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When Worn Out (African) Arguments are Repackaged for Mainstream Consumption

When African Arguments, a publication by the African Royal Society (which supposedly is into promoting Africa), carries an article on Eritrea, you can pretty much guess the content from just reading the click-bait title.

In one article after another, especially those published after the signing of the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July 2018, the publication has stayed true to its old ways, churning out doom and gloom “analyses” with so-called “experts” tripping over each other to paint a bleak picture inside Eritrea so far removed from reality and full to the brim of regurgitated attacks on the people and Government of Eritrea that any serious reader cannot help but move on after just the first few lines.

You really would be hard pressed to find one single African Arguments article on Eritrea that actually adds anything of substance in terms of nation-building, development, trade, sustainable peace, or any other area that would benefit from serious debate and scholarship and which would fit with the Promoting Africa tagline of the African Royal Society. In fact, a quick search of the site returns more than two dozen articles dating back to 2011 with a clear condescending slant against the people and Government of Eritrea.

What is more is that these supposed experts seem to always be ranting out of personal vendettas or frustration (seemingly caused by inflated egos combined with a sense of entitlement to speak on behalf of Africans in their typical patronizing ways) rather than real insight or nuanced perspectives in their areas of “expertise”. Their work usually goes in circles, quoting biased outfits (the favorites being HRW and ICG) for affirmation of “facts”. Each author then adds one or two new vacuous lines that pass for “knowledge” and gets a stamp of approval with no one demanding accountability for sources.

Invariably, this is how “content” on Eritrea has been generated for mainstream consumption and policy formulation over the past two decades. Unfortunately, prejudiced corporate publications, like African Arguments, seem hell-bent on continuing the trend – even as the people of this region, especially Eritreans, have been increasingly vocal in their rejection of such patronizing and condescending approaches.

The latest African Arguments piece, published on 15 January and authored by Michael Emile Kynaston Jones, a Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a British defence and security think tank, is really no different.

The article rehashes tired arguments about Eritrean migration and is peppered with irresponsible guesswork of trends and causes, throwing in numbers and names for special effects, and presumably answering a non-starter question about “why are Eritreans still fleeing…?”

Jones makes no qualms quoting reports that rely on the now debunked COI report and refuted UNHCR numbers, and he tries to present his work as ground-breaking in its “discovery” that the Sudan is the preferred route out of Eritrea. The author brazenly argues that Eritreans do not trust the peace process with Ethiopia and hence are avoiding the newly opened borders to the south.

Jones makes no effort to include the ample evidence and material produced over the past decade that has proven beyond any doubt that the topic of Eritrean migration has been highly biased and politicized leading to much confusion on the issue.

The strategy to weaken Eritrea’s defensive and human resources capabilities – of which trafficking in humans was a major component – goes back to the early 2000s. The push factor of “harsh” conditions inside Eritrea misses the point by a mile and one cannot be a serious contributor to the debate if one does not reference TPLF’s calculated hostility, its manoeuvring inside regional bodies, and its refusal to abide by a final and binding decision for close to two decades. Furthermore, preferential treatment of Eritrean asylum seekers designed to drain Eritrea of its most important resource, along with sanctions based on cooked evidence of support for terrorism, and an intrusive and biased UNHCR stand against the country’s Government and people has greatly tainted the debate on migration.

If Jones was serious about understanding the issue of human trafficking and migration, let alone postulating on why the Sudan is a supposedly preferred route, he would have at least included a more balanced conversation that explored the issue from all angles. Even the most basic Google search on Eritrean migration would bring up a much-publicized, evidence-based, 2014 report by Denmark’s Immigration Service that has poked major holes in the numbers presented by UNHCR and ARRA, an organization itself involved in fabricating documents on behalf of Ethiopians from the Tigrai region and registering them as Eritreans so as to gain automatic asylum in their destination countries.

Moreover, Jones overlooks the fact that the Government of Eritrea has long been committed to address migration, via a multidimensional response. As well, the attempt to tie smuggling and trafficking to elements of the military and government overlooks the ample publically available evidence that, in fact, Eritrea has long been “very keen” to eliminate human smuggling and trafficking.

A few lines into the article, Jones claims that: “Concrete data is difficult to access regarding irregular migration, but in-country sources suggest that the streams of people entering Sudan remained relatively consistent since the border opening.”

After reading that line alone, would we be wrong to dismiss the whole piece as nothing more than an immature conjecture that tries very hard to breathe life back into the all but dead “migration crisis” narrative? Can this “research analyst” be taken seriously if he makes no attempt to place the whole migration and human trafficking discussion in the context of the TPLF’s 20-year-long calculated strategy to isolate and weaken Eritrea by luring its best and brightest into the jaws of traffickers and death? Can anyone really discuss Eritrean migration without dissecting the politicized narrative surrounding the topic and without mentioning the devastating role of the TPLF’s military, ARRA, UNHCR, and other elements, since the early 2000s?

Without needing to devolve into “conspiracy” theories, a lot of evidence exists, including via Wikileaks and several other sources, suggesting that the ARRA and the Ethiopian state were intricately involved in the smuggling and trafficking of Eritreans, saw the refugee industry as a “cash cow”, and had long been using “humanitarian operations” as a cover to establish and train Eritrean opposition.

One of the main issues with the article is that it completely fails to account for the fundamental fact that migration is a global, regional, and historical phenomenon, rather than strictly an Eritrean issue. Migration impacts a large number of countries throughout the continent, and the Horn of Africa, in particular. For example, according to an article by Leon Goldberg and the International Organization for Migration, nearly 150,000 migrants – over 90% from Ethiopia – arrived in war torn Yemen in 2018. This is despite ongoing conflict, a cholera outbreak and near famine conditions in much of the country. Remarkably, the number of migrants that arrived in Yemen before the end of 2018 far exceeds the number of irregular migrants who arrived in Europe in 2018, which is about 134,000. Furthermore, although the number of migrants to Europe sharply declined between 2017 and 2018, the number of migrants to Yemen increased by 50% compared to 2017.

It is also important to keep in mind that these figures are not some anomaly or only a recently breaking development; in fact, they are only a small part of a longstanding trend. Over the past several years, for instance, there have been reports, albeit a few, noting how tens of thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa, again mainly Ethiopia and Somalia, had been deported from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. However, this phenomenon, which has involved a far greater number of migrants than the phenomenon discussed in African Arguments and other outlets has been completed ignored. Why?

Effectively, just like every other article published on African Arguments, this latest piece is found wanting. It keeps up with the nauseating trend of regurgitated half-truths and is replete with the usual worn out distortions that say more about the state of lazy, yellow journalism and scholarship and less about any topic at hand.

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