A man fishes from his boat as a group of migrants gather on the seawall at the Saint Ludovic border crossing on the Mediterranean Sea between Vintimille, Italy and Menton, France, June 14, 2015.
A man fishes from his boat as a group of migrants gather on the seawall at the Saint Ludovic border crossing on the Mediterranean Sea between Vintimille, Italy and Menton, France, June 14, 2015. On Saturday, some 200 migrants, principally from Eritrea and Sudan who attempted to cross the border, were blocked by Italian police and French gendarmes.
Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Every month some 5,000 Eritreans defy the “shoot on sight” policy of their country’s border guards and escape on foot to neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritreans now make up the fourth largest group of asylum seekers in the European Union, and second largest group to arrive in Italy by boat after the Syrians. Unlike the Syrians, however, they are not fleeing civil war. Instead, they are escaping indefinite military service and repressive measures, such as forced labor and widespread imprisonment, that may, according to a recent UN inquiry, constitute crimes against humanity.


Eritrea’s descent into its current humanitarian crisis began with its 1993 independence. President Isaias Afwerki made a set of bad foreign policy choices that entangled the country in conflicts with each of its neighbors. Eritrea began a proxy war with Sudan in 1994, only one year after gaining independence. Two years later it instigated a war with Yemen by forcefully taking over the disputed Hanish Islands in the Red Sea. And as recently as 2008, it was engaged in border skirmishes with Djibouti that resulted in several dozen casualties. Of the many conflicts that Afwerki started, the most consequential was the border war with Ethiopia in 1998, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. The conflict also turned into a decade-long proxy war in Somalia, where Addis Ababa supported the internationally recognized transitional government in Mogadishu and Asmara backed various Islamist insurgent groups.

The government’s policy in Somalia and its conflicts with its neighbors also led to regional isolation. Eritrea suspended its membership in the Intergovernmental Agency on Development (IGAD), a regional organization, in 2007 and later applied to reinstate it, but has so far not been allowed to do so by IGAD. The African Union made an unprecedented call to the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Eritrea in 2009. Finally, in 2009 and 2011 the UN imposed financial sanctions, travel bans, and an arms embargo on the Eritrean government, due to its role in Somalia and refusal to withdraw its troops along the border with Djibouti. In all these instances, Afwerki refused either dialogue or compromise.

Eritrean soldiers march past displaced civilians, June 2, 2000. Fierce fighting between Eritrean and Ethiopian forces continues.

Eritrea’s once-competitive, rising industrial sector lost access to its biggest market, Ethiopia, after it went to war with its neighbor. Sanctions and isolation have discouraged the inflow of foreign direct investment and development assistance, as well as led to a drastic decrease in remittances. But what has damaged the Eritrean economy most is the ongoing political war economy, engineered by Afwerki, and in which labor and financial capital is concentrated in the hands of the ruling party and the military. They, in turn, use their state power to eliminate competition from the private sector. In 2006, for example, all private construction companies were given a sudden ten-day notice to shut down, leading to a state monopoly in the construction sector.

The wars also had disastrous effects at home. To wage them, Afwerki mandated military service. National military service, which was 18 months when initiated in 1995, has in practice, after the war with Ethiopia, been extended to an indefinite period. Although no official figures are available, it is estimated that some 250,000–300,000 Eritreans are mobilized in the Eritrean Defense Forces—making it one of the largest standing armies on the continent. And to further militarize the country, Afwerki, decided in 2012 to create a “people’s militia” by arming a large section of the civilian population and forcing even the elderly to bear arms.

As a result of the military service, Eritrea’s economy has been starved of young labor. Some five percent of the population—and an even larger share of the working age population—are serving the Eritrean Defense Force. Young men and women, whose time and energy could have been productively utilized in the country’s agricultural or industrial sectors, instead languish in military barracks. When conscripts are engaged in productive economic activity, it is as forced labor at state-owned companies. Although the exact extent of this practice is unknown, the UN considers it to be a widespread problem among the hundreds of thousands of conscripts. Those who have managed to escape report that they were barely paid enough to support themselves, let alone their families.

Migrants wait aboard a navy ship in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, March 4, 2015.
Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

Further, before the war with Ethiopia, Eritrea was pursuing a credible road map toward democratization. At that time, the president, as opposed to the absolute power he has come to wield, was a first among equals. But in the aftermath, Eritrea set itself on an ever-worsening path toward authoritarian rule. In 2001, 15 party veterans, including Eritrea’s first Defense Minister, Mesfin Hagos, penned an open letter criticizing Afwerki’s leadership and the stalled democratic process. The president’s response to the “G15”—as these officials have come to be known—was indefinite imprisonment without trial. He conveniently used the conflict with Ethiopia as an excuse to systematically eliminate future threats by requiring total unity, obedience, and a compulsory national military service for an indefinite period. The planned democratization process, including the making of a constitution and holding of elections, was also suspended on an indefinite basis.

As of now, Eritrea does not have an independent media, political opposition groups, or even a parliament. The election process for the first parliament began in 1998, but was postponed for an indefinite period due to the war. The transitional National Assembly, which was supposed to oversee the parliamentary elections, is still in place, but has not convened since 2002. Thus, there is no political avenue to change the system. The only two state bodies that could potentially challenge the president’s rule are the military and the one legal political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), both of which have been systematically kept in check by Afwerki. After the G15’s open letter, he empowered the military to balance against the PFDJ. He let the military leadership take on a dominant role in regional governance, the economy, and even permits illicit financial activities such as human trafficking. This strategy proved effective, as no challenge to the president’s many disastrous policies has since emerged from the party apparatus.


Afwerki, an authoritarian figure who has led the country since 1993, is in denial of the push factors driving the migration crisis. He blames that there is an international conspiracy against him and has said, “Eritrea has been the target of malicious and concerted practices of human trafficking.

A migrant from Eritrea simulates what she says is a torture technique by the Eritrean government, June 25, 2015.
Baz Ratner / Reuters

As previous efforts have shown, neither diplomatic nor developmental engagement is likely to persuade him to change his mind. And yet, in a bid to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, the EU is now contemplating whether to resume relations with Afwerki’s government. If it moves forward with its plan, it will provide an aid package of 200 million euros ($220 million). The rationale behind this policy, however, oversimplifies the push factors of this exodus. Many, if not most, of the refugees are not fleeing poverty but indefinite military service. And even for those seeking to flee poverty, the aid package will be no solace, as it will take a far more extensive developmental engagement as well as significant domestic reforms to fix the economy. The private sector is crushed by the entrapment of its productive labor force to the military, lack of foreign currency, and the absence of the most basic rule of law—all of which prevent its large diaspora population from investing in the country.

Afwerki’s behavior so far indicates that no form of diplomatic engagement is likely to convince him to change his modus operandi. Instead of putting Eritrea back on a meaningful development path that can stop the population flight, the EU’s aid package will not achieve much more than possibly propping up Afwerki’s regime for a little while longer. The minimum starting point for stopping the exodus is ending the indefinite military conscription policy. This, however, can only work if Afwerki ends his rivalries at home and abroad.

That is why, if the EU wants to resolve its refugee crisis, it must turn to Eritrea’s neighbors as an alternative strategy. The first step is to create incentives for the refugees to settle down in their first destinations after leaving their homeland—namely, Sudan and Ethiopia. More than 200,000 Eritreans now live in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. Discouraged by the prospects of a lifetime in these destitute camps, young people try to make their way to Europe through the deadly routes across the Sinai desert or the Mediterranean Sea, where they risk kidnapping, torture, and drowning. Migrants will often spend a few months or even years in these camps, before desperation pushes them onto this second and dangerous journey.

Although the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments do not have the financial means to provide the desired welfare arrangements for refugees, the governments can and should do more to integrate the refugees into their societies. This includes increasing access to educational opportunities and easing requirements for work permits and offering residence outside of the refugee camps. The EU should cooperate with these governments to create the legal and economical conditions that allow refugees to live, work, and study outside refugee camps. For example, the EU, should significantly increase its financial support for vocational training and expand its engagement to providing loans and grants for small and micro enterprises specifically targeting refugees. This is a viable way of integrating refugees into the societies and economies of the host countries in a way that allows them to lead dignified lives.

There is already a precedent for this in Addis Ababa, where some 20,000 refugees have in recent years attained study opportunities and work permits and settled down in the Ethiopian capital. Tight regulations and financial constraints have prevented the remaining 120,000 or so Eritreans in refugee camps from following suit. Failing to address these push factors will simply push young people in the tens of thousands to continue making the dangerous journey to Europe.

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  • GOITOM GEBRELUEL is a researcher at the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Cambridge.
  • More By Goitom Gebreluel