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African asylum seekers gather for a morning meeting during an overnight protest after leaving Holot open detention centre in southern Israel's Negev desert, 28 June 2014. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
Briefing 100 / Africa

Eritrea: Ending the Exodus?

Eritrea’s youth exodus has significantly reduced the young nation’s human capital. While this has had advantages for the government – allowing the departure of those most dissatisfied and most likely to press for political change – the growing social and political impact of mass migration at home and abroad demands concerted domestic and international action.

I. Overview

The large emigration of youths is the clearest sign of extreme domestic discontent with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government. Social malaise is pervasive. An ever-growing number of young people have fled over the last decade, frustrated by open-ended national service – initiated in 1995 and expanded during the war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). Yet, this flight has resulted in neither reforms nor a viable movement to create an alternative to the current government. Once outside, the ties that bind émigrés to their birthplace are strong and lead them to give financial support to the very system they escaped, through the 2 per cent tax many pay the state as well as remittances sent home to family members.

Asmara’s response to the exodus, though always focused on mitigating its effects so as to ensure regime survival, has evolved in recognition of its uses. After initial, sometimes brutal attempts to obstruct emigration, a symbiotic system has emerged that benefits a range of actors, including the state. The government ostensibly accepts that educated, urbanised youths resistant to the individual sacrifices the state demands are less troublesome and more useful outside the country – particularly when they can continue to be taxed and provide a crucial social safety net for family members who stay home. Meanwhile, those who remain tend to be the more pliant rural peasant and pastoralist population. Yet, the exodus is not limited to urbanised and educated youth; migrants, including an increasing number of minors, now come from a wider cross-section of society.

Official recognition is growing in Eritrea that despite the side-benefits, the level of the exodus is unsustainable, not least for maintaining support from political constituencies at home and in the diaspora. The burden of ever greater numbers arriving in neighbouring countries and further afield – including on Europe’s southern shores, where over-filled boats regularly sink, drowning many migrants – also demands action by affected states. Ending the exodus requires greater engagement with Eritrea – potentially ending a decade of isolation that has been both self-imposed and externally-generated – as well as ameliorating a growing internal crisis.

Crisis Group reporting has previously outlined the regional implications of that growing crisis and recommended that, in order to confront the problems of which the continuing human exodus is a clear sign, Eritrea, with help from international partners, especially the European Union (EU) and UN, should consider:

  • re-visiting previous plans and updating options for gradual demobilisation, especially of national servicemen and women;
     
  • re-opening political space gradually by implementing the long-delayed 1997 constitution; and
     
  • allowing for a gradual restructuring of the economy to enhance job prospects for the youth, and following through on offers to the diaspora to encourage direct investment.

To assist in easing the internal crisis, the Ethiopian government and other IGAD members, especially Sudan, should consider:

  • adopting a comprehensive strategic approach toward Eritrea aimed at relaxing bilateral relations – including a creative, mediated way to resolve the boundary dispute with Ethiopia that removes any external obstacle to demobilisation in Eritrea – and consequent normalisation of regional relations.

Likewise, the broader international community, led by the EU and Italy (currently EU president), and coordinated on the ground by the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, should:

  • develop a comprehensive and coordinated policy on Eritrea and support regional efforts to improve Eritrea-Ethiopia relations, including resolution of the boundary dispute.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 August 2014

Report 200 / Africa

Eritrea: Scenarios for Future Transition

Change is in the air in Eritrea, a highly authoritarian state, but any political transition will require internal political inclusion and channels for external dialogue if it is to preserve stability and improve Eritrean life.

Executive Summary

Events in the last twelve months indicate growing discontent inside Eritrea’s tightly controlled regime, as well as deepening political and social divisions. While the mounting number of incidents suggests that President Isaias Afwerki’s regime is vulnerable, with increasing concerns over its ability to stay in power, the country would face numerous institutional, socio-economic and geopolitical obstacles during and after any transition. A careful assessment of these, as well as the role neighbours and the wider international community could play, is urgently needed to help avoid a violent power struggle that could prove dangerous for the Horn of Africa and potentially – as Eritrea is a littoral state – for the Red Sea region.

Isaias’s disappearance from public view for several weeks in April 2012 amid rumours of his illness and death made evident the lack of a succession plan. In March and May 2012, the Ethiopian army made incursions, revealing the Eritrean military’s disastrous state. Subsequently, a number of defections reached media attention: pilots flying the presidential plane absconded in October, the information minister (a close ally of the president) vanished in November, and the national football team requested asylum in December. Meanwhile several thousand – predominantly young – Eritreans fled every month, preferring the danger and uncertainty of refugee camps and illegal migration routes to the hopeless stasis at home. Then, on 21 January 2013, approximately 100 soldiers rebelled in the capital, Asmara, taking control of the information ministry for a day.

It is difficult to predict what an eventually post-Isaias Eritrea will look like: after and in spite of 21 years of forceful nation-building, fault lines, especially of ethnicity, region and religion (Christians versus Muslims) are still there, some deeper than before. Since the state lacks any institutional mechanisms for peaceful transition of power or even a clearly anointed successor, instability is to be expected, with the corrupt army the likely arbiter of who will rule next. But even the generals appear split over loyalty toward the president.

To reduce the risk of instability in Eritrea and its neighbourhood, a broad coalition of international actors should take precautionary moves, including immediate and decisive efforts to promote dialogue on avoidance of internal power struggles and mediation of a peaceful transition. This could lead to opening of political space and normalisation, both domestically and internationally. Any opportunity should be seized to bring Asmara in from the cold. UN-imposed sanctions (imposed for support of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and other destabilising activities) should be kept under active review. The European Union (EU) and U.S. should work with others, such as Qatar and South Africa, that have better relations with Eritrea’s ruling elite and could facilitate constructive engagement. Member states of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should welcome Eritrea back and encourage normalisation of relations.

If, as many believe, formal diplomacy remains blocked, Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti should engage with exiled opposition parties (including armed ethnic fronts) to encourage proactive engagement with dissidents in Asmara, promote dialogue and agreement by them not to use  force that could lead to a protracted conflict and have repercussions for the entire region.

This report examines the regime’s vulnerabilities, maps out six possible scenarios for a post-Isaias Eritrea and identifies the main risks and opportunities the country and the region would face. Concerned Western partners, neighbours and governments with special relations with Asmara could play a vital role in preventing a major humanitarian crisis or even the state’s collapse.

Nairobi/Brussels, 28 March 2013