In the first article in our series reviewing Eritrean affairs in 2015 we covered seminal developments within the Eritrean migration situation that have led to national governments around the world burdened with asylum-seekers to radically reassess their previously misguided policies towards Eritrea. Focused on providing perspective, this current piece will shift some attention to the changing geopolitical context to answer questions as to why the now-defunct, politicized, pro-migration policies existed in the first place; how new, responsive policies towards Eritrea will inevitably change the situation in Eritrea.
Witnessing the aimless stroll of frizzy-haired youth down palm-lined boulevards during siesta may have given Asmara’s 2015 visitors the false impression of a nation at peace. Despite the tranquility, let us be clear about one thing: Eritrea is at war. Let us not relegate it to a border “dispute” or the oft confusing “no-peace-no-war” situation, politicized descriptions forwarded by newspapers and governments.
Thus, Eritrea is at war.
More specifically, it is in a proxy “war of attrition” (i.e. one until the death) against the US-backed, minority ethnic regime in Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF), that bet every single one of its chips on Eritrean regime change during its 1998-2000 military campaign; that has yet been unable to accept the loss of the disputed border town of Badme decided by “final and binding” international arbitration in 2002, much less the official demarcation of the border by that same arbitrating body in 2008. With demarcation, there no longer exists, under international arbitration, a “border dispute” but only the TPLF-led military “occupation” of Eritrean territories in an ongoing war of attrition.
In 2015, we saw an ongoing stalemate in the war of attrition. An ideal situation for the US-TPLF axis that has adopted a geopolitical isolation strategy of prolonged and never-ending war that, according to a leaked US embassy cable sent by CDA Vicki Huddleston from Addis Ababa on November 1, 2005, seeks “to isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” The operator word here is “wait”.
Following now disproven US allegations of state-sponsored terrorism, which provided the pretext for Eritrea’s sanctioning by the UN in 2009 to accelerate isolation and regime change, the Barack Obama-led US and Gordon Brown-led UK, both liberal regimes, turned to a “nonviolent action” strategy, as espoused by Gene Sharp, that sought regime change by raising a youthful mob of mass public discontent and indignation through championing human rights advocacy.
Further delineating this strategy in a speech delivered in Washington, DC on May 2013, now in the official public record, US regime-change activist Dan Connell told purportedly “Eritrean” activists to “make regime change more possible” by campaigning for an “end to unlimited conscription into national service” and “focusing our attention on the trafficking issue and always linking it to the source of the refugee flows. This trafficking issue is a consequence of the situation inside Eritrea. No other issue is likely to generate attention and support from the American public.”
Helping to create and exacerbate politicized trafficking of Eritreans, US Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen, writing in a May 5, 2009 US Embassy cable from Asmara, confessed, “we intend to give opportunities to study in the United States to those who oppose the regime.” By 2011, a UN group charged with monitoring the Eritrean sanctions began making allegations of state-sponsored human trafficking in 2011 rather than sticking to its limited mandate of investigating alleged terrorism.
That same year, UNHCR published its updated Eligibility Guidelines on Eritrean asylum-seekers, allowing Eritreans virtually guaranteed asylum in any nation in the world, assuming that one was (1) bold enough to brave the deadly risks required to get there and (2) willing to testify to human rights abuses in Eritrea that are harrowing enough to win favor with asylum officers.
These vulnerable migrants and their tales of persecution in national service, often recited from and coached by the detailed step-by-step criteria in the Guidelines, a “How To” guide that tells them exactly what to say and how to say it, are then anonymously exploited by regime-change-seeking human rights activists for building a human rights case against the Eritrean government.
As other pieces in our series highlight, this is exactly what we saw with the June reports of “special mandate holders” that were extra-procedurally commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. These include the Commission of Inquiry (COI) and Special Rapporteur, which based virtually all their anonymous testimonies on vulnerable migrants often willing to say anything to gain asylum.
These reports, with their hyperbolic allegations of “crimes against humanity”, are intended further isolate Eritrea, which in turn slows economic development and deteriorates living conditions in Eritrea, which in turn drives more public indignation and more migration in a never ending cycle.
Thus, in summary, the overall US-TPLF geopolitical strategy against Eritrea is this:
To support Eritrean human rights activism that campaigns around migration and human trafficking, inextricably linked to national service, such that Eritrean leadership will become isolated, domestically and internationally, allowing for Eritrea’s eventual economic collapse, toppling of the government and, ultimately, victory in the protracted war of attrition.
Without the stream of migration requiring asylum-seekers to badmouth national service, the anonymous testimonies buttressing politicized human rights reports, derived almost entirely from asylum-seekers, would not be possible. Eritrea’s enemies would also be much less likely to isolate Eritrea since, recalling Dan Connell’s warning, “No other issue is likely to generate attention and support from the American public”. Activists have raised, to no avail, the issue of the 2% Recovery and Rehabilitation Tax, calling it “extortion” despite the fact the United States levies the exact same tax under a different name.
Thus, with cautious optimism moving forward, it must be understood that the Eritrean state and people’s recent defeat of pro-migration, “strategic depopulation” policies, which have syphoned off Eritrea’s most economically productive demographic, ushers among the most decisive victories in the seventeen-year war against Eritrea.
It is through this geopolitical lens that we must view the UK Home Office’s April 2015 country guidance report on Eritrean asylum-seekers. UNHCR’s asylum criteria and final conclusions outlined in its 2009 and 2011 Guidelines were based in large part on references to the Home Office’s country guidance that wholly and intrinsically deemed national service persecution (i.e. “in itself”). Therefore, what happens to the Guidelines when the UK’s country guidance changes?
By explicitly declaring that national service “does not, in itself, constitute persecution”, the UK Home Office fundamentally challenged UNHCR’s prima facie designation, which automatically grants asylum to Eritreans en masse rather than on a case-by-case basis. This is not to say that persecution does not exist but rather that one cannot automatically assume that every Eritrean is necessarily persecuted by the Eritrean “State and its agents.”
Consequently, such a profound shift in UK country guidance, which is the foundation upon which UNHCR guidance rests, must similarly trigger an equally profound shift in UNHCR guidance on Eritrean asylum seekers. Will new Guidelines be passed in the coming years? Only time will tell. In any case, we must keep in mind that country guidance, like multilateral sanctions, only work when nations abide by them. Europe doesn’t seem to be abiding.
It is for this reason that human rights activists and the pseudo-leftist/pseudo-radical press in the UK fought tooth-and-nail in 2015 to reverse the Home Office’s seminal decision and used the COI’s June report to put pressure on any state officials seeking to curb Eritrean migration.
No newspaper in 2015 has been more up this task, vitriolic, unabashedly biased, intensely propagandistic than the Guardian. Perhaps its June 10 editorial, published in the days following the COI report, brandishing the headline “The Guardian view on Eritrea: a regime of terror”, best highlights the Guardian’s official position on Eritrean migration vis-a-vis human rights.
Using over-the-top, gloom-and-doom characterizations we were told that Eritrea, slated for €300 million in European aid, suffered from “systematic inhumanity”, a “dictatorial system”, “a totalitarian state” and “real terror”. The editor lamented that Europe was not only “turning a blind eye to tyranny” but was “rewarding a regime with aid instead of thinking strategically”.
The histrionic prose and alarmist title, depicting impending and certain doom in the wake of European aid disbursed to Eritrea, suggests an emerging desperation from the pseudo-leftist newspaper and the motley crew of regime-change activists it represents.
Since the Danish Immigration Service and Home Office publications issued in December and April, respectively, the Guardian has led a barrage of regular and unrelenting sensational pieces on Eritrea, seeking to stir up the UK’s liberal base to pressure their politicians for Eritrea-policy reform.
The newspaper’s constellation of checkered writers covering Eritrea in 2015 can hardly call themselves journalists as they proved themselves, more accurately, to be full-blown activists. Such is the case with Dan Connell, Martin Plaut and Vittorio Longhi, who all dished out more opinion than fact in the non-opinion pages this past year.
Though the Home Office later momentarily considered changing its guidance in the wake of the COI’s June report championed by the UK media, academics and Baroness Kinnock, we saw no change but rather superficial deliberations for public consumption. Sources in contact with the UK immigration agency indicate that little change is likely given that their offices are currently overburdened with cases of false Eritrean asylum claims running upwards of 50 percent, most of which are Ethiopian.
If there remained any outstanding doubts behind claims in early 2015 of rampant asylum fraud, a blitz of new credible, corroborating reports surely put all qualms to rest by year’s end. In a November interview with APA, Austrian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Andreas Melan, stated, “We believe that among the thousands of Eritrean migrants in Europe, 30 to 40 percent are Ethiopians.”
Perhaps more shocking, was the November 25th revelation, in a piece by Sudan Daily Vision citing a high level Sudanese police official, “that the number of foreigners residing in violation of the law in Khartoum state has reached three million. Two million are from the neighboring Ethiopia…200,000 from Eritrea.”
Thus, Ethiopians make up 67 percent of all illegal migrants in Sudan, Eritreans only 7 percent—a “drop in the ocean”, as Presidential Advisor Yemane Gebreab told the UK’s Channel 4 host John Snow in July.
By citing inflated numbers and unverifiable testimonies, the Eritrean migration situation has been made to look totally exceptional and in need of exceptional action (i.e. regime change) by those seeking to change the geopolitical order in the Horn of Africa. The key words here are “made to look”. Exceptional Eritrean migration is now a vanishing illusion.
Though Eritrea is certainly racked by real migration, negatively affecting economic, social and political development, nations equally burdened by migration are starting to look beyond misleading geopolitical campaigns to find mutually beneficial solutions to Eritrean migration. We saw these efforts redouble and accelerate in 2015, building on the Khartoum Process and leading to Eritrea joining the International Migration Organization, which inevitably will give it greater sway on Eritrean migration issues.
With a growing consensus that Eritrea’s lack of economic development is the primary cause of migration, states have chosen to assist and grow economic engagement with Eritrea.
The irony of the isolation strategy against Eritrea is that it has had the unintended consequence of inextricably binding Eritrea to many desperate “third nations” burdened by migration. All third nations, even America, have their immigration limits as we learned with the case of Elian Gonzalez.
Migration burden is only part of the story. Much of Eritrea’s growing ties—escaping isolation—also come from a diplomatic blitzkrieg by Eritrea in recent years, growing significantly through 2015. We look further into this reality in subsequent articles in this series.