By Anna Hellge, Christian Jakob and Simone Schlindwein
Adi Halo is a place that is not yet on any map. The road there is freshly tarred. It leads out of Eritrea’s capital Asmara to the south, 30 kilometers through the barren landscape. Now and then small villages along the way, hardly traffic, and if, then mainly donkey carts and bicycles – the few Eritreans in the country can afford a car.
Here, on the upper reaches of the river Mereb, Adi Halo is built out of the barren, ocher-brown ground. It will soon be a symbol of the new modern Eritrea.
Still, it is a provisional: factory buildings of wood and metal, hangars of corrugated iron.
Behind it a mega construction: a 40 meters high dam wall. Fish are swimming in the reservoir. Soon electricity will be collected here. At the dam a soldier is keeping watch.
Eritreas President Isaias Afwerki, said the soldier, came here every morning to convince himself of the progress. Next to the soldier is a painting. It shows a lush garden with fountains and warriors; Happy men, women and veterans in a wheelchair, over them waves the Eritrean flag.
The painting shows the “Resistance Sphere”, which will soon be here in Adi Halo: a memorial in the form of a green area. A monument to the war for the independence of the country of Ethiopia, 1993 declared, until today only secured in a fragile peace. Adi Halo is the symbol of a country that has been almost completely cut off from the world so far.
The country, with its 6 million inhabitants, is one of the poorest in Africa. President Afwerki’s regime does basically everything that is needed to be internationally ostracised. In 2005, the wave against the opposition was particularly brutal even for the regime’s standards.
The UN complains of crimes against humanity
The West cut the development aid by 70 percent, the regime lost almost 190 million euros a year. Germany officially ended the cooperation in 2007. The UN Security Council decided in 2009, among other things, an arms embargo and regime members were subjected to travel bans. In 2011, the UN accused Afwerki of financing the Islamic militia al-Shabaab in Somalia by means of tax funds.
The UN Commission of Enquiry report of 2016 concludes that the army committed crimes against humanity women are systematically sexually abused and reports about the exploitation of the regime’s own population by means of forced laborer.
The crimes of the regime, according to the Human Rights Organization Eritrean Initiative for Refugee Rights based in Sweden, are the main reason why about 5,000 Eritreans flee every month. The World Bank believes that more Eritreans live abroad than in Eritrea itself.
The country is one of the world’s largest producers of refugees. It has isolated itself from the world community. It is considered a kind of North Korea of Africa.
The question is: Where does the money for a huge project like the construction of Adi Halos come from?
Eritrea is still one of the few states that does not publish a budget plan. What the government is planning, deciding or building – including the road, the dam and the park – is a matter of secrecy.
The government has manageable own income: the United Arab Emirates pay a little to use the port of Assab for the war in Yemen. In addition to this are the revenues from some gold, zinc and copper mines. Since 2005, the government levies taxes on relief funds, controls and monitors foreign non-governmental organizations. Most of them therefore withdrew, embassies were closed.
However, one thing is certain: slowly, more relief funds are coming into the country. This is because Europe – including Germany – has an interest in relations with Eritrea: in refugee policy.
Many Eritreans live on the foreign exchange of relatives abroad. A US dollar equals about 15 Nakfa – unofficially double this is paid. And while the government is trying to stop the migration and uses hash measures to stop people fleeing at its borders, it also cuts its diaspora: two percent of the income generated abroad must be paid to the government by all Eritreans according to the law – the so-called ‘reconstruction tax.’ Otherwise, the family at home will suffer reprisals.
In terms of population, Eritrea is the 43rd place in Africa, but in terms of asylum applications in Europe it takes the leading position on continent.
Most Eritreans who leave their country remain in Africa, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, or even in the civil war zone of South Sudan.
Germany’s new partnership with Eritrea
In 2016 about 20,000 people fled to Germany alone. In December 2015, Gerd Müller, (CSU) traveled to Asmara, as the first German minister in 20 years to make the trip, where he met President Afwerki.
“We can help Eritrea stop the exodus of the youth,” he said, “by improving the living conditions in the country and, by providing options for return.” Müller selected certain forms of aid for Eritrea – for example in vocational training. However, there was one condition: Eritrea’s government must initiate economic and political reforms and improve the human rights situation.
Müller’s visit to Asmara was the beginning of a new partnership. It is the beginning of the end of the regime’s isolation.
In Adi Halo, the soldier at the dam said he had to show round an increasing number of visitors. Today there were three Eritrean professors, newly arrived from Sweden, where they currently live. They came to marvel at Adi Halo – which is supposed to be a new symbol of Eritrea’s future. “Isn’t that fantastic?” one of the professors at the dam rejoices. “We are completely self-sufficient.”
In reality the dam is probably built by forced labor.
On the hills around, metal roofs sparkle in the sunshine.Young women and men live in the big halls densely crowded together. These women and men perform their national service: an obligatory military service which all school leavers – both male and female – are required to perform.
It can last for decades. In beige overalls, they chop up chunks of stones or work in the wood factory next door. “Student town” is what the three professors call it – in fact, it looks like a military camp. “We imported the German vocational school to Eritrea,” says one of them.
Whether the laughter of the “students” is genuine or is only some kind of performance for strangers, is hard to say. The training is good and free, they say. In reality, nobody has a choice in the national service.
According to the constitution, it is only two years, but the truth is that it can take up half a life time until be released. People work as soldiers on the long border of neighbouring Ethiopia, on construction sites along the roads, in quarries or on megaprojects such as the dam in Adi Halo.
They do heavy physical work for averted 25 euros a month. Even the young soldier is not paid for his daily tours across the dam. The professors find it, like so many things, fantastic.
“We love our country,” one says. Therefore, no one wants money for his services. “We are proud of our economic progress,” he says. Also, that everything is built with Eritrean resources and muscle power. Torture, flight and rape, all these are myths, says one of the professors: “We live in freedom and peace,” he says and bids farewell. “Go and tell it your people!”
Aid to fight refugee flight
Forced Labour alone would not make a project like Adi Halo possible. What is needed is money. And this money must come from the outside.
It is likely that projects like this are co-financed by the development funds, even if no one knows where the money comes from.
It is clear that the lack of energy supply is one of the biggest obstacles to the development of the country. This has also been confirmed in an EU report: This is the reason why there are not enough jobs.
And also why there is almost no internet connection available. Especially in the capital Internet cafés are rare, when it rains the connection often does not work at all. Harnet Avenue is Asmaras’s buzzing hub. There are some internet cafés. They are always well-attended: from teenagers who scroll through Facebook or try to connect with their siblings via Skype.
An hour of internet access costs slightly more than one euro, which equals the daily wage of most Eritreans. And when you are lucky to get in touch with your relatives? “Then we all pretend that everything is fine,” says a young man. “We’re doing great, the parents are fine, everyone is healthy.”
After the development minister Gerd Müller visited Eritrea, the delegation of the Eritrean government came to Berlin and Brussels. On 28 January 2016, Eritrea and the EU signed an agreement.
Until then Brussels paid only an average of 20 million a year to Asmara; now, by 2020, a total of 200 million Euro from the 11th European Development Fund EDF will be sent to Asmara.
The bulk of the electrification of the country, hydropower and solar plants are supposed to be stopping the root causes of migration.
The country can use this help. The traffic lights in Asmara are off, there is not enough electricity. This has been the case for seven years, says a taxi driver. Since then the traffic lights are replaced with students in yellow warning vests who are regulating the capital’s traffic.
While in Asmara, at least some solar panels sparkle from the top of the roofs, the power supply in the country is catastrophic: even if there is some street lighting, it often just breaks down right at the moment when dawn sets. This is when the inhabitants start blindly wandering around in the dark while carefully trying to avoid the potholes , hotels are equipped with torches. The return of the light is always acknowledged with joyful applause.
Eritrean’s energy consumption is one of the lowest in the world: about 60 kilowatt hours per person, according to the latest EU report. On average, Africans consume ten times more.
The electricity is supposed to help by creating jobs in a more productive economy. Fewer young Eritreans are supposed to flee from the country – and thus fewer are there to apply for asylum in the EU.
The phrase that unlock aids: “root causes of migration”
“It is a contribution to tackle the the causes of migration in Eritrea,” said EU Development Commissioner Neven Mimica. Tackling the root causes of migration has become the magic phrase, which has turned a pariah into a partner. It is the new paradigm of development co-operation.
Once, efforts were made for combating poverty.
Now, a different goal has now taken its place: the fight against irregular migration.
Projects for electrification are nothing new and neither are they something bad in development cooperation. The overriding purpose of it, this is what is new. The result is that development cooperation is increasingly concentrated on the countries where the flight shall be stopped. Consequently, funds are preferably given to p projects that seem beneficial for that matter.
What is relevant is the donors’ interest in fewer refugees, not the needs of the beneficiary countries.
Aid to halt migration
Concord, the European umbrella organization for development organizations, criticizes this in its latest AidWatch report.
“Migration is something positive, according to the UN goals for sustainable development,” says co-author Inge Brees of the NGO Care in Brussels. Migrants’ payments to their families are often more important to poor countries than development aid. “We demand that this is recognised in Europe’s development cooperation and refrains from trying to dictate the opposite.”
However, as the Concord report says, an increasing part of EU development aid is spent on curbing migration.
The Guidelines on Partnership with Africa, presented in June 2016, would exist for only that purpose and are meant to “redirect” the multi-billion dollar development budget.
The progress of this process was also demonstrated at the annual press conference of the German Development Cooperation in July 2016.
This state-owned agency – GIZ for short – has an annual budget of more than € 2 billion. Traditionally, it is designed to cover all areas relevant to development: water, climate, education, soils, food security, health, sustainability, good governance and so on.
However, at the press conference it seemed as if all these things were no longer important. For more than an hour, the GIZ spokesperson talked almost exclusively about their refugee activities.
The specially produced image film as well as its information brochure revolved exclusively around this topic. In the first six months of 2016 alone, GIZ claimed that more than 400 million euros of emergency orders were received from public authorities across Europe.
German funds for Eritrea’s security services “not impossible”
These are good times for those who are dealing with the migration stop, as for example for Eritrea. In September 2016, two ministers and influential presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab launched a new era of “bilateral partnership” during a visit to Berlin while Eritrean refugees protested in front of the doors.
Eritrea is involved in the so-called ‘Khartoum process’, an EU framework agreement with the states of the Horn of Africa. Under the label of “Better Migration Management”, European border guards are supposed to train their African counterparts in order to stop migration to Europe.
The challenge is that this is a delicate issue: after all, Eritrean’s army, which is responsible for border protection, is accused of violating human rights. Participant in this project financed by Germany is the GIZ.
The EU, which is troubled by last year’s refugee crisis, is increasingly generous towards Asmara. A further 13 million from the EU Trust Fund for Africa has now been added to the 200 million Euro that was promised to Eritrea more than a year ago. The money is intended to promote small businesses and start-ups – jobs, so that young men remain in the country.
Another 82 million were provided by the EU in the past months for the association of states IGAD at the Horn of Africa. Again, they are used for paying measures for keeping refugees in the region.
Eritrea, probably one of the worst dictatorships in the world, was largely refused aid for a long time for good reasons.
The last human rights report about the country released by the UN in July 2015 was devastating. The UN investigators appealed to all states and demanded that Eritrean asylum seekers are not forced to return. The regime punishes “anyone who tries to leave the country without permission”. The Afwerki regime relies on a vast security and intelligence service. “The information gathered by this all-pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in constant fear,” the UN said. “In Eritrea governs no right, but only fear,” concluded the investigators, led by the Australian expert Mike Smith.
The Eritrean government had refused to cooperate and did not let them enter the country. That was before the German minister Gerd Müller travelled to Asmara and demanded “economic and political reforms”. Since then, an average of roughly half a billion has been given to Afwerki by Europe.
Eritrean Security Forces as EU partners?
The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees together with the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration, sent a delegation to Asmara in 2016. The officials wanted to find out how dangerous are deportations to the country.
In the final report that was presented it state: “there are no systematic shootings at illegal emigrants. However, at shoots can occur.” On the 25th anniversary of Independence, in May last year, President Afwerki staged a pompous and bombastic march which portrayed him as a national savior and hero of the independence struggle.
It is a help to the dictator, who has been in power since 1991, that he is increasingly being courted by the international community. It is the paradoxical consequence of his brutal policy, which has driven many of his people into exile.
“We cannot change the problem by ignoring it, which is the reason why we have to cooperate,” says the Austrian , who has led the EU delegation in Asmara since 2015. According to Manahl, cooperation, including with the Eritrean security forces, is “not impossible in the future”.
The President makes the running
In a secret strategy paper from the beginning of 2016, the EU defines, as its “key interest”, the reform of the National Service, the forced military service that drives young people out of the country.
This would be the condition for the payment of the 200 million Euro from its development budget. Soon after, it was said within EU circles, Afwerkis adviser agreed to limiting the forced service to 18 months.
However, by 25 February 2016, the Reuters news agency was quoting information minister Yemane Ghebremeskel, who gave this official denial: “The government is doing the utmost possible under the given circumstances,” he said. The “salaries” for the service would raised , “but there were no plans to end or shorten the national service.”
Demobilization would only be possible if the threat of Ethiopia would end. The exiled NGO Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights spoke of a twofold game: ” Afwerki has promised this to the EU but not to us Eritreans – he is leading the West by the nose.”
Along Asmara’s Harnet Avenue you find the Tunnel Bar, where young men meet for beer and anis liquor at night. “The only thing that is left to exploit here is the peoples’ workforce,” says one. “We hardly have food and no money.”
The telephone and internet are strictly monitored. Only a small minority is brave enough to publicly criticize Afwerki.
They have developed codes for conversations, as for example for the exchange of money on the black market. When asked why so many people risk their lives to flee from their country, a guest answers, trying to hide what he is saying with his hand covering his lips: “We have a smile on our face, but we all have holes in our stomach because we all only worry.” While other guests read in the state-owned propaganda newspaper anthems of praise for 25 years of independence, he looks at the TV on which international programs are broadcasted.
The BBC reports at this moment: A boat full of Eritrean refugees reaches Italy.
Anna Hellge is a graduate of the Zeitenspiegel Report School
Christian Jakob is a reporter of taz and writes about migration
Simone Schlindwein is a taz correspondent at Great Lakes of Africa