Eritrea: slender land, giant prison

Published on openDemocracy, by Ben Rawlence, May 6, 2009.

Eritrea has avoided international attention in recent years in ways that may have protected the Red Sea country’s rulers from proper scrutiny but benefit no one else. Even those who recall that the continent’s youngest state gained its unlikely independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody thirty-year struggle may be shocked to hear that the optimistic nationalism of the 1990s has been dissolved under President Isaias Afewerki into a despairing void, causing thousands of Eritreans to flee the country that they fought so hard to establish …

… The international task:

Even if they do manage to escape, their nightmare is not over. In recent years Malta, Libya, Sudan, Egypt and even Britain have returned asylum- seekers to Eritrea, where they are viewed as traitors to the nation-building cause and treated as such. They face almost certain incarceration, torture and possibly death. The Human Rights Watch report calls for an absolute prohibition on all forcible return of Eritrean asylum-seekers. 

Many of the refugees we interviewed in Italy and Djibouti feared for their safety even outside the country. The Eritrean government has an active network of informants in the region, in Europe and the United States. Overseas embassies are also responsible for fundraising for the government; collecting a 2% tax from expatriates; and intimidating and repressing the family members in Eritrea of those who don’t pay.

The threat from this repressive government extends beyond the suffering of Eritrea’s people. Eritrea is also a major impediment to security in the Horn of Africa as a whole.

What should be done? Any serious efforts to stabilise the Horn and prevent Eritrea’s human-rights crisis from getting any worse should start with the poisonous relationship between Asmara and Addis Ababa. The United Nations, the African Union and key governments should make a serious effort to bring Ethiopia and Eritrea to terms, normalise relations and begin to reduce the network of repression that is choking democracy and human rights in both countries and fuelling instability in Somalia. (full text).

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