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Eritrea Adopts Charm Offensive for Asmara’s Visitors

  • David Arnold

The small African nation of Eritrea has produced large numbers of refugees who are knocking on European doors. Two big reasons for the mass migration are Eritrea’s extreme poverty and what the United Nations calls an abusive system of national service.

Nevertheless, Europe is re-examining its earlier policies of automatic asylum for Eritreans. Is it because they believe Eritrea is changing?

Bronwyn Bruton first learned about Eritrea when she worked as a human rights advocate. On the Washington, D.C. staff of the National Endowment for Democracy she trained journalists, funded the formation of Eritrean political opposition to the ruling Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and helped Eritrean journalists fleeing persecution.

She lists reasons why Eritreans win asylum in Europe. “The economic situation in Eritrea is very poor,” Bruton says. “Eritrea is isolated, it hasn’t had a lot of economic development opportunities and it’s hard for the people to make a living.

Is it persecution or poverty?

“Because there is a perception of political persecution, Europe - for example - has an automatic asylum policy which means that anyone who is Eritrean can get benefits in Europe and that, in a sense, had been a pull factor, too.

“So that while on the one hand, there is no doubt that there are people who are fleeing Eritrea for very valid reasons of political persecution, there is also a certain number of people who are leaving Eritrea because they have a feeling that they can have a better life, better prospects in Europe.”

When Bruton moved to the Atlantic Council - where she is deputy director of the Africa Center - Bruton continued to follow the plight of Eritrea’s migrants.

“What happens in reality to these poor people who go over the border and try their luck trying to get across the Sinai or trying to get across the Mediterranean, their fate is horrific. There are human traffickers. There are rumors about people harvesting organs from these poor souls. I mean the reality is brutal and horrible.”

Bruton says that much of the criticism of Eritrea’s government is valid; From indeterminate national service to human rights abuses and the jailing of journalists.

But she says her earlier experience with Eritrea did not give her a complete picture of the nation. Along with some European countries she is now taking another look at Eritrea the blanket asylum for Eritrea’s refugees.

Too many Eritreans in last two years

Europe is taking another look because numbers have jumped. “For a while Denmark, for example, was receiving 10 Eritreans per month then in the middle of last year it sky-rocketed to 514 people, in last July.

“So, when all of a sudden these European countries were being inundated with Eritreans they have a certain interest – a political and economic interest – in stopping that flow.”

Norway, the United Kingdom and other European countries are debating their asylum policies for Eritrea. Bruton says she also wants a more complete picture of Eritrea and its leadership.

Bruton is one of few scholars and researchers who have visited the capital recently. She and an academic colleague met for three hours with President Isaias Afewerki and later with members of his inner circle of advisors.

Courting international investors

“They’re doing their best to reach out to Europe to demonstrate that the narrative of human rights abuses on Eritrea is false, they are trying to repair relations, they are working very hard on health and social service programs. They’re doing a lot of infrastructure work. They’re courting international investors.”

Bruton says Mr. Isaias and his advisors told her they want to speed up much-needed development and they worry about losing so many talented Eritreans to Europe.

“I heard again and again and again their true frustration about the brain drain they were experiencing, the fact that they were trying really hard to have a successful education system, that they didn’t have good teachers. And every time they got a good teacher, the person would be gone a year later because they would have gone to Europe.

“And so I think there is a realization now that the situation is not sustainable. I also think that there are western investors inside Eritrea who are putting a lot of pressure on the Eritrean government. For example, they need workers in the mining sector and these western companies don’t want to tough slave labor with a 25-foot pole and they’ve made it really clear to the government.”

Bruton is not yet convinced that significant changes will take place in Eritrea. And as of the moment, nothing is certain about the asylum prospects in Europe for many Eritreans. They will continue to follow a trail to Europe filled with mortal risk.

Part 4 of a series on the risks of the dangerous trail to Europe, why Eritreans are leaving home and whether policies in Europe and Eritrea are changing.

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