Eritrean refugees are a humanitarian emergency

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Eritrea is regularly ranked as the most repressive countries in Africa. There is essentially no internet and absolutely no free press, and Freedom House ranks it as the 3rd “least free” country in the world. There are no elections, no legislature, and no non-profit organizations. Uniquely, obligatory military conscription, starting in the last year of high school, can last for decades. The harsh conditions during service coupled with brutal punishments for evading it constitute nationalized slavery. Poverty is grinding and, aside from remittances, immune to international bolstering now that sanctions have been put in place against the government for human rights abuses.

Eritreans flee their country at rates unmatched by any other country not actively experiencing war (e.g. Syria)—making it an “emptying nation“. Over 5000 Eritreans flee each month to then make up the 7th largest migrant population in Europe, despite the small country only having a population of 6 million.

Their trek is one of the deadliest in the world. A quarter million Eritreans occupy crowded refugee camps across the border in Sudan and Ethiopia, from which Eritrea gained independence in a civil war in 1991. They travel by foot north across the Sahara. They then constitute the majority of migrants to arrive in Italy.

But, they don’t stay.  Only 1 in 100 Eritreans in Italy applies for asylum there, most continuing on to Switzerland or Germany. There are obvious reasons for this: Italy takes a harsher stance on immigrants, has less developed infrastructure for immigrants, and works with a smaller budget.

However, there are also reasons to expect them to stay once they get there. They arrive in Italy mentally and physically exhausted, and with very little money with which to proceed onward. (This might be why arrivees in Italy are now being flown to other parts of Europe.) Also, one might expect a historical link to play a role in where Eritreans settle, as Italy occupied (but did not colonize) what is now Eritrea to create Italian East Africa before WWII. Refugees and members of the diaspora often seek out developed countries with which they have a historical connection. We see this with the Nigerian population in the UK and Algerians in France. Eritreans are not doing this. Perhaps the connection with Italy was too weak and is too far past, or perhaps they understand that other European countries are better able to meet the needs of African refugees.

Consider that Germany is concerned enough with refugee well-being that it now hosts a gender/sexuality-sensitive refugee center to help protect those with minority LGBTQ status. Too often, especially when migrants are housed with others of their same nationalities, discrimination and harassment that occurred in their home countries can also be reproduced in welcome centers and government housing. As I found in my ethnographic research on transgender Pakistani migrants, violence based on gender expression was reproduced by other Pakistanis awaiting asylum applications along with them. Gender stereotypes and differentiated roles between men and women also take root because changing a person’s location doesn’t necessarily change their ideology and culture.

Italy also cannot offer Eritreans the housing options of other European countries. Albeit with the benefit of finances impossible elsewhere, Luxembourg has managed to place many refugees with host families to support them (and after Syrians, Eritreans constitute the most asylum cases there). Italy also has a more encumbered immigration system in which cases languish longer than in the rest of Western Europe.

The good news is that immigrants now have easier access to employment in Italy, which they want. Most Eritrean immigrants are teenage boys escaping conscription who are eager to work and build a life. Previously asylum applicants had to wait six months to hold a job, and now its just 60 days.  Boredom is a mental health issue for many who await an asylum application, and the Italian government hopes that putting them to work will also help Italians to be more accepting of their presence in the country.

To try to stem the tide of Eritrean migrants, the EU and the UN have invested in a job creation program based on building industrial parks that would make 100,000 new jobs. This would change the opportunity cost for Eritreans seeking to make the dangerous land crossing across north Africa followed by the equally perilous boat ride across the Mediterranean. Ostensibly, these jobs would likely go to men, and there has been no discussion of how to improve economic security for Eritrean women. It is debatable if industrial parks can off-set widespread human rights abuses and plaguing poverty, but it is worth trying.

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