Why Are So Many People Trying to Escape Eritrea?


Around 5,000 people flee Eritrea each month, making it the second largest source of migrants heading to Europe. Only Syria contributes greater numbers to the flock of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean each year.

That doesn’t tell the full story though. Syria’s population is around 23 million, while Eritrea’s is a modest 6 million in comparison. Which means roughly 12% of Eritrea’s population has already fled the country – and the number is steadily increasing every month.

Unlike Syria and other major sources of refugees, though, Eritrea isn’t at war. So what forces such a huge percentage of its population to escape life inside the border?


Military slavery

If you ask a group of Eritrean asylum seekers why they chose to flee their country, you can almost guarantee the military will be mentioned. The country’s national service program is notorious for its exploitation of human rights, with the international community widely condemning the system as slavery.

Conscripts are forced to sign up before they’re subject to “arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, absence of leave, and the ludicrous pay,” according to the UN. Many are forced to serve into their fifties, assuming they can last so many years. In Eritrea, it’s service for life – one a growing number of people choose to turn their back on.


Eritrea’s dictatorship

Aside from its military service exploits, Eritrea is also has a reputation as one of the World’s least democratic nations. Established in 1991, Africa’s second-youngest state emerged from three decades of guerrilla warfare to build a strict dictatorship.

To this day, there is only one political party in the country, which rules by fear, according to the UN’s human rights bloc.

Earlier this year, the UN called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the conduct of Eritrea’s government. Arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture are among the crimes its government is accused of.


Why the spike in Eritrean migrants?

The points we’ve looked at so far outline the general consensus on Eritrean migration. However, the country has had these same problems throughout its 25-year history. Which doesn’t explain the sudden spike in people fleeing the country as of 2014.

The number of Eritrean migrants entering Europe alone almost tripled during the first 10 months of 2014. The question is why the sudden surge; what changed to make Eritrea’s old problems a much bigger issue for people over the last few years?

Or, as expert on Eritrean foreign policy, Valerie Frank, puts it: “why now?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but there are some clues in the country’s recent history and the age of people fleeing in greater numbers.


Eritrea’s youth on the move

A large portion of the rise in Eritrean refugees is made up of younger people. At a glance, this suggests more youngsters are fleeing to escape conscription and you have to think this is at least partially true. But there must be other elements at play – especially when many of the youngsters leaving Eritrea now haven’t even finished high shool.

Going back to Eritrea’s recent history, it’s young people who have endured some of the regime’s toughest policies. in 2002, groups of school students as young as 14 were rounded up and taken to military camps. The legal age for conscription is 18 but anyone who couldn’t provide birth certificates to prove their age was at risk of being forcibly signed up.

A few years later, many of the country’s most educated and skilled people were targeted by the government. Engineers and contractors were among those imprisoned or forced to leave the country. Projects were halted on a mass scale and many of those who were arrested are believed to remain in detention to this day.

It must be hard to imagine any kind of future as a young person with all this going on around you. When education guarantees nothing – even if you’re lucky enough to complete it – it’s hard to see what young people have to work towards. Or what parents envisage for their children later on in life.

Meanwhile, success stories of migrants making it into Europe are increasingly common. It’s no secret to people in Eritrea that escape is possible. There are other options. However, success stories tend to gloss over the dangers of attempting to flee or the fact a happier life isn’t necessarily guaranteed. In most cases, there’s no turning back either way.


What next for Eritrea?

While the Eritrean exodus continues to grow in scale, the country itself is praised with meeting a range of development targets in recent years. It hasn’t been enough to stop the surge of people leaving, but it has earned some positive press from the UN.

Meeting development goals ahead of schedule puts Eritrea in a growing pool of African nations that are often praised for getting results but condemned for violating human rights in the process. It seems hitting developmental targets and keeping the people of a nation happy at the same time is a real challenge.

This can only be more true when a rising youth decides enough is enough. There’s little room for dissent in Eritrea but its borders aren’t monitored as strictly as they once were. Or, more precisely, the government appears far more concerned about keeping Ethiopians out than Eritreans inside its borders.

Although you have to wonder what the government feels it is losing when young people with political discontent flee the country. It’s hitting targets just fine without them and you don’t see anything like the student protests that are taking place across the border in Ethiopia.


About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.