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Why do Eritrean’s risk their lives to flee their country?

Report by Mike McLoughlin.

On the 6th April Sutton for Peace & Justice invited a settled Eritrean refugee Fessahaye Gebregiorgis, know as George, to speak about the present situation in Eritrea and why so many young people risk their lives by trying to escape the country. He brought an Eritrean friend, Gabriel, who has worked in the Ethiopian refugee camps for “Save the Children” and also contributed to the discussion.

George started by saying he was very grateful to the UK for twice accepting him as a refugee, first when Eritrea was invaded by Ethiopia and then after the present president tore up the independence constitution and became a dictator controlling every aspect of Eritrean life and ridding himself of his previous co-fighters.

After 30 years of war for independence, Isaias Afwerki became the first president of Eritrea, and has held that position ever since its independence in 1993. In 1994 he got rid of the UN peacekeeping force on the Eritrea/Ethiopia border and in 1998 declared war on and invaded Ethiopia. Then using this as an excuse, he declared a state of emergency, suspending the constitution, imposing military rule and arresting his deputy and some cabinet members. None have been seen since and they are all believed to be dead. Afwerki has removed all possibility of a challenge to his regime of fear and divide-and-rule, and dictates everything concerning life in Eritrea.

In Eritrea there is no freedom of speech, no right to assemble, religious freedom is restricted and young people are conscripted into indefinite military service, many being used as, in effect, slave labour. In a country which now has a population under 4 million there are 300 prisons in which no visitors are allowed and if a prisoner dies no-one is informed. If a person is arrested their family realise it is the end for them.

In view of all this it is not surprising that there are 150,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and many more in Sudan, despite the Eritrean army’s shoot to kill policy at the border.

Gold is mined there but as there is no official budget no one knows how much revenue is generated or how it is spent, except that some of it goes to the president’s supporters. The Country is rich in other minerals and there has been a recent discovery of significant amounts of potash. The UK wants to do business with the regime and is particularly interested in the potash.

The UK Government refuses to acknowledge the real situation in Eritrea and has adopted a harsh policy towards Eritrean asylum seekers, even giving as an excuse that the Eritrean government encourages its young people to try to get to Europe in order to benefit from money sent back to their families. As a result, many young Eritreans in this country, who are allowed to remain but not allowed to work and have no access to government funds, are despairing; their mental health is deteriorating and the suicide rate is rising.

The true situation in Eritrea is verified by  the UN Human Rights Commission report, the second part of which was presented in June 2016, and the Human Rights Watch Report of June 2015 – both available on the internet. There are also many videos featuring Eritrean refugees on YouTube which show the conditions there and their escape journeys, two of which were shown at the meeting.


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.

Films you might like to see

‘Long Walk To Freedom’, the 2013 film of Nelson Mandela’s story from freedom fighter, to political prisoner to President.

Being shown at Carshalton Methodist Church, Ruskin Road, Carshalton, SM5 3DE.

On Saturday 27 September, at 3pm and at 7.30 pm.

Doors open half hour before show. Admission free, donations appreciated.

See www.carshalton-methodist.org.uk


Also on the same day…

‘Within the Eye of the Storm’,  an award-winning 2012 documentary film telling the parallel stories of Palestinian and Israeli fathers who both suffered the pain of bereavement when their daughters were killed in the conflict but who are working together to prevent the vicious cycle of retaliation.

Being screened by Universal Peace Federation at Haslemere Hall, Haslemere Road,  Thornton Heath CR7 7BE.

On Saturday 27 September, 2.30 to 5.30pm.

Reserve places by telephone to 020 8665 1005 or email to upf.southlondon@gmail.com

Within Eye of storm


Celebrating seed diversity and sovereignty

On 26 September Sutton for Peace and Justice is screening the film ‘Cotton for my shroud’ to highlight the issue of ‘seed sovereignty’ and the plight of farmers when big corporations take control over the seeds on which they depend.

On a similar theme, on 11 to 12 October, The Great Seed Festival will bring together farmers, growers, environmentalists, chefs, activists, gardeners, allotmenteers, artists, musicians and everybody in-between to celebrate the magic of seed, bring to light the importance of seed diversity and rekindle the connection between seed and food.

And for a related story about seed sovereignty and farmers in Africa, see this World Development Movement article.


Minerals in your phone

The extraction and trade in minerals used in the manufacture of hi tech gadgets such as mobile phones often fuel conflict and violence. Conflict minerals are at the heart of a long and deadly conflict in the Congo – the subject of a previous post and S4P&J members’ meeting.

Following that meeting, on behalf of S4P&J, Lance Gardiner wrote to candidates in the European El4ection to raise the issue and seek their views. The attached paper gives a selection of the responses received.

Mandela – icon for peace and justice

It is with great sadness that we learnt of the death of Nelson Mandela, at his home in Johannesburg last night (5 December) at the age of 95.

Mandela was and will remain an inspiration to all who strive for equality, peace and justice.

After 27 years in prison, he became the first President of a democratic South Africa, breaking down barriers between communities and promoting reconciliation, and leading a peaceful transition to unite a country previously violently divided by apartheid.

In Mandela’s own words, at his trial in 1964:

‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Minerals fuel violence in Congo


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest country in sub saharan Africa, with a population of around 75 million.

The country has suffered from exploitation and conflict since the 1870s – first as the private  fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium and the as a belgian colony; independence in 1960 was followed by internal conflict aggravated by foreign interference and the assassination of the elected Prime Minister. Dictator Mobuto took power in a coup in 1965 and later renamed the country Zaire; propped up by the US and other western powers ostensibly as a bulwark against communism, he presided over human rights abuses and endemic corruption.

In the First Congo War, 1996-97, Hutu militia that had fled Rwanda following the civil war and genocide joined forces with Zairan armed forces fought against ethnic Tutsis and Rwandan and Ugandan forces in eastern Zaire; Mobuto was overthrown and the country renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1998 factionalised rebel movements supported by numerous foreign countries started the Second Congo War; which ended in 2003 following UN intervention and a peace accord.

The violence and conflict has continued, with armed rebellions and fighting between former rebel factions and ethnic groups. Neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda, arm rebel groups and use them to gain control of mineral resources. Killing of civilians, destruction of property and rape as a weapon are widespread.  The death toll is estimated at anywhere between 1 and 6 million – mostly due to disease and famine as a result of conflict and displacement.


The violence is fuelled by the battle for control of Congo’s valuable mineral deposits.

Armed groups are present at more than half of mining sites, often affiliated with rebel groups or with the Congolese National Army – both use rape and violence to control the local population. At many sites, armed groups illegally tax, extort, and coerce civilians to work. Miners, including children, work up to 48-hour shifts amidst mudslides and tunnel collapses that kill many.

The minerals are smuggled through neighbouring countries such as Rwanda or Burundi, passing through the hands of numerous middlemen to East Asian processing plants before entering the manufacturing process of many everyday products.

The UK and other western governments support ‘strong man’ leaders in Rwanda and Uganda who are implicated in perpetuating the violence in the Congo. And UK companies are at least indirectly involved in the use of conflict minerals.

In the US, the conflict Minerals Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Law recently came into effect, requiring companies who use key minerals from Congo to disclose their sources and the measures they are taking to ensure that the minerals purchased do not fuel conflict.

Conflict minerals, as defined in these regulations are:

  • Tantalum –from the metal ore coltan, used in production of high-performance capacitors, components in hearing aids and pacemakers, airbags, GPS, ignition and anti-lock braking systems, laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, digital cameras.
  • Tin – tin cans, soldering for circuit boards, PVC manufacture.
  • Tungsten (4%) – a very dense metal used in golf clubs, metalworking tools, drill bits, vibration mechanism of mobile phones.
  • Gold – jewellery, dentistry, electronics.

Often called ‘TTTG’ or ‘the 3Ts + gold’.

The effects of the US regulations are mixed. As well as raising the profile of the issue, there is some evidence of improvements as more mines became subject to oversight and conflict-free certification status. But there has been an increase of smuggling caused by DRC President suspending artisanal mining, and a drop in demand has harmed the local economy and pushed people into armed groups instead of mining.

A coalition of 59 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is calling for the EU to build on momentum generated by initiatives like the Dodd-Frank Act’s conflict minerals provision and pass a strong law to prevent European businesses fuelling conflict and human rights abuses through their purchases of natural resources, such as tin, gold and diamonds. Draft legislation is due to be published by the European Commission by the end of 2013.

But Initiatives to solve the issue of conflict minerals will be insufficient on their own to bring peace to the region.

Further reading:

Report on the Dod-Frank Act

Report on the effectiveness of the measures

Global Witness report on new EU Law on Supply of Conflict Minerals

UPF report on conflict minerals on the Congo

Report on the ‘Fairphone’ ethical Smartphone launched 20 Sept 2013.

(Reporting by Mike Cooper and Lance Gardiner)