Tag Archives: Eritrea

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.

Italian Colonization in Africa

Flag of the Italian Empire

When we think of the colonization of Africa, the British and the French are the key empires that first come to mind, followed by the Portuguese, Belgians, Dutch, and Germans.  In the Scramble for Africa, Italy was not considered a key player in comparison to other major European powers. Italy did come to occupy Libya, Somalia, modern-day Eritrea, and later on Ethiopia briefly (although Ethiopia can boast to have had the only army to successfully repel an European force, the Adwa victory in 1896). As a student of Nigerian history, I have spent the last several years analyzing the nature of British rule in West Africa, especially in comparison to the French style. An overly simplified description would be that the British were comparably hands-off, I emphasize comparably, preferring to use indirect rule by bribing local chiefs and maintaining pre-existing structures of indigenous rule.  France however took a more top-down approach, centralizing its governments in Africa using officials from France, ousting local rulers, and imposing oppressive law known as IndigenatSince arriving to Florence to write my Niger Delta findings, I have spent more time thinking about how a European power could have been comparably less successful in its attempts to colonize African territories. Italy is an example of this.

At lunch with a noted Italian historian yesterday, I asked, “Why was Italy so poor at colonization?” His answer was direct, that Italy simply arrived too late to the colonization game to be able to compete with the firmly established empires that were already occupying most of Africa.  He emphasized that Italy did not become united as a country until 1861, and by then European colonizers had already been exploiting African peoples and resources for centuries.  At this time Italy barely knew how to govern itself, let alone far away foreign lands.

I would add to his account that there was a resurgence in the idea of an Italian Empire during WWI, a war during which Italy secured its stronghold in Libya particularly.  There existed a popular rhetoric of nationalism, in which interlocutors described Libya as still part of the ancient Roman Empire, and by extension of that as being part of Italy. Giovanni Pascoli, a great nationalist writer, stressed the importance both in his written works and speeches of forging an expanded national identity through conquest and praising of the proletariat. Yet still, Italy could never quite “catch up” with other Europeans in the colonization of Africa.

Mussolini‘s regime sought to regain a foothold in Africa starting in the 1920’s, and did so with his conquering of Ethiopia 1936, when he declared an official “Italian Empire.” However, WWI had depleted the resources of the Italian government and Mussolini failed to understand realistically what was necessary to successfully maintain rule over African colonies. It was only a matter of time before his fascism was brought to an end, and WWII created such reverberating changes in the European-African relationship that Italy essentially no longer had any power in Africa by the end of the War.

There is a bridge in Addis Ababa that I have heard about which has Mussolini’s inscription on it, essentially marking it as his future domain.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and apparently makes rulers have totally unrealistic goals for their conquests.

Benito Mussolini