An estimated 305,000 Eritreans, or five per cent of the population, have left the country, making them one of the largest groups of migrants into Europe
Pictured as she was rescued from a stricken boat off the Greek island of Rhodes, the terrified face of Wegasi Nebiat last week became the symbol of Europe’s migration crisis.
The 24-year-old was among more than 100 migrants on a rickety craft that capsized en route from Turkey, drowning three of its occupants. But images of her being plucked to safety by a burly Greek rescuer have also put the spotlight on her homeland of Eritrea – a harsh, brutal dictatorship dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”.
The tiny Horn of Africa nation, which won independence in 1993 after a 30-year civil war with Ethiopia, is run as a one-party state by former guerrilla leader Isaias Afwerki and his cronies. Thousands of political prisoners languish in jail, no elections have been held in 20 years, and like Kim Jong-un’s hermit regime in Pyongyang, the country is off limits to foreign media and human rights groups.
However, one thing that Eritrea’s closed, secretive government cannot hide is how its population of just six million is now among the biggest customers of the people traffickers of the Mediterranean. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that of the 200,000 migrants who made the crossing last year, some 18 per cent, or nearly one in five, were Eritreans like Ms Nebiat. Only refugees from Syria, with its brutal civil war, made up more at 31 per cent.
An estimated 305,000 Eritreans, or five per cent of the population, havenow left the country, fleeing torture, a stagnant economy, and conscription into a vast standing army that often amounts to little more than slavery.
The journey described by Ms Nebiat is typical. She started by fleeing over the Sudanese border, where Eritrean guards have been known to have an East German-style policy of to shooting anyone who tries to flee. Then she flew to Turkey on a false passport, before boarding the ramshackle wooden craft that took her to Rhodes.
“I’m so happy,” she said later. “We are not sure what we will do but we hope to travel across Europe.”
So why has Eritrea become the place where no-one wants to live? Unlike the Somalis, Nigerians, and Afghans with whom they often share their people smuggling boats, the Eritreans are not fleeing civil war or Islamic terrorism, or even particularly abject poverty. Indeed, many in the West would struggle to even find Eritrea on a map, never mind put it on a list of pariah states.
As with many of the world’s current conflicts, the story has its roots in borders drafted by Europeans a century ago, when Italy annexed Eritrea from the rest of Ethiopia during the colonial “Scramble for Africa”. The move deprived landlocked Ethiopia of its only port on the Red Sea, and when Addis Ababa sought to regain it in the post-war era, the ensuing conflict claimed around 200,000 lives.
However, while Eritrea emerged triumphant from the David and Goliath conflict, yesterday’s freedom fighters have become today’s despots. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Libya’s late Colonel Gaddafi, Mr Afwerki is accused of turning the country into a giant prison.
“During the 30 years war, even Eritrea’s enemies admired them, they were well organised and disciplined people,” said Professor Gaim Kibreab, an Eritrean himself and Professor of Refugee Studies at London’s South Bank University. “But after they took over power, they seem to have lost their way, the president has become very dominant.”
Eritrea denies the claims, but has refused entry to a UN rapporteur on human rights, appointed two years ago to investigate the reasons for the growing exodus. The rapporteur, Sheila Keetharuth, is due to publish a full report in June, but her interim findings are already grim enough, speaking of “indefinite national service; arbitrary arrests and detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and inhumane prison conditions.”
Some prisoners, the UN found, were imprisoned in steel cargo containers in 50C temperatures. Others spoke of having their bodies smeared in milk and sugar so that insects swarm around them and drive them mad.
The main reason for people fleeing, however, is Eritrea’s draconian military service programme. Officially, it exists in the event of a resumption of the war again with Ethiopia, which did flare up again between 1998 and 2000 with the loss of 70,000 lives. But as in North Korea, it has become an excuse to keep the country’s menfolk in conditions of near-indefinite vassalage. Recruits speak of being forced to work in gold mines, with military service lasting up to ten years or more, and harsh penalties for deserters.
It was to flee this modern-day Sparta that Henok Tekle, 28, took his chances on a people smuggling boat across the Mediterranean back in 2002.
“I was conscripted into the army as a 16-year-old,” Mr Tekle, who now lives in London, told The Sunday Telegraph last week. “Life in the military was very tough – there was often hardly food or health care, but they didn’t care. And a lot of the time we weren’t learning about fighting, but just doing building work to make houses for people of high rank in the military. After about two months, I decided I was going to escape.”
Having slipped across the border to Sudan, Mr Tekle and some friends headed for Libya, a gruelling three-week lorry journey across the Sahara. Many who attempt it die of thirst or starvation, and the sand dunes that Mr Tekle drove through were littered with skeletons.
“Our driver told us: ’they were trying to go Libya like you, but they died on the way,” said Mr Tekle. “It wasn’t just one or two, I saw many skeletons.”a
Once in Libya, Mr Tekle and his friends paid $1,000 for passage on a people-smuggler across the Mediterranean. On the second day of the journey, a storm whipped up, and soon the boat was in pieces.
“I don’t know him to swim, and I thought that was it, I am going to die here,” said Mr Tekle. “I didn’t even want to talk to my friends, I was in shock.”
The Maltese navy eventually rescued the ship, only for another shock to greet Mr Tekle after he lodged an asylum bid in Malta. The Eritrean government had learned he and his friends were there, and pressured the Maltese to send them back, saying that as the war was over, they had nothing to fear.
“Somehow the Maltese believed them, and we ended up being handcuffed and flown back there. They took us into a warehouse full of soldiers all carrying Kalashnikovs. I was terrified.”
His fears were justified. He says he spent the next 18 months in prison, being beaten on a daily basis. Two of his friends were killed, and others went mad due to the heat and disease. “I got malaria and all they would give you was paracetomol,” he said. “It was a way of killing us over a long time – if you spent three or four years there you were finished.”
Eventually Mr Tekle escaped again, taking advantage of a party held by his captors to Eritrea’s independence day. This time he went straight to a UN refugee centre in Sudan, and was resettled in Britain in 2005 under an asylum program. Since then he has made strenuous efforts to integrate, learning fluent English, holding down a job in construction, and watching the news each night to learn more about his adopted homeland.
Such is the exodus from Eritrea that even the Afwerki government now seems to be softening its line, apparently anxious about the “brain drain” effect of losing so many of its young people. Following the visit of a British government delegation that visited to the country last December, current Home Office thinking is that Eritreans who flee the country illegally – including deserters – are no longer automatically treated as “traitors”if they return. That, though, has not stopped the current flow of people, and with ever larger foreign diasporas – an estimated 40,000 now live in London alone – the “pull” factor of Europe is likely to remain.
“If you ask me where hell is on earth, I would probably say two places: Eritrea and North Korea,” added Mr Tekle. “There is no food, no electricity, and your friends can be killed in front of you. No wonder everyone is leaving – there is no hope.”