The Observer view on Eritrea


Eritrea is poor, misgoverned, miserable and far away. Many people, if they are honest, are not entirely sure where it is. Such ignorance suits western governments, which have mostly turned a blind eye to its despotic regime, its subversive policies and its appalling, institutionalised human rights abuses. Only when evidence emerges that Eritrea’s one-party state leadership, from President down, has been gun-running into Somalia and South Sudan, supporting Islamist extremists, plotting bomb attacks in Addis Ababa or pursuing money-laundering and extortion does the take notice. But attention spans are short and nothing much is done.

Visitors to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, are kept under close surveillance, especially if they are foreign journalists – a rare occurrence, given the paranoid Afwerki’s abhorrence of free speech and free media. The influence of Italian colonists may still be seen in the dilapidated stone porticos of Asmara’s central market and the disused railway line running down to the Red Sea coast. But since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea under Afwerki, described by a former US ambassador as a “cruel, unhinged dictator”, has gone its own way – that is to say, .

Given this sorry history of oppression and neglect, it would not be surprising had last week’s damning gone unnoticed. It concluded the regime was responsible “for systematic, widespread and gross human-rights violations that … may constitute crimes against humanity”. Documented abuses included extra-judicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour. This in itself is not wholly new. What is newly important, for Britain and the EU, is how all this abominable repression has a direct bearing on critical events much closer to home.

“Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country,” the report said. “In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety ... To ascribe their decision to leave solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people. Eritreans are fleeing severein their country and are in need of international protection.”

This valuable principle – the absolute right, guaranteed in international law, of those fleeing persecution and torture to claim sanctuary and safe haven – is one the government and its European partners are in danger of forgetting. The UN says more than 100,000 people have already made the risky sea crossing from north Africa to Europe this year. A record 1,770 have perished so far, with estimates suggesting the death toll could reach 30,000 by year’s end. This torrent of people in desperate need of safety and succour is growing rapidly. Half-a-million would-be migrants are said to be waiting in Libya. And of those who have across, up to 25% are Eritreans, an extraordinarily disproportionate number, given the country’s overall population of about 6 million.

Syrian refugees form another large percentage of those fleeing to Europe. Like the Eritreans, their motivation is not primarily economic, and certainly not the dubious appeal of Iain Duncan Smith’s paltry welfare benefits. They are fleeing, perforce, the most awful conditions imaginable: a vicious, endless civil war that sees schools targeted with barrel bombs, communities assaulted with chemical weapons, and whole cities destroyed in a conflict between lawless jihadi fanatics and regime forces fighting for survival. This is a crisis the western powers have singularly .

It would be intriguing, hypothetically speaking, to listen to the home secretary, Theresa May, explaining the “pull factor” to these unfortunates as they drag themselves, half-starved and half-drowned, up the beaches of Italy and Greece. What May and many others among Europe’s political elites do not understand is that these people are not making a voluntary career or lifestyle choice in heading for . In most cases, they have no alternative. They are not so much being “pulled” as being inexorably pushed.

As we have argued previously , we as a country and as a European community have a duty, legal and moral, to help them. To deny it is to risk going down the path of Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s cynically brutish “Pacific solution”, which is self-evidently at all. The EU’s recent decision to expand Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations is welcome. But it is not enough. Other European countries must do more to assist the Royal Navy and the Italians in their commendable work. The EU’s failure to agree a migrant resettlement plan is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the current patchwork of often contradictory national regulations needs .

The politicians’ continuing emphasis on tackling traffickers and smuggling gangs, rather than the root causes of chronic insecurity, oppression and abuse in countries such as Syria, Somalia and , is shaming. Much of what is happening now reflects the impact of decades of self-serving western policy in the Middle East and Africa, whether it be the fallout from the Iraq and Libya interventions, the depredations of climate change or the imposition on postcolonial developing countries of trade, aid and investment rules favouring richer nations and multinational corporations.

There is no easy way to handle this mass movement of people. But there are practical measures that can be implemented, including expanded legal channels in host countries (or their neighbours) for the orderly processing of would-be migrants. Other EU members should join Britain in maintaining an .

Resulting increased assistance could be used to strengthen developing economies and safeguard key indigenous industries. The World Bank and IMF should take a fresh look at how best to encourage good governance, job creation and improved living standards for emerging generations of young workers. In Syria, Somalia and Libya, the western powers must engage much more urgently in conflict resolution. A shift in Europe’s outlook is required. By changing the way it thinks, views and acts towards its less fortunate southern neighbours, it can begin to help create the conditions in which their inhabitants are