'Eritreans have no choice but to leave their country'

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'Eritreans have no choice but to leave their country'
Eritreans have no other choice but to leave their country. Photo: David Stanley/Flickr

When tragedy struck off Italy's coast last week, it was a Paris-based radio station that broke the news to Eritrea, home to a majority of the 300-plus men, women and children feared dead in the shipwreck.


State media in the tiny Horn of Africa nation made no mention of the Eritrean nationals who perished last Thursday near the southern island of
Lampedusa. Their boat caught fire in the worst recent migrant disaster in the Mediterranean.

That came as no surprise from a country where former rebel leader turned president Issaias Afeworki has ruled with an iron fist for two decades,
prompting a steady exodus of refugees.

The country ranked last below North Korea in a global survey on press freedom by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to the
United Nations, about 3,000 people flee Eritrea every month.

But for staffers at Radio Erena, an independent radio station set up in 2009 with backing from RSF, covering the tragedy was "almost a personal mission," said its chief Biniam Simon.

In a country of just five million people, he said, "the loss of 200 to 300 lives could potentially affect anybody: the victims could be your neighbour,
your colleague."

Biniam said the radio station, which ran survivor accounts after the shipwreck, caused a "wave of gloom in Asmara," the Eritrean capital.

The broadcaster was scathing of the manner in which the shipwreck, which has only left 155 survivors, was covered by both Eritrean and Western media.

He suggested the Eritrean media's "shameful coverage" was due to the fact emigres are viewed as traitors by the government.

"They spoke of 'immigrants from Eastern Africa who were illegally crossing the sea' without saying where they came from," Biniam said.

"It was just to discourage others aspiring to leave," added the former Eritrean state television presenter, who decided not to return to his country after a work visit to Japan in 2006.

Despite the silence in the state-run media, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed has offered his condolences to the families of the victims, although he did so from New York.

Mass conscription and forced labour

Biniam charged that Western media outfits had been "improper" in their reporting.

"They speak of illegal immigrants but the Eritreans are asylum-seekers who have no other choice but to leave their country," he said.

Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, has consistently raised fears domestically that Addis Ababa is scheming to re-take the country.

This has allowed the government to conscript most adults into the army or force them to perform compulsory labour.

Mass national service, introduced in 2004, can last decades and military police prowl the streets to round up those shirking service.

"Young men and women are sent to work on big national construction sites with almost no pay and this can last up to age 40 or 50, unless they become invalid before then," said journalist Leonard Vincent, the author of a book on Eritrea.

Thousands have fled to neighbouring Sudan or Ethiopia despite a reported shoot-to-kill policy by border patrols, with families of those left behind risking being punished by crippling fines or imprisonment.

To make things worse, the economy has stagnated and rumours have grown of Issaias's heavy drinking, furious temper and shouting fits at cowed officials.

Although nominally under civilian rule, Eritrea under Issaias has been carved up into zones of control by army generals, who run a flourishing networks of corrupt businesses and cream off lucrative profits.

The Lampedusa tragedy has sparked shock across Europe and highlighted the European Union's flawed asylum policy.

Italy - which has seen some 30,000 migrants landing this year mainly from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria - wants a change in EU rules that force migrants to remain in their country of first arrival while their asylum application is being processed.

But northern European states are opposed to Rome's argument that this puts an extra burden on the crisis-hit southern states. They say they do their share by taking in more refugees than southern Europe once asylum is granted.

Despite the emotion the latest deaths provoked in Europe, Biniam fears "it will not change anything as the problem is not being treated at source".


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