abandon the practice of having villagers elect leaders to their people's assemblies”.

The result was the continuation of an authoritarian regime even after the war ended. “The man who had commanded the EPLF and now served as the state's interim president, Isaias Afwerki, and a small circle of military and political leaders loyal to him, were committed to what they called 'guided democracy', a highly centralised form of control through which they proposed to reconstruct and develop the economy and to unify and transform society before relinquishing the reins of power,” Connell said.

Repression intensified after a border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000. The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was, like many other borders in Africa, an arbitrary product of colonial rule. To make matters worse, parts of the border were not clearly defined. The two countries set up a border commission in 1997 to look at the issue, but no agreement was reached.

Armed conflict began in May 1998. An international commission that investigated the war found that the Eritrean army had initiated the fighting.

Eritrea lost the war. Later, an international tribunal largely ruled in Eritrea's favour regarding the location of the border, but Ethiopia refused to withdraw from the disputed areas.

Intensified repression

The border war resulted in the renewed militarisation of Eritrean society. This continued even after the war ended. Conscription became indefinite.

A wave of repression began in July 2001 with the arrest of University of Asmara student union leader Semere Kesete after he publicly criticised the government for the inhumane conditions of enforced “national service”.

Other student union leaders were detained without charge. Hundreds of students were rounded up and sent on a work project to contain the rising protest on campus. Parents who protested the treatment of their children — several of whom died — were also arrested.

In September 2001, 11 of the 15 prominent signatories of an open letter to the president, criticising him for anti-democratic behaviour and calling for reforms of the party and state and an open assessment of the border war, were arrested. Three of the signatories were outside the country at the time of the arrests, while one recanted. There were many other arrests.

According to Connell, “the government began house-to-house round-ups of young people accused of avoiding national service, with many beaten in public places before being crammed into military trucks and taken away with no opportunity to contact family members or take anything with them but the clothes on their backs”. The result of the repression was a climate of “pervasive terror”.

The Isaias government has encouraged foreign investment, especially in mining. The Canadian company Nevsun is mining for gold, silver, copper and zinc at its Bisha mine.

There was controversy around Nevsun's investment in Eritrea, because it was accused of using slave labour. Some of the work for the Nevsun mine was done by a government-controlled contracting company that uses conscripts as slave labour. In a , Human Rights Watch has accused the company of “quiet acceptance” of this situation.

The Australian company Chalice Gold was an early investor in Eritrea, but later sold its share to a Chinese company.
Another Australian company, South Boulder, is developing a potash mine at Colluli.

According to Human Rights Watch, “In a meeting with HRW, the head of South Boulder expressed no awareness of the human rights risks involved in the company's Eritrea operations and indicated that the company had not taken any measures to avoid the risks described in this report”.

Opposition forces

The government has up to now been successful in suppressing the open expression of dissent within Eritrea, resulting in what Connell calls “an appearance of calm that belies the country's structural fragility”.

Many of the government's critics have fled into exile. As a result, “The organised political opposition is based outside Eritrea, with parties and armed groups mostly headquartered in Ethiopia, and civic organisations and alternative media mainly active in Europe and North America, though they can be found across the Middle East and as far away as Australia”.

The political opposition comprises diverse forces, including secular Eritrean nationalists, Islamists, and ethnically based groups, that have formed a loose coalition called the Eritrean Democratic Alliance.

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