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Flight for Freedom: The Plight of Eritrean Refugees

Why are so many youngsters leaving the tiny country of Eritrea by putting their lives in absolute danger? The risk of perishing during the epic flights for freedom is high; and yet, tens of thousands of young Eritreans embark on this dangerous journey every year. They do that by navigating intrepidly through the intricate escape routes within the country, braving out the merciless sun across the Sahara desert, meeting the swallowing waves of the Mediterranean Sea head-on, defying border patrols across Europe and encountering many more unforeseen obstacles along their journeys to arrive at places of safety. Most of all, the abuse and cruelties they receive from the unscrupulous human smugglers during these perilous journeys is inconceivable.

One of the most unaccounted for factors in this episode is the fact that no one knows of the actual figures of the real success or failure rates of escaping. It is presumed that analysts are currently dealing with the tip of the iceberg. We only hear stories of some of the people who make the journey in relative ‘safety’.

Everyday war, poverty and political unrest force thousands of people to leave their homelands in search of a better life. The case regarding Eritrea is slightly different. As Eritreans, many of us know the reasons very well why Eritreans are fleeing. We know our country is not at war with its neighbours; it is not suffering from natural disasters; it is not under any rebel or terrorist attack; it is all due to self-inflicted injuries that are destabilising the country. The regime has been chipping away at the core values and tearing the social fabric of the Eritrean society apart for almost two decades. Most of all, the regime has kept the young in perpetual bondage which is imposed on them under the guise of national service.

We certainly feel that anyone held in bondage or anyone treated like slave has the right to escape from such a situation. What other means do young Eritreans have to extricate themselves from slavery-like situations? The international community is expected to show more compassion towards Eritreans living under the yoke of a repressive regime that is prompting its young to embark on those dangerous freedom flights. What has been neglected to date is the loss of lives sustained within a particular stretch of territory – the death trap between the frontiers of Eritrea to the shores of Libya, particularly the Sahara desert. Many vanish in this treacherous stretch of land – we can call it the world’s blind spot.

The crisis in Eritrea is so severe young Eritreans are not thinking twice before they perform the act of such dare-deviltry. They set sail from the shores of Libya for Europe knowing full well what awaits them once they drift into uncharted waters on dinghies or creaking, rickety boats that belong to human smugglers. Basically, the stories on Western media continue to depict images of the floating migrants, as they refer to them, in the Mediterranean Sea. They talk about the crowded shores of Italy; they talk about gate-crashing at Calais and other pertinent stories. The real causes of this tragedy receive little attention as the regime romps on the young with impunity.

We once hoped that Eritrea was going to transition into an accommodating place of safety for its citizens, adopt a system, after its post-independence moment of glory, that was going to capitalise on the sacrifices made by its freedom fighters. We truly believed that Eritrea, after what it went through to gain its independence, was going to turn into a beacon of light for the rest of the African continent. How wrong we were in all counts! The government missed the opportunity to set up a proper democratic system, and consequently it drove its citizens to utter frustration, prompting them to start looking for a way out instead, hoping to reconstruct a shattered dream elsewhere. Young people who are supposed to be the future of the country see themselves as futureless drifters now. They have clearly lost their dreams, and with that their bearings. They have lost hope since the mid-nineties when they became stuck in a series of military training, followed by endless national service chores which robbed them of their youth and individual liberties. Today, Eritreans pay whatever they have to leave a country they so love.

Had the government stopped denying the youth the opportunity to flourish into becoming normal people, i.e. to allow them to chase their own dreams under a system that allows manoeuvring based on people's basic liberties, the story would have been different. But Eritreans continue to become victims of dispersion and cruel treatments. They are pushed into an undignified existence. Now the young, rather unfortunately, view their stay in Eritrea as a meaningless existence and futile postponement of providence. The government has appropriated their dreams by turning them into machines of endless servitude. Presumably the government forgot that most dreams begin with young dreamers. Relatively speaking, in many other countries young people are allowed within them to nurture the strength that enables them to reach for the stars. It should not surprise us if young Eritreans wish to grab a piece of that action for themselves, should it?

Sadly, most of the debates that are taking place in the Western media have very little to do with what can be done to protect them, but how to block and repel them. How many deaths will it take till the world community comes to grips with the fact that too many Eritreans have already perished at home, in the Sahara Desert, and in this wretched sea they call the Mediterranean? Eritrean refugees continue to suffer deeply of misery, insecurity, and not knowing what tomorrow holds. Their past was robbed by the Eritrean regime, their future is in jeopardy, and they are totally dependent on the 'goodwill' of the smugglers as they roam far and wide in search of that elusive freedom.

Does the international community know of the squalid conditions of Eritrean refugees in the camps in Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in the region? They are unwanted by the host countries; and many a times they are abused and heavily exploited. One can safely argue that the UNHCR-led third-country resettlement programme is certainly not working for Eritreans. That is why Eritrean refugees are taking matters into their own hands. Besides, wealthy states that offer resettlement - most Western countries, are among those that are making it next to impossible for Eritrean refugees to reach their borders to seek asylum. That is why frustrated Eritrean refugees are gate-crashing. They have already lost their past, they are totally uprooted, and basically they have nothing to lose.

How to deal with the tragic crisis? There are practical policy options for those who are serious in addressing the situation. First, search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean must continue to save lives. Second, Eritrean asylum seekers deserve protection as recommended by the UNCHR under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Third, there is urgent need for adequate humanitarian assistance and protection for those in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Israel, and Yemen who are living under dire conditions. Finally, the lasting solution is for the root cause of the Eritrean migration be addressed; repression, human rights abuses, indefinite and forced military conscription and labour must end and Eritreans need to be governed by the rule of law under a democratic dispensation.

Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)

Advocacy Unit

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