On Eritrea's national day, little to celebrate

[Green Left Weekly, #879, May 18, 2011]

On May 24 Eritreans around the world will mark the country's national day. After an epic three-decades-long liberation struggle, in 1991 the liberation forces wrested control of their capital, Asmara, from the occupying Ethiopian army. Two years later a new, independent Eritrea was formally established.

But the following years have proved a bitter disappointment for the people of this small (population five million), former Italian colony on the Red Sea. In a development reminiscent of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, the fruits of victory were appropriated by a power-hungry clique around the dictator, Isaias Afewerki.

Police state

Eritrea today is a police state. Since independence in 1993, only the ruling party has been permitted to operate and no national elections have ever been held. There is no independent media and human rights violations by the regime's security forces are severe and widespread. All Eritreans between the ages of 18 and 50 are liable to indefinite forced labour with no compensation.

As a result of these harsh and often unbearable conditions thousands of Eritreans have fled abroad.

According to the 2006 census, there were 2020 Eritrea-born people in Australia, more than half in Victoria. But some estimates put the total number of Eritreans in Australia at around 5000 (presumably including people born in refugee camps abroad plus those born in Australia to Eritrean parents).

Life in Australia for non-white immigrants is often very hard. In a context of deepening government-driven austerity, they have to deal with widespread racism and discrimination and a general lack of understanding of their situation.

Tragedy in Libya

Many Eritrean refugees live in camps in neighbouring Sudan. Others end up in other north African countries like Egypt and Libya, whether looking for work or seeking transit to Europe.

The popular uprisings in the Arab world have rightly inspired people in the region (including in Eritrea) and internationally. But for those Eritreans living in Libya the turmoil has ushered in a period of great fear and uncertainty. The fact that Gaddafi's mercenary army has included fighters from Eritrea hasn't made their lives any easier.

Many have attempted to flee to Italy, often with tragic consequences. An April 6 online article by Jerome Taylor in the British Independent newspaper highlighted the extreme risks associated with such journeys.

Father Mussie Zerai, a Catholic cleric based in Rome, told The Independent today that his contacts in Tripoli have seen five bodies in a hospital that were recently washed back onto the Libyan coast. They are thought to be part of a group of approximately 335 predominantly Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who left Tajura [Tripoli] on March 22 and have not been heard from since . . .

'There are five bodies in total, two women, two boys and an Egyptian who we believe was the boat's captain,' Father Zerai said. 'Their bodies have gunshot wounds in them. Somebody shot them after they left Libya.'

It is not clear who may have murdered the migrants . . .

Furthermore, he continues:

Italian coastguard vessels were scrambled in the early hours of this morning to intercept a boat which capsized in rough weather just 40 miles from from [the Italian island of] Lampedusa. The vessel was thought to be carrying up to 350 Eritrean, Somalian and Sudanese refugees and set sail from Libya two days ago. By lunchtime rescuers had been able to pluck just 48 people alive from the water.

In the Eritrean diaspora opposition forces are organising. Whatever its ups and downs, the upsurge in North Africa and the Middle East has already had an impact in other parts of Africa. We can only hope that in Eritrea too the Afewerki dictatorship finds its day of reckoning closer than it thinks.