Why do Eritreans flee their country

Report by Mike McLoughlin.

On the 6th April Sutton for Peace & Justice invited a settled Eritrean refugee Fessahaye Gebregiorgis, know as George, to speak about the present situation in Eritrea and why so many young people risk their lives by trying to escape the country. He brought an Eritrean friend, Gabriel, who has worked in the Ethiopian refugee camps for “Save the Children” and also contributed to the discussion.

George started by saying he was very grateful to the UK for twice accepting him as a refugee, first when Eritrea was invaded by Ethiopia and then after the present president tore up the independence constitution and became a dictator controlling every aspect of Eritrean life and ridding himself of his previous co-fighters.

After 30 years of war for independence, Isaias Afwerki became the first president of Eritrea, and has held that position ever since its independence in 1993. In 1994 he got rid of the UN peacekeeping force on the Eritrea/Ethiopia border and in 1998 declared war on and invaded Ethiopia. Then using this as an excuse, he declared a state of emergency, suspending the constitution, imposing military rule and arresting his deputy and some cabinet members. None have been seen since and they are all believed to be dead. Afwerki has removed all possibility of a challenge to his regime of fear and divide-and-rule, and dictates everything concerning life in Eritrea.

In Eritrea there is no freedom of speech, no right to assemble, religious freedom is restricted and young people are conscripted into indefinite military service, many being used as, in effect, slave labour. In a country which now has a population under 4 million there are 300 prisons in which no visitors are allowed and if a prisoner dies no-one is informed. If a person is arrested their family realise it is the end for them.

In view of all this it is not surprising that there are 150,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and many more in Sudan, despite the Eritrean army’s shoot to kill policy at the border.

Gold is mined there but as there is no official budget no one knows how much revenue is generated or how it is spent, except that some of it goes to the president’s supporters. The Country is rich in other minerals and there has been a recent discovery of significant amounts of potash. The UK wants to do business with the regime and is particularly interested in the potash.

The UK Government refuses to acknowledge the real situation in Eritrea and has adopted a harsh policy towards Eritrean asylum seekers, even giving as an excuse that the Eritrean government encourages its young people to try to get to Europe in order to benefit from money sent back to their families. As a result, many young Eritreans in this country, who are allowed to remain but not allowed to work and have no access to government funds, are despairing; their mental health is deteriorating and the suicide rate is rising.

The true situation in Eritrea is verified by  the UN Human Rights Commission report, the second part of which was presented in June 2016, and the Human Rights Watch Report of June 2015 – both available on the internet. There are also many videos featuring Eritrean refugees on YouTube which show the conditions there and their escape journeys, two of which were shown at the meeting.

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