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The Invisible Refugee: Eritreans Fleeing Isolationism

Refugee. What images does the word conjure? A Syrian family trying to escape a civil war? An Afghan fleeing Taliban violence? Lifeboats seething with people, trudging across the Mediterranean?

Somehow, among all the harrowing images and stories to come out of the refugee crisis, the struggle of Eritrean refugees has received little attention. The dearth of international support would be a problem in any crisis, but in the case Eritrean refugees, the lack of awareness not only exacerbates the problem: it is the problem.

Eritreans account for the majority of refugees leaving Africa, and the portion of Eritrean refugees to citizens is also higher than in any other country. Nearly 5,000 refugees flee every month, for a total of nearly 50,000 a year. The deplorable conditions of this totalitarian state have pushed a tenth of the population to escape, and this number continues to rise every year. Since 1998, military conflict with Ethiopia has been used to justify the suspension of political, economic, and social rights for Eritreans. The typical life of an Eritrean exemplifies some of the most severe human rights abuses in the world.

Movement outside the house is forbidden without a permit which can only be obtained by going to school – a luxury you must forgo as a child in order to help your family tend their land. At the age of 18, or earlier if you are caught without a permit, you are conscripted into indefinite national service. For the rest of your life, you are essentially a slave to the state. Where you live, if you see your family, your daily routine – all of this is now in the hands of the government. Total compliance to the State is achieved by the destruction of the nuclear family that results from this program. Without a family and community to rely on, you are expected to pledge your complete loyalty to the government. You are lucky if you can even try to escape.

Despite these horrendous conditions, the plight of Eritrean refugees has not gained international visibility. Why? Because for nearly two decades, Eritrea’s self-imposed isolationism has prevented the world from truly understanding what is happening behind closed doors. Over a decade ago, the Eritrean government expelled all foreign correspondents, decided to reject all foreign aid, and placed a ban on foreign NGOs. While President Isaias Afwerki claims that these decisions only strengthen the country and promote self-reliance, Eritreans struggle to feed themselves while hardly being paid for their national service. Eritrea remains in the top ten of the world’s poorest countries with a per capita GDP of $514.20 in 2011.

Unlike other well-publicized conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, the secrecy of the Eritrean regime has ensured its human rights abuses remain largely invisible to the international community. The lack of visibility is costly to Eritreans, even after they’ve left their nation behind.

For asylum seekers, recognition as a refugee is the only guarantee against repatriation. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees cannot be repatriated to countries in which their life and freedom would be compromised. No such protection applies to migrants, who are defined as persons travelling from one country to another. Because receiving states do not have much information about the brutal conditions in Eritrea, and because they themselves are struggling to accommodate the broader refugee crisis, many states have been inclined to classify Eritrean refugees as economic migrants so that they may be sent back to their home countries.

Countries have also begun to reflect the unequal representation of refugees in the global media. Again, the invisibility of the abuses occurring in Eritrea have made it harder for countries to confirm the conditions these people are fleeing from. In fact, Eritrea’s decision to reject foreign aid and ban foreign NGOs has led countries such as Denmark and the UK to express their belief that the human rights situation in Eritrea is improving, and that there are fewer reasons for fleeing the country. Therefore, both countries have begun to greatly reduce their recognition rates to Eritrean refugees, compared to the average rate for other refugees in the EU.

Remember: nearly one-tenth of Eritrea’s population has fled. 10%. For a population of less than 4.5 million, that is a huge loss. That is a loss that should send the media into a frenzy, it should encourage international NGOs to address the human rights violations happening in plain sight. At the very least, it should show the EU that Eritreans are suffering. But it doesn’t.

It doesn’t because the Eritrean government may not realize that its isolationist decisions have essentially made the Eritrean refugee invisible. The government’s decisions have created a regime that wields power over each and every one of its citizens, who are simply struggling to feed themselves and stay alive.

Or maybe the government does realize this. Maybe it just doesn’t care.