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Why Eritreans become refugees

By Mike McLoughlin.

After a thirty year struggle with the Ethiopian regime of Mengistu, Eritrea became independent. Following the collapse of the Ethiopian Dergue and all its administrative structures, all organizations were determined to avert a power vacuum. So the established Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s Provisional Front was immediately recognized by all Eritreans as the transitional government charged with producing a constitution in consultation with other political groupings and leading the country into democratic elections.

The new leader, Isaias Afeworki, opted to ignore the calls for a peaceful transitional period, and transformed the front into what he called the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). In so doing he imposed himself as the sole authority in the young Eritrea and has been president ever since. He unleashed a widespread campaign of terror and imprisonment with the aim of silencing all voices advocating democracy. In September 2001, when the world’s attention was focused on the September 11 terrorists in the USA he banned the press and imprisoned key leadership figures of the historical EPLF.

Under the rule of Afeworki in Eritrea now:

  • Freedom of speech is severely restricted & criticism of the Government is forbidden
  • Freedom of movement is restricted – permits are required to move outside the town where a person normally resides.
  • Any man can be called up for open ended military service with no end date to their military service.
  • Lower ranking members of the army are regularly used as virtual slave labour.
  • The economy is in a state of collapse.
  • Torture & arbitrary detention are routine.
  • Rated by UN in the same human rights category as North Korea.


Last year most Eritrean refugees were granted asylum ( 87% of Eritreans who applied) and given the right to stay here, indicating that they were genuine asylum seekers in need of refuge. Now our Government are attempting to re-define the majority of Eritrean refugees as economic migrants.

The Home Office guidance released in March suggests only those who have been politically active in their opposition to the Eritrean government are likely to be at risk of harm for leaving Eritrea illegally if they go back. It goes on to say that many migrants will be able to return without facing retribution if they sign an “apology” letter [to the Eritrean government] and start to retro-actively pay the 2% income tax levied on all Eritrean citizens living abroad”.

The US-based charity Human Rights Watch says: “Torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression remain routine in Eritrea.”

It is not possible that the Government does not know the situation in Eritrea so this change of approach is another example of its willingness to avoid  its duties under international law because of its fear of UKIP and its backwoods backbenchers.


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