(By Mark Anderson in Asmara)
The Africa Report gains rare access to Eritrea, where tough living conditions are pushing young people out of the country and into perilous journeys to neighbouring countries and beyond.
Outside a cafe on the crossroads of a busy intersection in Asmara, three 25 year olds sip macchiatos and catch up on the latest gossip in the bright morning sunshine. Punctuated by sips of coffee and drags on cigarettes, the conversation soon turns to people who have ‘skipped’, a term used for those who have fled from Eritrea’s national service programme.
“Between us, we probably know about 300 people who have skipped in the last few years,” says Birhane, 25, who works as a mechanic in a government-owned garage. “They are leaving because we have to do what the government tells us to do.”
When Birhane, Henok and Adonay were born in 1991, Eritrea had just gained independence from Ethiopia. Liberation struggle leader Isaias Afewerki – and current president – had commanded a rebel group that seized control of the country from Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. At the outset of independence, many people across Eritrea were optimistic about their future.
Today, the atmosphere in Asmara is markedly different than it was at the dawn of Eritrea’s independence. A bloody border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 inflicted massive human and economic damage to the country. The threat of renewed conflict hangs heavily over the government in Asmara.
Buses, bicycles and ageing European cars dot the roads of the capital. Its well-preserved Italian colonial heritage can be seen everywhere: from the espresso-sipping patrons lounging on terraces to the world-famous art deco architecture.
More than a dozen people interviewed on the streets of Asmara said they are desperately gathering cash to pay for sigre dob (a border crossing). Eritrea is now in the throes of a migration crisis.
Gaim Kibreab, a professor of refugee studies at London’s South Bank University, says Eritrea is the world’s “fastest-emptying nation”. About 400,000 people are estimated to have left Eritrea in the past decade. The United Nations (UN) and human rights activists estimate that as many as 5,000 Eritreans flee the country illegally every month. The Eritrean government says the real number is closer to 1,000 per month because Ethiopians often pretend to be Eritrean when seeking asylum abroad.
It is not just young people leaving. Middle-aged professionals are giving up on the country as well. “I know of thousands of people who have left,” says Demsas, 49, who has a master’s degree from a Western country, as he strolls down one of Asmara’s main streets. “We can feel it in Asmara.”
The government acknowledges that people are leaving in droves, but says it is part of an international conspiracy to weaken Eritrea. “The policy of the United States for the past 10 years has been to encourage the migration of Eritreans, especially Eritrean youth and especially Eritrean educated youth,” Yemane Ghebreab, director of political affairs for the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and a close advisor to President Isaias, tells The Africa Report.
“If they can encourage migration and especially desertion from the Eritrean army, which has been a main objective of this policy, then they will have achieved their aim of weakening Eritrea,” he says.
For law-abiding Eritreans, it is hard to avoid the national service programme, which involves conscription into the military to work on government projects. Hundreds of soldiers are known to storm neighbourhoods in Asmara every few months. Known as a giffa, the event sees the troops block off traffic and set up a cordon around the area before going house to house in search of people who have not enlisted in national service.
With few exceptions, Eritrea’s men and women over the age of 18 are required to work for an indefinite time. The national service programme, which initially lasted 18 months, was extended to an indefinite period during the border war with Ethiopia.
Young Eritreans say they feel trapped by the government. If they are caught deserting from national service, the government hands down brutal punishments. But if they stay, they are resigned to a life earning a monthly wage of 500 nakfa, equal to about $20 on the black market. “All of us are still in national service. We don’t get enough [money] to live on,” says Henok.
The government is changing some elements of the national service. Those drafted in 2001 or earlier are being allowed to leave, but even then they are still required to work for the government. The maximum salary if you have been demobilised is 4,000 nakfa, equivalent to $165 on the black market, according to Hagos Ghebrehiwet, the ruling party’s director of economic affairs and a close advisor to President Isaias.
The PFDJ realises that national service wages are not enough to live on, says Hagos. “You cannot say [the national service wage] is enough for living, but from what it was and from what we are doing to control inflation – to make the buying power of nakfa higher – this is a big improvement.”
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said in June that Eritrea’s government has committed crimes against humanity in a bid to “perpetuate the leadership’s rule”. These crimes include enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape and murder.
Eritrea’s government categorically denies the report’s findings. “This is a very biased report that lacks professionalism,” director of political affairs Yemane says. “Eritrea has by far a better record on human rights than many countries.”
Eritrean government officials are quick to point out that Ethiopia has failed to honour the Algiers Agreement, a 2002 peace accord signed by Isaias and Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Under that agreement, Ethiopia is required to withdraw troops from Badme, a contested town between the two countries.
“No one has called for Ethiopia to withdraw from Badme,” says Yemane. “In the long term, it’s a failure for the region. If, in 2002, Ethiopia had accepted the decision, normalised its relations with Eritrea and moved forward, it could have had a better situation in which to address the structural problems it faces in the country,” he says referring to popular protests in Ethiopia’s Oromo and Amhara regions.
“The national service itself […] is because of [Ethiopian troops on the border],” says Hagos. “All the issues that are raised and are being discussed [about migration] are related to [Ethiopian occupation].”
But on the streets of Asmara, people are skeptical of the real danger that Ethiopia’s government poses to the country. “There is no threat from Ethiopia,” says Birhane. “The government uses that to get us to do what they want.”
Last year, the government announced it would void all currency notes issued before the middle of 2015, saying the new notes are a means to curb counterfeiting and rein in the black market. It also put a limit on the amount of money people could withdraw from their bank accounts, saying it wanted to encourage people to use cheques and mobile-money facilities.
“There is a restriction on cash use; no restriction on expenditure,” says Hagos. “Cash is the basis for illegal activities like human trafficking.” He says people will be able to more widely use debit and credit cards by 2017. But for, now there are not many businesses that accept cheques or credit cards.
Since the introduction of the new currency, the black market exchange rate has been halved.
“With this new currency, people don’t have access to their money,” Demsas says, adding that he used to be able to afford to take his family of four out to dinner several times a month. Since the new currency was introduced, he has been struggling to afford basic foodstuffs. “What do they expect us to do?” he asks as he wals past the Bank of Eritrea. “That logo should be turned upside down,” he says.
Wealthy Eritreans can pay high-ranking government officials between $5,000 and $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country and then driven to Khartoum, according to human rights activists Meron Estefanos. The fee for a similar journey across the border with Ethiopia is $2,000 to $3,000, she says.
For most Eritreans – those who do not have rich friends and relatives overseas – the journey to Europe can take years. Natnael Haile, who now lives in Sweden, says he was drafted into the army at age thirteen. After spending seven years repairing army cars on a desolate military base, he crept out of his dormitory one night in 2008. He paid smugglers $400 to take him into Sudan, where he was kidnapped and sold to nomads in the Sinai Desert. Gangs in the Sinai Desert prey on migrants. They have been found to kidnap and then torture them until their families pay a ransom.
Natnael escaped and went to a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, where he spent three years before trying his luck again. He took the same route to Sudan but ended up staying there for a year and a half before paying $1,600 to travel to Libya. He was kidnapped again and was forced to pay $3,500 to be freed in Tripoli. There, he met Ermias, a Tunisian smuggler who charged $1,600 to travel on a boat that was doomed to sink off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, which is considered a gateway to Europe by many refugees.
The dangerous journey to Europe does not deter many Eritreans. “We would all leave tomorrow if we had the money,” says Adonay.
Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities.