If you want to get an understanding of the Eritrean crisis, take a coach from Khartoum to Kassala. Around 100 miles outside Sudan’s popular honeymoon destination, ragged tents sprawl out across the arid plain. On the roadside lie carcasses, mainly dogs but also camels. Amputees, many of whom are children, crutch alongside the fit dragging buckets of water and bottles of petrol. Overlooking all this, a new electricity line connects a series of mosques that sit at the centre of every settlement of tents – here, there is little relief from hardship and destitution.
When you ask these refugees why they left, some reply “Hrb” (“war”). It is a confusing response; to make sense of it you have to realise that these Eritreans see little distinction between the war with Ethiopia and the border dispute that followed. From an international perspective, the conflict ended when leaders from Eritrea and Ethiopia shook hands in Algiers, back in the year 2000. The deal was deemed an acceptable conclusion rather than a diplomatic success, with both sides agreeing to the demilitarised buffer zone and the release of prisoners of war. However, the issues driving hostility were never resolved – primarily, disagreement over where the border stood and Ethiopia’s failure to recognize Eritrea as a sovereign state. Economically, the border offers very little. It is a barren place, both resourceless and sparsely populated. Yet the majority of those who have migrated to Sudan do not see the war or the border as the cause of Eritrea’s problems. Instead they blame their leader, Afwerki.
It was only following the 150 percent increase in migration (2013: 13,000 to 2014: 37,000) that Eritrea received renewed attention. These figures prompted a UN humanitarian investigation in 2015 and 2016, which concluded that around 300,000 – 400,000 Eritrean men (ten percent of their total population) were enslaved through an indefinite national service program. It was also uncovered that armed groups, accused of working with the government, were preying on rural depopulation, forcing rural women into sexual slavery. These findings are worlds away from Asmara, the nation’s capital (a UNESCO world heritage site). Here, boulevards and cobbled pavements project an image of order and prosperity; it was described by one migrant as the mask which hides the reality of rural existence. Unsurprisingly, gaining access into this hidden side of eritrea is extremely difficult. A tightly regulated permit system means that foreigners are continually monitored, international media teams are banned and only 1-2 percent of the population are online – the lowest of any country in the world.
Sudan hosts over 120,000 of these predominantly rural Eritreans. While some are set to risk their lives traveling across the Sahara, many consider the plains of Kassala their new home. The Sudanese government has a similar policy towards foreigners; to travel outside of Khartoum, you nearly always need a permit, while other areas such as South Korfordan and Darfur are impossible to enter. The Eritrean refugee camps in Kassala don’t fall into the same category as Darfur; with a permit they are accessible. However, the presence of any foreigner without a guide will raise suspicion, the sight of anyone walking with a camera will likely result in some form of interrogation. Consequently, the voices of those Eritreans who live upon the plains of Eastern Sudan remain largely suppressed.
What’s often forgotten is that Eritrea is not a country torn apart by war or sectarianism; compared to some of its neighbors it is seen as relatively stable. If so, how do we explain the Eritrean exodus? The European pull of ‘higher living standards’, whether we believe it to be a fantasy or not, does explain some of the motivations of those journeying across the Mediterranean. However, the majority of the 120,000 Eritreans who have migrated to Sudan cannot be ascribed this explanation. They have come to a place where there is little economic opportunity, a country currently engaged in two separate civil wars against non Arab ethnic minorities.
In a bid to explain the extent of Afwerki’s tyrannical regime to the Western world, many commentators have drawn comparisons with North Korea. As political models, there are some undeniable similarities: both nations have established dictators who appear to exercise power freely, they are relatively closed off to the outside world, and they spend a disproportionate amount of their budget on guns and uniforms. Yet the clear distinction is that Eritreans are not consumed by any illusion. In mass, they are voting with their feet.
In July 2018, Ethiopia conceded the town of Badme to Eritrea and, in doing so, effectively ended the border dispute. In September the border was officially opened, families and friends were reunited, and future trade deals were promised. Afwerki even came out stating that he would look to end the indefinite national service program that was driving so many young Eritreans away. Yet despite all of this, Eritrean migrants remain skeptical. They have little intention of returning home.