The Eritrean Problem: Solvable but definitely not yet solved

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Charlotte Crocombe's picture

British Home Secretary Theresa May has recently announced her plans to drastically restrict the right to claim asylum in the UK, in the midst of one of Europe’s greatest migration crises. She claims that the UK should be focused on helping those in genuine need, rather than those who are rich and fit enough to reach the UK. However her logic is fundamentally flawed.

In the case of Eritrea, Eritreans don’t leave because they are rich and fit enough to do so. They do it because they feel that they have no other choice. In 1993 99.8% of the Eritrean people who partook in a free and fair referendum on state sovereignty, voted in favour of an independent Eritrea from Ethiopia. This prompted the return of hundreds of thousands of Eritrean migrants from all over the world, who came back with the hope of rebuilding Eritrea as a prosperous nation for generations to come. So, when Ethiopia failed to uphold its obligations in border disputes, Eritreans fought hard to preserve their nation. 

However, a love for ones country should not be confused with a love for one's government. Eritrea is presided over by Isaias Afewerki, a tyrannical leader who has denied the people an abundance of their human rights and enforced an indefinite national service programme, which has often been described as tantamount to slavery. Furthermore the people are powerless to incite any change in the country, as Afewerki has imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement, assembly, free press, and association. In fact any one found to be conspiring against the government via their expansive network of informants is subjected to torture in one of Eritrea’s many in military prisons.

It is for this reason that many Eritreans feel that they have no choice but to flee Eritrea. They have lost all hope for their nation as it is today. But that is not to say that, under the right conditions, they would not return like they did in 1993. Upon arrival in Europe many Eritrean asylum seekers have expressed a wish to return to Eritrean if the indefinite national service programme is terminated. This should be good news for Home Secretary Theresa May, but it should not be a reason to rush procedures.

Whilst the Home Office claims that Eritrea is safe to return to due to its promise to discontinue national service, they should also take into account the context of the situation, and the fact this is a promise Eritrea has made many times over. The reason Eritrea gives for maintaining its abusive indefinite national service programme lies in its claim that Ethiopia poses a continuous threat of war due to disputed territory on the Eritrea / Ethiopia border. There were attempts to meditate this in 2012 via the creation of a claims committee that ruled that the disputed territory lay on the Eritrean side. Therefore the international community should mediate the Eritrea / Ethiopia conflict, so that the threat from the Ethiopian side is removed, and thereby leaving Eritrea with no reason to continue with indefinite national service. At this point it would not be in the Eritrean Government's best interests to continue with national service regardless as it would lose the only support it has left in the diaspora and within the State itself, all of whom insist Eritrea's problems stem from the border dispute.

If this were to happen many Eritreans have indicated that they would return to Eritrea of their own free will in order to slowly start to insist on more freedoms, which they argue should be aided by continued pressure from the international community to improve its human rights situation. Consequently, it seems logical that measures should be taken to normalise relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia as a first step towards stemming the flow of migrants from Eritrea. The fact is that Eritrea as a whole needs help, and by refusing to acknowledge the problem the Home Secretary runs the risk of making it worse.