I had the privilege to meet the man who authored eight books on Eritrea, Dan Connell, in Addis Ababa at the beginning of this summer during his second research tour in Ethiopia. As we all know, he has dedicated much of the past 40 years to writing and researching Eritrea and since his retirement from teaching he has been following the plight of Eritrean refugees. His latest trip to Ethiopia was part of that. I felt the need to interview him about his research and I did so hoping the people would learn about the situation of Eritrean refugees from the perspective of a serious researcher and true friend of Eritrea. The Tigrinya translation of the interview has been aired on the Australia based SBS radio (Tigrinya Service) some time ago. For those of you who might be interested to read in English here is the transcript:
It has been a long time since you began conducting field research on the journeys of Eritrean refugees by interviewing many of them in different parts of the world. What are the places that you have visited so far?
Well, I started in 2012 by coming to Ethiopia and going to the Shire camps. I was teaching full time so I can only travel during my breaks. So, in June I came to Ethiopia, in January 2013 I went to Israel, in June 2013 I went to the Sinai in Egypt, also to Sudan up to Kassala and then in June 2014 I retired from teaching and took this issue up full time. I began by going to ten cities in North America in the United States and Canada and talking to refugees there. In October and November I went to Europe to six countries: Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France and the UK. And then in January 2015 I went back to Israel where the situation has radically changed as many Eritreans were being rounded up and sent to a detention camp. I went to that detention camp, Holot, and interviewed Eritreans there. In February I went to Kenya and South Africa. And in March I went to South America, Central America and Mexico and I interviewed Eritreans in Mexico about the journey they make through South America to get to the United States border. The last trip is the current one where I began in May in Djibouti and then went to Sudan and finally to Ethiopia. While I have been here I have been up to the four camps in the Shire region and up to the Assaita camp in the Afar region.
What are we going to expect from you after all these research tours?
Well, I have been posting some narratives about some of the people I have interviewed to give people at least some insight into what I am getting. This is much like the narratives that I collected in the Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners. It’s just what people said, their life stories. Some of those can be found on my website under the page titled Blog. It’s not a blog the way some people blog about themselves. It’s not about me. It is about them. Second, I have been trying to put out articles on different aspects to this and I will continue to do that this summer. Some of these articles have been published in the South Africa’s Mail & Guardian,some in US based website, news service called Foreign Policy In Focus which is FPIF.org. I have had an op-ed in the British Guardian. And then I had a series of articles in a magazine called Middle East Report which is online at merip.org. And I expect to see more. So, that’s the short term. Once those articles appear I copy them and also put them on my website so anybody can find them free. Finally the big project is a book. It has been a while since I put out a book. Next year I will devote myself to try to pull the stories together to put a human face on this crisis.
You have visited the camps in Ethiopia for the second time. What are your observations on the treatment of Eritrean refugees there?
I have to say that it is one of the great ironies of the situation that Ethiopia is said to be Eritrea’s arch enemy and yet frankly it is the safest place in the region for Eritreans. In fact, there are a lot of problems. Young urban refugees who find themselves in a barren, arid camp in a place like Hitsats, for example, have very little familiar to them and very few options where they are. So the tendency among many of them is to immediately start planning to leave and take the very dangerous trip across Libya. I think here Ethiopia has done a good job of providing secure environment in this situation with at least some opportunities. But it is the international community that needs to step up here. Those countries in Europe and elsewhere who are concerned at the massive influx of migrants and refugees need to make a serious investment here in the immediate region, in Sudan as well Ethiopia particularly here in Ethiopia, in providing more opportunities for these refugees. And that means, number one, skills training and education which so many people say that they are in great need of. Secondly, jobs. And that’s complicated because you are operating within another state that has its own priorities to try to put its own graduates to work. But I think ways need to be found to provide more opportunities to these refugees to keep them here, one so that they avoid the terrible and dangerous onward migrations, twoso that they position to go back home when and if things change because this generation needs to be back to Eritrea to rebuild it.
As you might remember, following the October 2013 incident at Lampedusa, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia had held demonstrations in the camps to express their grievances about their treatment, especially about the alleged presence of Ethiopians in the camps registered as refugees and benefitting from the resettlement opportunities that should have been given to Eritreans. Have you tried to explore this issue in your field interviews with the refugees?
Well, this is really difficult for a variety of reasons. One of them is that many of the people who were here when I was here in 2012 and who were in those camps during the demonstrations have left. I think that was in many respects a kind of turning point and it was a propellant for more people, especially young people, to leave. The question of resettlement is another complicated one. Resettlement has a way of destabilizing communities because once it builds up within a community many people focus more on getting accepted for resettlement and moving on than they do in building more stability, more opportunities, more organization within the camps and communities. I saw that happen in Shimelba and in this trip I saw it in May Ayni. Resettlement in another way can be an incentive for people to remain where they are because it gives people hope. But the resettlement program has become complicated by the different criterion used for it. It should be more transparent than it is now. People should understand more clearly why they are on list and why they are not on list and I think that is not the case. There are rumors flying within the camps that there is corruption in the selection process. Many young men also are convinced that resettlement will not be an option for them. There will only be for underage refugees and families which sends to them the message that their only option now is secondary migration and onward passage through Libya. So, I think this is clearly a problem. The reality is, in any country where refugees come and gather in camps like these, there will be tensions with the surrounding community and also with the host country’s security services. One sees this in a much more extreme way in Sudan where the refugees in many respect can be locked into Shagarab camp now. The solution to this is the expansion of the open camp policy and the expansion of programs for urban based refugees. I would say that in Sudan and in Ethiopia. You just can’t keep demographic cohort of young men and women of university and secondary school age in these raw camps and expect things to remain stable. So, I would say that a change in that policy would be something very positive.
Eritreans entertain divergent opinion regarding the level of the flow of Eritrean refugees. Some believe it has reached a crisis level and others disagree with this description. What does your field research tell about this issue?
Well, clearly it is a crisis. There are so many people who have left. There is an inevitable social crisis inside Eritrea. Many people on the government side argue that these are economic migrants and sadly there are European countries and others who are responding to that from their own need to find ways of cutting down on the refugees and migrants coming into their countries. So there is a kind of myth that is created because people go to these other countries and seek work often to send money back home,and it is said that is the primary motivation. I did not find that. I found something else. That people were consistently fleeing because they felt, as they said to me, once they finish the eleventh grade in school they lost complete control of their lives. One aspect to that was getting called to National Service that has no apparent end in sight. But it wasn’t only the length of service, it was the fact that they had no choices to make about what they would study or where they would go. Even as they are tested and win to joinone of the post-secondary institutions,unless they were the children of the Eritrean elite they were sent to places that somebodyelse had decided for them, often Mai Nefhi or the Teacher’s Training Institute in Asmara and others. When I press people about why they left after they have been in service for three, four, and five, sometimes fifteen or sixteen years, there are often stories of personal and physical abuse, threats, intimidations, sometimes public humiliation and torture; and often also periods of incarceration, either in jails or in prisons. So there was underlying decision to leave, deeply political motivation to get out. And they just saw no alternative, no escape and no real hope for change inside Eritrea. So, they took great risks often not only to get out of Eritrea but then to continue their journeys across the Sahara, across the Mediterranean, through Libya and others where their lives were continually at risk. The desperation behind these was deeply upsetting to hear as I did over and over again. But your question about a crisis, I think, what all of these says about the situation in Eritrea is that the country has been ruled by fear and coercion for so long that the moral, the motivation, the commitment that we used to see in the 1970s and 1980s to free the country and then to build it has been replaced by a sense of obligation and control. That is quite different and I think that is a reflection of political crisis and perhaps an identity crisis as well within the society itself. The other thing along with that fear is the profound loss of hope. People have been so terrorized into submission that they have lost the hope for change. So when you disagree with what is happening around you or fear what is happening around you, often the only option is to escape and this results in very high percentage of people fleeing from this otherwise small country.
It is believed that Eritrea is progressively weakened by the exodus of its people, especially of its youth, and there is also a controversy on whether the country has become or is yet to become a failed state due to this crisis. As an expert who specializes in Eritrea, what are your thoughts on this issue?
There are so many people who have left. That the army itself has been badly degraded. The military units now are much smaller than on paper. The Gantas (platoons), brigades are supposed to have a certain number but they may have a quarter or third because all those young people who are leaving are coming out of the National Service and many of them are military. There have also been arrests, defections and departures of many mid-level commanders and there has been so much repression within the middle and upper levels that you have a military which I don’t think is capable of defending Eritrea if it needs to. And I think Ethiopia knows this very well. So there is always this issue looming out there. The other thing is that so many of those who were leaving were teachers. Why so many people take in into teaching? Because so many leave. So there is a constant turnover within the educational system. This is, may be, a hidden aspect of a social crisis. That means you have an educational system that you can point to and say it is succeeding because so many people are registered as students. But the quality of the education has gone way down because of the inconsistency within the teaching staff. And I think this is a very sad thing because it means that Eritrea’s future is being thrown away by this regime through the failure to adequately educate young people and then to hold on those that it does educate because so many leave. I think there are similar problems within the much praised healthcare system. There are clinics and hospitals all over the country but many of the people who are staffing them are National Service conscripts. They are being paid very poorly. Their training has been compromised by again the problems within the structure of the health system itself. So potentially strong healthcare system has flowed in many ways. And you can see this throughout the entire governing structure. When you move from there into the political structure here is a country that has been nominally in existence for more than 20 years. And yet the political institutions that should bind it together are shelved to themselves. Assemblies that do not meet. Offices that function largely arbitrarily. Cabinet departments and those at the executive level function more like NGOs than cabinet departments generating policies and programs. Instead they are implementing bodies. In fact the whole state operates more like the liberation movement of the 1970s and 80s with inner cadre that is calling all the shots basically and operating through a variety of institutional fronts which themselves have very little substance. This means that Eritrea is inherently fragile. It does not have the institutional history that it should have after 20 years with leaders being developed through that process that can take the country to new levels of development.So, I think there is a fragility to the state structure. That is very dangerous. Whether that means or is or could be a failed state, you know, is very hard to predict. The other side to this is the strength of the Eritrean people and their great resistance to the kind of breakdown that you see in Somalia or Libya. Eritrea is such a country where you have an extraordinarily hardworking, disciplined people who pull together in the face of enormous adversity and keep rebounding to do the best they can to keep their own lives going. So, I continue against all odds, so to speak, to believe that Eritrea has the possibility of a dynamic future but I think that possibility is gradually deteriorating the longer this regime continues its repressive policies. The other thing that I would add to this is that the interviews I have done with refugees in these many different environments often describe a culture of violence and impunity on the part of the security forces and the armed forces. And this is something that needs to be addressed in profound and long term ways to heal this country. The population has been terrorized in a way that reminds me, in many respect, of Pinochet’s Chile back in the 1970s when so many people have been arbitrarily punished or disappeared for reasons that they often don’t understand, that people end up being afraid of something they can’t even identify. They don’t know what can happen to them. They don’t know exactly where the lines are that they cross and disappear. And this has the effect of undercutting the dynamism, the moral, the creativity that Eritrea needs to build itself as a new nation. The cost is just enormous.
When Eritrean diplomats on the government side are asked about the influx of Eritrean refugees, they usually say that any country, not only Eritrea, produces migrants and, as they say, just because the West wants to target Eritrea the magnitude of the country’s problems which are causing the people to flee is exaggerated. What do you comment on this?
Well, I think this is ridiculous. First of all, the percentage of the population that has fled from Eritrea is so much greater than that of most other countries. There are many Ethiopian migrants in the streams headed towards the Middle East and elsewhere for work as well. But the percentage of the population doesn’t come close to comparing to Eritrea. Eritrea prides itself on a strong sense of national identity and commitment to building that nation and these diplomats who say this would argue exactly that. That Eritrea is a special place where people are committed to it. Why then are so many of the younger generation fleeing? There is just no way to understand this except that there is something profoundly wrong inside Eritrea or these people wouldn’t be leaving in the numbers that they are. The reasons people give for it too, as I said earlier, are rarely for economic reasons at the beginning. The economy gets folded into this in part because people are so desperate at home. Young people who traditionally would be taking care of their parents are being subsidized to maintain their jobs in National Service which just flips everything on its head. When people leave, their parents are often fined and punished for this. So the further they go the more the people build up a kind of debt back to their families that they have to repay. So economy gets folded into the reasons for migration. But the push factors, as they say, are the repressions inside. The treatment of this younger generation within Eritrea is really the reason they are leaving. When I have talked to them most don’t have a clear idea of where they are going and what to expect when they get there. They are just pushed by circumstances. They get pushed out of Eritrea to Ethiopia or Sudan. They get to camps where they have no clear opportunity or added to that in the case of Sudan great fears of insecurity and persecution there based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. So they get pushed and they get as far as Libya. There is so little security and so many threats that they have to continue no matter how bad the next step on the journey is. But I have talked to people even in Europe where they described to me landing in Lampedusa and not being sure what country to go to until they go on Facebook and get into a chat and somebody says “Oh sweetness!The right place to go to is Denmark”. There are clearly some who leave that have relatives or friends who they are trying to connect with. But I would say the majority who leave aren’t that clear about where they end up when they leave. They are just clear that they have to leave.
It is generally understood that the burden of the current problem in Eritrea is equally shared among the different ethnic groups of the country. But there are refugees from certain ethnic groups who claim to have been specifically targeted. Even the recent COI report says that “the Kunama and Afar ethnic groups have been specifically targeted by the Government by being subjected to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings”. Such stories of particular abuse are believed to be the principal reason for the proliferation of ethnic organizations in the Eritrean political arena. Have you ever encountered such refugees who claim to have been specifically attacked or refugees whose stories can be understood as specific attack?
Well, I have found mostly the same thing. There is very large cohort of Tigrinya speakers who are leaving because of the National Service and because of imprisonment, political threats, religious persecution, and broad civil and human rights issues that we are all familiar with. There are ethnic minorities who have these issues plus their own issues. The Kunama and the Afar are the ones that I am most familiar with and the ones I have seen the most of in my own research. The Kunama have long history of difficulty with the EPLF/PFDJ going all the way back to the days of liberation struggle and I think carrying with them mistrust of the government that runs very deep. And it has been reinforced by policies towards them in their home areas in Eritrea in the 1990s before the breakout of the war with Ethiopia. The failures to respect language and culture, the resettlement of returnees from Sudan in traditional Kunama grazing lands, the failure to respect pastoralism as a legitimate mode of life with legitimate claims on land. So there is this deep background. The situation accelerated, as I understand it, during the border war in 1998-2000 particularly in the third round of war when Ethiopia broke through and occupied much of western Eritrea including Kunama lands. After they left there were increased political punishments of the Kunama in the area and increased pressure on them in their land and whole villages were uprooted and left, not just individuals as has happened in the case of highlanders. But when I was in Shimelba in 2012 and again this year talking with Kunama refugees they describe a culture under assault, the fear of their own disappearance as a people through this experience. This is something that is very different from the experience of highlanders, the Tigrinya speakers, Saho, Blin and others. The Afar situation has its own very special characteristics as well and I have had the opportunity to learn more about that with my visit to the Afar region in this trip. But to begin with, the Afar region itself is cut off from much of the rest of Eritrea. It is defined geographically in a way that no other ethnic group really is. It has been administered for many years largely by Tigrinya speakers. Afar complain that the government deals with it with no respect for its culture, its language or its traditions. Their mode of economic life has been historically pastoralism as well as some fishing and trade. Fishing has been tightly controlled since the border war and trade of course in south eastern Eritrea is all but stopped. So, they have been squeezed, on the one side, economically and culturally, at the same time their young people have been put in Sawa and into National Service and in the military whose business is conducted almost exclusively in Tigrinya, while the people who are left back at home have to deal with administrators who are largely Tigrinya speakers who, in many cases, force them to bring their own translators/interpreters to do anything. So, there is this historic sense of discrimination and marginalization which I think is intensified greatly in recent years. People I have interviewed in the camps also tell stories of added repression against the population based upon the suspicion of support for the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) which has operated militarily in some of south eastern Eritrea. I talked to a number of people who have been arrested based upon accusations that they had either not turned in suspected members of the opposition underground or being sympathetic to them in ways that reminded me very much of Eritreans living in Kebesa and in the cities in the 1970s and 80s under Ethiopian occupation. There is the sense of being occupied people. That is different from that of being repressed individuals. And what surprises me sometimes is when I have conversations with people who are opposed to the regime from a highland background, when I bring up the issue of minority rights often people dismiss that. They say “It’s not important, we are all suffering”. And I have to tell you as a white male from the United States, I have heard the same kind of argument among white political activists about race issues, among male political activists about women’s issues and others when they prioritize class. I share a class critic and I am deeply concerned about broad inequality within my own society but I also know that inequality is layered and has many different forms that includes gender, ethnicity, and race in the case of the United States. In Eritrea, those issues also has to be dealt with today, not tomorrow. History shows that when these kinds of issues are dismissed as secondary and often put until the big issue is dealt with, they fester and lead to fragmentation within a society and they promote separatism among the oppressed and marginalized minorities within a society. It’s inevitable. So, I would say there are two messages here: one is the conditions being imposed by the regime on minorities within a society and two, the absence of attention from many in the opposition to these problems. Eritrea has a constitution and that needs to be put back into place. It also needs to be significantly revised to include much more attention to minority rights as well as land and language.
It is to be recalled that in March of this year the European Union has announced its plan to resume a multi-million-euro development package to Eritrea hoping that such assistance will help in reducing the growing number of Eritreans attempting to reach Europe. Britain is also planning to take the same initiative to help the refugee/migrant producing countries. Do you think this is the right decision to deal with the challenges of refugees’ influx from Eritrea?
This is clearly self-interested decision driven by wish much as we have seen in Israel to keep the African migrants and refugees out. And I think to that extent it is a very cynical decision. It is also deeply uninformed one for a variety of reasons. The idea that providing economic aid to Eritrea is going to change this begs the much larger question of the options young people have within Eritrea to engage in economic activity. There is a kind of pledge that has been made by Yemane Gebreab in many international forums that the current cohort of National Service will be released in 2016 and so the endless National Service that has been propelling out will itself come to an end. If that is the ground for providing aid there needs to be some clear demonstration which shows that it is in fact happening. And if it’s happening, that this is part of the end of Warsay-Yikalo campaign. If it’s only this group that is going to get some weird exception, then it does not solve any of the problems. And it’s not even clear that it is going to happen. It is a promise of next year. So, first Europeans need to get much clear demonstration substance to changes that people are talking about. I think the answer to that is very simple. The endless National Service is justified by the Warsay-Yikalo campaign that was publicly announced and proclaimed within Eritrea. It needs to be publicly proclaimed that it is over. And in that respect that means not just this cohort of National Service but all the others that includes people who have been in service for 5, 6, 10, 15 years. To do this with major demobilization program it would mean adding significant public sector salaries to all the positions that have been staffed by basically slave labor from teachers to public works laborers, to farm and plantation laborers. So, we are talking here about not just an end point to National Service but a transformation of the economy into one that is based up on legitimate wages and salaries to people and choices of where to work. You know, you try to imagine what this could translate into. One possibility is the Europeans will give Eritrea money and they will pump it into some form of paid National Service where the controllers don’t change but perhaps the payment go up. I don’t know, it’s hard to see this!! If there is to be economic change in Eritrea it has to include opening up of the economy to more initiative and more choice and not an economy that is strangled by the PFDJ and the state. So, I think in that respect these European initiatives are terribly naïve and fail to grasp the structure of the state, the structure in the economy, the reasons people have been leaving. Now, in my research, I have been asking people “Would you go back?” Initially people laugh at the question. And then I press “If things changed at home would you go back?” What people tell me is “Yes I would go back if the government changed”, not a policy here, not a promise of National Service changing but bigger change that includes constitutional rule, rule of law where you know what the rules are, and you know there is accountability for behaving according to those rules, not only by you the citizen but by the government and more open economy for them to find their way into. But it starts with political changes. It does not start with economic changes. So, I think in that respect if the Europeans are serious they should be offering aid that is conditioned on very specific changes like releasing the political prisoners, implementing the constitution, transparent budget so that the route that this money follows can itself be followed. Short of that, it’s an illusion.
There are Eritreans who believe that Ethiopia is partly responsible for the current predicament of Eritrea because, as they say, this country has failed to comply with the border ruling thereby providing a justification for the Eritrean government to prolong the people’s suffering by acting in a rogue way. Do you share this view?
Certainly there is some truth to that. Too often Ethiopian officials dismiss the fear that many Eritreans have of Ethiopia interfering within Eritrean politics. There is just too much history here, though, to dismiss this. The fear I know is real among Eritreans. Whether it is based on actual threats is a second question but I know the fear is real and needs to be addressed. There is a conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia that has been going on now for fifteen years, unresolved since 2000. Everybody who is involved in this bears some responsibility for not moving this forward. I know that Eritreans can point to the fact that there was an agreement on an international level for a final and binding solution to the border dispute. The Commission gave Badme to Eritrea, that’s true. But does that mean the country gets sacrifice completely because Ethiopia won’t give it. This, to me, is just foolishness. I know that is right at international level. But a couple of things: a government that has so little respect for law within its own country, that it does not even implement a constitution, that it rules with arbitrary force, coercion and torture against its own people has hack of a nerve to start calling on the international community to respect the law. That’s one. Two, the reality is that Ethiopia is not moving on this because it has interest in the area, in keeping Eritrea off balance, so long as there is a threat of support for groups operating inside Ethiopia or in the surrounding area that are a threat. Ethiopia also has an interest in the long term state-to-state relations that includes long term access to the ports. Being realistic about this, all of those issues need to be part of a package of working this through. So, Eritrea’s refusal to enter into negotiations simply because it’s right about one respect is an excuse not to solve the situation. Ethiopia’s refusal to move on Badme is another excuse. These are two regimes that each have an interest in keeping things where they are. If I were an Eritrean, I would be calling on my own government to make some difference in that because that is what I can do. Just as an American I call on my own government to act in situations like this and other ones. I think our first responsibility is to deal with our own. It’s a tragic situation here but too much has been paid and too much sacrifice for what? I still fail to understand it for a principle. There are many principles involved here. One is the principle of Eritrea’s future. And I think that is being sacrificed for the principle of being right about international agreement. On balance, I don’t think there is any question of where the weight lies. Final thing I would say is that, to me, over the years one of the most brilliant decisions that Eritrean leadership made and one of the decisions that allowed Eritrea to regroup and win its independence was its strategic withdrawal in 1978. The decision was made then that you don’t fight unless you can win. You withdraw, you gather your strength and in the end you come back and you build an independence struggle that can win. I think following the lesson of that pull back on some of the intransigence here on negotiation would lead to much greater opportunities for Eritrea to build its strength, to pull its population back into its own national borders and to stem a flow of refugees and that continued crisis within the country.
I understand that speaking about the role of outsiders could be treated as externalizing internal problems but don’t you think that the world has treated Eritrea unfairly when the Security Council passed sanctions resolutions against Eritrea without first taking proportional measure against Ethiopia for its non-compliance with the border ruling?
Yes! Yes! But that is the reality. What good does it do to say that? I mean everybody says that as if…… and then you can sit there and be self-righteous as your country burns. I just…, you know……yes, you are right. Eritrea has been mistreated. It has been tossed aside by the United States in favor of a bigger strategic interest in the region. That’s the way the world works. You know, I am sorry that it is that way but get over. This is how it works. If you want to be part of this world, if you want to be a country that can function within it, you have to deal with it as it is, not in the way that you wish it is. And I think this is the difference between realism and idealism. Eritrea is stuck in a kind of idealistic bubble. And that is sacrificing the country.