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A Visit to 'Africa's North Korea'

After Syrians, refugees from Eritrea have the best chance of gaining asylum in Germany. But are conditions in the isolated one-party state really so brutal?

François X. Klein

A man in Massawa, Eritrea walks in front of the ruined Banca d'Italia building, left as a relic of the war with Ethiopia.

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Thursday, 11/2/2017   09:39 AM

The woman smiles as she looks out the window, happy to be returning home. She is about to arrive in the Eritrean capital Asmara, a city in a valley surrounded by verdant mountains, having flown in from Frankfurt, with a stopover in Dubai. She is a middle-aged Eritrean woman who was granted political asylum in Germany, a woman who fled her country but is now returning voluntarily. She chooses to remain anonymous, because in Eritrea, illegally leaving the country is a jailable offense.

She is traveling to Eritrea as if she were a tourist. Everything proceeds normally as she passes through passport control, baggage claim and customs. She is planning to visit her family, and has brought along gifts and money for them, before boarding her return flight to Germany in two weeks. "Many are doing this," she says, getting into a taxi. But how is it possible that people can travel unobstructed back to their native country, one decried as an evil dictatorship and accused of brutally oppressing its citizens?

According to the government, 116,000 Eritrean refugees visited their native country last year alone. But can the figures of a regime that manipulates statistics be trusted? And what explains the visits by Eritrean expatriates? An aid worker from Finland provides an answer: The government tolerates the returnees because they bring foreign currency to the impoverished nation and are also a source of income in the form of the so-called "development tax." But those who pay it are still not always safe from the government's thugs. There have been numerous cases of Eritrean expatriates who have disappeared without a trace or ended up rotting away in secret prisons.

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In its most recent report, the United Nations Human Rights Council levels serious accusations against the regime in Asmara, including accusations of systematic persecution of citizens, torture, rape, executions and targeted killings. The UN agency's legal experts are also sharply critical of the country's tough "national service," with its indefinite conscription periods. They classify the military and civilian work conscription program as a "crime of enslavement." Thousands have left the country to avoid it.

Indeed, in some months it is thought that up to 5,000 young men and women flee the country. In late 2015, the UN Refugee Agency counted 474,296 refugees from Eritrea, or 10 percent of the country's population of 5 million. Some 92 percent of the Eritreans who applied for asylum in Germany in 2016 were recognized, while 81 percent were recognized in 2017. Syrian refugees were the only group with a higher acceptance rate.

Eritrean refugees base their asylum applications on human rights violations, which are sharply criticized by the United Nations. The UN report soberly concludes that the regime in Eritrea employs "totalitarian practices" that instill a constant state of fear in its citizens.

Oppression Is Often Invisible

At first glance, there is no evidence of this fear in Asmara. People go about their business in the city's markets, young women wearing jeans walk along the streets and men sit chatting in the cafes. But perhaps this impression of normality is misleading, because the visitor is dazzled by the beauty of this city and its palm-lined boulevards, its modernist architecture from the Italian colonial period and its Art Deco bars. After all, oppression is often invisible.

The government is in fact extremely reluctant to allow reporters into the country, journalists who could describe the true situation and who always write about Eritrea's miserable reputation as a country with a Stalinist system of injustice, an "African North Korea." Reporters Without Borders warns that Eritrea is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. But we see no evidence of that during our weeklong stay. There are no minders who monitor our every step, and there are no obvious spies.

The minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, receives us in a building complex high above the capital, one which also houses the national TV station, the radio station and the only news agency. This facilitates the work of the government's media watchdogs. Freedom of the press and free speech were abolished years ago.

"That's not true. Every Eritrean can surf the internet and has access to everything, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera," Gebremeskel protests. However, the transmission speed, which has been slowed down by the government to a mere 0.1 MBit per second, is tantamount to censorship. It takes up to 20 minutes to call up the SPIEGEL ONLINE homepage.

Gebremeskel, a gaunt, 65-year-old man, wears sneakers to work. Like most of his fellow cabinet members, who are all former liberation fighters, he doesn't like wearing a suit and tie. The minister starts talking about Sheila Keetharuth, a lawyer from Mauritius who co-authored the UN Human Rights Council's report, but he only calls her by her first name. "Oh, Sheila and her fairy tales. She's never even been to our country," he says with a note of contempt in his voice. He's right, because the government refuses to allow her to enter Eritrea.

François X. Klein

Eritrean exiles living in Europe often come home to visit their families and bring money.

The government's propaganda chief has a quick answer for every question, and he counters every statistic with his own figures. Five thousand refugees a month? "That's a fantasy number. It's no more than a few hundred." But why are they running away? "Because the EU grants asylum to anyone. That's the allure. But many simply want to work or study abroad. Migration is part of human nature, and it will always exist." Serious human rights violations? "There are violations here and there, as there are everywhere, but Sheila's completely exaggerated report is an insult to our country." The draconian military and work service conscription? "It may be a burden for some, but we need it to develop and defend our country."

A Better Future

His country must arm itself against powerful neighbor Ethiopia, which has attacked Eritrea several times, Gebremeskel explains. "Anyone who knows our history also understands the necessity of military service." It is the history of a 30-year war of liberation against Ethiopia, which ended in 1991. Eritrea gained its independence two years later, and with it came the hope of a peaceful and better future.

The power elite headed by charismatic President Isaias Afwerki sought to create an egalitarian commonwealth, a socialist nation that was to develop under its own steam and rejected international aid. But the next war with Ethiopia erupted near the end of the decade, lasting from 1998 to 2000, and it destroyed all of Afwerki's visions. The war, a border dispute over a barren piece of land, claimed about 100,000 lives and ruined the young nation's economy.

In 2009, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo against the government, accusing it of secretly supporting Islamist militias in Somalia. There is no proof of these allegations to this day.

Eritrea faces a very real threat from Ethiopia, which is heavily armed and wants to regain access to the Red Sea. The Eritrean government uses this threat to justify keeping its army of about 200,000 men and women in permanent operational readiness and militarizing society. In doing so, it is mutating into a Big Brother that seeks to constantly remind the people of the danger of the eternal aggressor.

Photos from the war of liberation hang in the corridors of the Information Ministry, while placards on public buildings depict heroic scenes from the war. A militaristic battle monument known as the tank cemetery was built on a hill overlooking the capital. It consists of neat piles of discarded weapons, captured troop carriers, artillery and tanks, most of them produced in the Soviet Union.

"Our lives are dominated by the military," says Graciano, an elderly man sitting in the Impero bar in downtown Asmara. An image of an Italian armored cruiser from the 1930s, when Mussolini's fascists ruled Eritrea, hangs above the bar. Graciano raves about the period, saying that everything was better back then. "Nowadays, young people have no work and are driven into the national service." Conscription was extended indefinitely to increase the population's resolution to defend the country and to monitor them at the same time. Starting at the age of 18, all men and women must perform this service in the army, on construction crews, in agriculture or in education. Many Eritreans have already been serving for more than 10 years. For them, "national service" is nothing but forced labor.

A Stubborn Autocrat

"It's no wonder that people are leaving," says Graciano. The 66-year-old makes ends meet by working as a money changer and wants to remain anonymous, as does almost everyone we meet in Eritrea. "You cannot speak freely here. If you do, you quickly disappear."

The people have not forgotten what happened to the G-15, a group of distinguished war veterans and party members who called for democratic reforms after the absurd border war with Ethiopia. To this day, Eritrea has no constitution, and the last time its citizens were allowed to vote was in the 1993 referendum on independence. The G-15 was silenced. Some managed to flee, but 11 of its members have been in prison since 2001, sharing the same fate as hundreds of regime opponents, the exact number of whom nobody knows.

After the "purges," many disappointed sympathizers in Eritrea and abroad turned away from the government in Asmara, accusing it of having betrayed its own ideals. Afwerki, 71, remains at the head of the one-party regime. He is a stubborn autocrat who still thinks like a liberation fighter, at least according to one of the few advisers with access to the president. Afwerki lives in a simple house, where he conducts experiments in breeding crop plants. He is, the adviser says, feared by his subordinates.

Apparently Afwerki only understands the language of violence. During his combat years, he would reportedly head-butt fellow fighters who disagreed with him. There are many indications that the president suffers from "Gorbachev syndrome," worried that his power structure will collapse if he tries to reform it. "There is also a generational conflict. Our country is ruled by old men. There are no ministers under 65," says a businessman. "These gerontocrats suffer from paranoia and desperately cling to their failed utopia."

Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries, a small agricultural nation on the Horn of Africa, isolated, at odds with its neighbors and lacking the support of its old allies. The regime only has good relations with China, Cuba and a few Arab countries, as well as with Canadian and Australian companies that mine mineral resources like potash, zinc and silver. The country's most important sources of hard currency are mining and the 2 percent "development tax" that overseas Eritreans must pay for their return remittances, amounting to about $1 billion a year.

'More Like Cuba'

The main problem is that the government knows nothing about modern economics, says the businessman. "It still emphasizes a state-controlled economy and suffocates all private initiative." But Eritrea has many young people with good ideas, and not everyone sees the military and work service as a burden.

So is the government oppression not so bad, after all? "No, it definitely is not," says a diplomat who has lived in Asmara for years. "Total control of the population? Enslavement? I must have missed something." In an internal analysis SPIEGEL has obtained, EU ambassadors accuse the UN Human Rights Council of drawing an "imbalanced picture" of the situation. For instance, they argue, the UN report's authors provide no proof of when, where and by whom crimes were committed.

The ambassadors are by no means downplaying the conditions in Eritrea. They are sharply critical of human rights violations, the lack of transparency and the rule of law, and the security forces' immunity from prosecution. Nevertheless, they say, most of the people who leave the country are not politically persecuted, but leave because of their poor economic outlook and to avoid the indefinite military service. According to the EU envoys, these push factors are augmented by a pull factor: the extensive protection granted to Eritreans who have made it to Europe.

Between the lines of this assessment is a recommendation that will infuriate human rights activists: The general practice of accepting Eritreans is in urgent need of review. Switzerland has led the way since mid-2016. The country no longer grants Eritreans asylum if they cite their illegal departure from Eritrea as their only reason for fleeing the country.

Germany's Federal Office of Migration and Refugees faces a dilemma. On what should it base its future decisions? The only thing that can be said with certainty is that no one can assess the actual situation in the country. The government is loosening the reins, but its security agencies are still operating in an extralegal vacuum. Members of the opposition are persecuted, abused and locked up.

"But North Korea? What nonsense," says old Graciano, sitting in the bar as he does every day. "We are more like Cuba."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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