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Eritreans flee camps but find they’re in psychological prisons

Television journalist Temesghen Debesai had waited years for an opportunity to make his escape from Eritrea, so when the country’s ministry of information sent him on a journalism training course in Bahrain he was delighted, but fearful too.

On arrival in Bahrain, he quietly evaded the state officials who were following him and got in touch with Reporters Sans Frontières. Shortly after that he met officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who verified his details. He then went into hiding for two months so the Eritrean officials in Bahrain could not catch up with him and eventually he escaped to Britain.

Debesai told no one of his plans, not even his family. He was concerned he was being watched. He says a “state of paranoia was everywhere” and there was no freedom of expression. Life in Eritrea, he explains, had become a “psychological prison”.

Crackdown on dissent
After graduating top of his class from Eritrea’s Asmara University, Debesai became a well-known TV journalist for state-run news agency Erina Update. But from 2001, the real crackdown began and independent newspapers such as Setit, Tsigenai and Keste Debena, were shut down. In raids, journalists from these papers were arrested en masse. He suspects many of those arrested were tortured or killed, and many were never heard of again. No independent domestic news agency has operated in Eritrea since 2001, the same year the country’s last accredited foreign reporter was expelled.

The authorities became fearful of internal dissent. Debesai noticed this at close hand, having interviewed President Isaias Afwerki on several occasions. He describes these interviews as propaganda exercises because all questions were pre-agreed with the minister of information. As the situation worsened in Eritrea, the post-liberation haze of euphoria began to fade. Eritrea went into lockdown. Its borders were closed, communication with the outside world was forbidden, travel abroad without state approval was not allowed. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 could be called up for indefinite national service. A shoot-to-kill policy was imposedfor anyone crossing the border into Ethiopia.

Debesai felt he had no other choice but to leave Eritrea. As a well-known TV journalist he could not risk walking across into Sudan or Ethiopia, so he waited until he got the chance to leave for Bahrain.

The world’s most secretive state
Eritrea was once a colony of Italy. It came under British administrative control in 1941, before the UN “federated” Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952. Nine years later Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, sparking Africa’s longest war. This long, bitter war glued the Eritrean people to their struggle for independence from Ethiopia. Debesai, whose family went into exile in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, returned to Eritrea as a teenager in 1992, a year after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) captured the capital Asmara.

For Debesai, returning to Asmara had been a “personal choice”. He wanted to be a part of rebuilding his nation after a 30-year conflict and, besides, he says, life in post-war Asmara was “socially free”, a welcome antidote to conservative Saudi life. Those heady days were electric, he says. 

An air of “patriotic nationalism” pervaded the country. Women danced in the streets for days to welcome back EPLF fighters. Asmara had remained largely unscathed during the war thanks to its high mountain elevation. Much of its beautiful 1930s Italian modernist architecture was intact, something Debesai was delighted to see.

But those early signs of hope that greeted independence quickly soured. By 1993 Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence and since then Eritrea has been run by Afwerki, the former rebel leader of the EPLF. Not a single election has been held since the country gained independence. 

Today Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and secretive states. There are no opposition parties and no independent media. No independent public gatherings or civil society organisations are permitted. Amnesty International estimates there are 10 000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, who include journalists, critics, dissidents, as well as men and women who have evaded conscription. Eritrea is ranked the worst country for press freedom in the world by Reporters Sans Frontières.

No way out but on foot
The only way for the vast majority of Eritreans to flee their isolated, closed-off country is on foot. They walk over the border to Sudan and Ethiopia. The UN says there are 216 000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. By the end of October 2014, Sudan alone was home to 106?859 Eritrean refugees in camps at Gaderef and Kassala in the eastern, arid region of the country.

In Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees are found mostly in four refugee camps in the Tigray region, and two in the Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia.

During the first 10 months of 2014, 36 678 Eritreans sought refuge across Europe, compared with 12 960 during the same period in 2013. Most asylum requests were to Sweden (9 531), Germany (9 362) and Switzerland (5 652). The UN says the majority of these Eritrean refugees arrived by boat across the Mediterranean. Most are young men, who had been forced into military conscription. All conscripts have to go to Sawa, a desert town and home to a military camp, or what Human Rights Watch has called an open-air prison. 

Many young men see no way out but to leave Eritrea. For them, leaving on a perilous journey for a life outside their home country is better than staying. The Eritrean refugee crisis in Europe took a sharp upward turn in 2014, as the UNHCR numbers show. Tragedies like the drowning of hundreds of Eritrean refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 demonstrate the perils of the journey west and how desperate these people are.

Frightened asylum seekers
Eritrean refugees who go no further than Sudan and Ethiopia face a grim situation. According to Lul Seyoum, director of International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Eritrean refugees in a number of isolated camps inside Sudan and Ethiopia face trafficking and other gross human rights violations. They are afraid to speak to, and meet, each other. She said the situation had worsened since Sudan and Eritrea became closer politically.

Eritrea had a hostile relationship with Sudan during the 1990s. It supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, much to the anger of President Omar al-Bashir who was locked in a bitter war with the people of now-independent South Sudan. Today tensions have eased and Afwerki has a much friendlier relationship with Sudan – to the detriment of the tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan.

A former Eritrean ministry of education official, who is a refugee in the United Kingdom and who is afraid to be named, believes Eritreans have no freedom to speak out in Ethopian camps such as Shimelba.

The official says that in 2013 a group of Eritrean refugees came together at a camp to express their views about the boat sinking near Lampedusa and Ethiopian authorities fired live bullets at them.

Traffickers in cahoots with authorities
Seyoum believes the movement of Eritreans in camps in Ethiopia is restricted. “The Ethiopian government does not allow them to leave the camps without permission,” she says.

Very few of those who do get permission to leave end up in Ethiopia. Instead, through corrupt mechanisms, they are trafficked to Sudan.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Eritreans have been enslaved in camps in Sudan and Egypt over the past 10 years, many enduring violence and rape at their hands of their traffickers in collusion with state authorities.

Eritreans who make it to the West are afraid to speak publicly and are fearful for their families back home.

Now based in London, Debesai is a TV presenter for Sports News Africa. As an exile who has taken a stance against the regime of Afwerki, he has faced harassment and threats. Over coffee, he shows me a tweet he’s just received from Tesfa News, a so-called “independent online magazine”, in which they accuse him of being a “backstabber” acting against the government and people of Eritrea.

Others face similar threats, including the former education ministry official. A number of Eritreans said they did not want to be interviewed by me because they were afraid of the consequences.

Debesai said: “It takes time to overcome the past, so that even for those in exile in the West the imprisonment continues.” He adds: “These refugees come out of a physical prison and go into psychological imprisonment.” 

This article was first published in the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine.

  • Ismail Einashe is a journalist and a researcher, based in London. He tweets @IsmailEinashe

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Ismail Einashe
Ismail Einashe is an award-winning journalist and writer covering migration, human rights and international news. He has written for the Guardian, BBC News, the Sunday Times, Foreign Policy, NBC, the Nation and NPR among many others. Previously, he worked for BBC Radio & Current Affairs and he has presented on BBC Radio.

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