Muddled Waters: Fighting the Delegitimization of Eritrean Asylum Claims

Ethiopia: hosting the most refugees in Africa
© EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

At the end of 2015, UNHCR reported 474,296 Eritreans globally to be refugees and asylum seekers. This amounts to about twelve percent of Eritrea’s official population – a mass displacement caused by rampant human rights abuses ranging from indefinite military conscription to arbitrary detentions to prohibitions on political parties, elections, and an independent press. In 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on Eritrea reported to the Human Rights Council that there can be “no sustainable solution to the refugee outflows until the government complies with its human rights obligations,” and the African Union works to investigate abuses by the Eritrean government.

For over two decades, this authoritarian regime has remained in power, spurred by uneasy border conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea following the Eritrean War of Independence. This “no war, no peace stalemate” eased in the summer of 2018 as leaders from both countries restored diplomatic relations and ended all border conflicts between the two. However, little meaningful change has occurred in Eritrea despite many of the justifications for these repressive policies disappearing.

While my mother’s family sought asylum from Eritrea (at the time still Ethiopia) almost thirty years ago, many of the harsh conditions my mother’s family attempted to escape from remain. But in examining my mother’s accounts from 1988 onwards and examining current discourse on refugee issues, we can understand what has changed in the situations of Eritrean asylum seekers now. Ultimately, international human rights frameworks require Eritrean refugees to separate political persecution and economic hardship from one another while justifying asylum applications; when, in reality, a person’s reasons for fleeing a country can be much more muddled. When development aid is more commonly used by European countries to reduce irregular migration from Eritrea, and in the process, Eritrean asylum claims are seen as less valid.


Much of the situation that my mother describes in Asmara has not changed over the past thirty years, even as Ethiopia’s government has gone through massive changes and Eritrea has separated from Ethiopia. In our conversations, she refers to the unified country almost as “a Russian colony” at the time of the Derg’s leadership and describes government operations as consistently corrupt in Ethiopia. While fleeing to Ethiopia was never an option for my mother’s family at the time, this and migrating to Sudan have become the preferred options for the remaining members of her family. Ethiopia currently houses 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers according to UNHCR, and thousands more live in the country outside of Ethiopia’s asylum system. Eritrean refugees travel through the mountainous regions, trying to avoid being sighted by the Eritrean military and are typically picked up by the Ethiopian military, although this assistance could change with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent pledge to pull Ethiopian troops out of the border town of Badme. There are about twelve entry points along the border Eritrea shares with Ethiopia, where refugees are moved to a screening and registration center in Endabaguna and transferred to one of four major refugee camps in the Tigray region. This journey is made more difficult with the Eritrean government’s decree that all payments exceeding 3,000 nakfa (about $200 U.S. dollars) could only be made by check to restrict black market transactions and migration flows outside of the country. Mandatory conscription in the armed forces, along with political repression and other human rights abuses, motivate many Eritreans to leave the country.

National service, fueled by the previously hostile stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea, is required by all Eritreans after turning eighteen. It is the principal reason for forced migration from the country. This system of national service was established in 1995 and can include everything from military duties to agriculture work, construction, teaching, and other civil service work. Every adult Eritrean is required to serve for eighteen months, but in practice, conscription is extended indefinitely for a significant proportion of conscripts and can last for over a decade with little pay. This common claim for asylum has faced challenges in countries where Eritreans claim asylum, with Britain and Denmark citing that there have been improvements in the experiences of National Service conscripts despite confirmation by several human rights advocacy organizations that abusive conditions remain. Prolonged national service is the reason cited, but more important is the impact that this has on people’s ability to survive economically on a monthly salary of 450 nakfa, the geographic separation they experienced from their families and communities while in service, the limited access to health care, and poor working conditions.

My mother, Zeineb Saleh, after finishing college in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, was assigned to work in a southern region of Ethiopia, where she left because of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea after the latter’s annexation in 1962. She chose to flee to Saudi Arabia in 1988, where she eventually met up with members of her family that fled to Sudan. Eventually, they would apply for asylum in Canada. 

“Because of my ethnic background, I was restricted to a lot of things, so that’s why when they block you one way, you find the other way. On my work condition, the reason I didn’t want to work there was because I was Eritrean, and I was supposed to go to the south part of Ethiopia which is – the Eritreans were not liked there, so if I go there I could get killed, so I just went there quickly and left, so I didn’t serve for political reasons at the time.”

She chose to flee to Saudi Arabia in 1988, where she eventually met up with members of her family that fled to Sudan. Eventually, they would apply for asylum in Canada.

Distinguishing Between Economic Migrant & Asylum Seeker

Ethiopia: hosting the most refugees in Africa
© EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

“In refugee law, it can be tricky to draw the line between an economic migrant and someone who is fleeing persecution,” explains Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea is the best example of that,” he says, noting cases of minors who have fled the country before they are old enough to serve. Since many anticipate conscription in the future, many flee before they have even served, which can raise the question of whether they are fleeing the abuses of forced labor or an apparent lack of work opportunities outside of the national service program and subsequent economic ruin. Haftam Telemickael, a coordinator at the Hitsat camp, takes great issue with the question of whether Eritrean migrants should be considered asylum seekers or economic migrants. “Even if they are seeking political asylum, there will be an economic side to it as they are young and need to generate income to live their lives,” Telemickael states. This was a sentiment generally felt in my interview with my mother and some of her relatives – that while political fears were the primary reason they focused on in their asylum applications, they left just as much because of the restrictions they faced in education and employment.

“What they were doing at the time was trying to mix Eritreans and Ethiopians together, so we won’t be separated. Remember, Eritreans – this is the politics part – were trying to be separated from Ethiopia. So, by sending Eritreans to the Southern parts and the Ethiopians to the Eritrean parts, they were trying to mix the people, so once you get there, anything can happen. You could live there, you could marry someone from there, there’s many other things. Or you can get killed too. Some people who hate somebody could just end them. So, I didn’t like it, so I transferred. I didn’t want to go.”

Just as often, my mother talks about a lack of educational and employment opportunities as influencing her decision to migrate from the country. After leaving her apprenticeship early because of these fears of persecution, she was placed on a government blacklist, which restricted her from further educational and employment opportunities within the country.

“They call it a blacklist, meaning you are in the list, they put you on a list where any opportunity, let’s say somebody sends me a scholarship from a university…they won’t allow it. They block me. Or any government jobs, they block me, any big opportunity that comes, I can’t get them. I can do entrepreneurship, like private businesses, yeah, but anything that has big opportunity, you can’t get them. They block you. That’s why they call it a blacklist.”

The language of human rights policy typically relies on economic, social, cultural, and labor rights as being “second-tier rights” that are less important within an international human rights framework. Even though in many cases, characterizing groups of forced migrants as simply economic migrants looking for employment and viable sources of income is used to delegitimize their cases for asylum, it is important to acknowledge that asylum-seekers rarely make the distinction between political asylees and economic migrants. In speaking with members of my family, for example, my mother rarely refers to my uncle’s political writings as the main reason for fleeing Ethiopia and Eritrea. Instead, she talks about her fear of working in southern Ethiopia and the lack of educational opportunities that were available to her, and when explaining this, she states: “if you don’t do that, you get to that blacklist and then any opportunities –  you lose that privilege, so your only options are to migrate from that, and by that, you find any means of doing it.

In “Redefining Forced Migration,” Susan Gzesh explores many of these themes regarding whether or not asylum status is dependent on a lack of agency, in the sense that systems of political asylum can punish people that can punish people that choose to flee from economic hardship or poor working conditions. In speaking with my family and examining interviews conducted with Eritrean asylum seekers, people rarely distinguish between economic migration and political persecution. “There were a lot of reasons, the anti-government writing was the reason we used in Canada,” my mother explains. “You have to have a reason for why you left your country, why you can’t go back to your country, so we used that excuse.” The distinction becomes much more muddled in flight and prolonged periods of statelessness. A lack of educational opportunities and poor economic conditions cannot be separated from a well-founded fear of persecution when understanding the cases of asylum-seekers.

Approximately a quarter of a million Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers have settled in refugee camps and cities in Ethiopia and Sudan, where there is a shortage of services and few education and employment opportunities available. The limited amount of options for economic stability and seemingly indefinite stays in refugee camps cause asylum-seekers to risk journeying to Europe. In speaking with my mother, most of her older brothers and sisters had left from Eritrea to Sudan at different times, and she remarks that many of them had left for either Egypt or Sudan because living conditions were bad, and they were able to obtain work permits in other countries.

“In Sudan, there were a lot of Red Cross – there’s so many refugee camps, international things. You list whether you want to go to Europe, to Sweden, Australia, Italy, there’s a legal way, and you wait, or you can go to Saudi [Arabia] as a worker, or you can wait there for years until any country will take you as a refugee,” she explains. “But you wait your turn for years, and if you don’t have any patience, some people go by boat….some of them, when they wait, they wait, wait, wait, wait, and nothing comes up, they just pay a ransom to people and try to go to Libya and then from Libya, they try to go to Italy through boats.”

            The lack of employment or economic opportunities has pushed many Eritrean asylum-seekers towards finding work in Libya or traveling past the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe, which continues to place them in vulnerable positions of migration. Because of this, the UNHCR office in Khartoum has prioritized addressing human trafficking incidents in understanding irregular migration flows. The Sudanese government adopted legislation to combat human trafficking in 2014 and in the framework of the Arab Initiative to Build National Capacities to Combat Human Trafficking, established a national committee and hosted a conference about best practices in human trafficking legislation in the region. However, there are potential dangers in examining smuggling as human trafficking in regional and national policies. In describing her family’s migration to Sudan, my mother explains:

You go by camel, by truck…if you go by camel, you know, you travel by night, but in daytime, you hide because there’s border patrol and the other groups in there, so you can get killed. A lot of people get eaten by wild animals. So, they get refuge in the daytime, and by night, they go by camel…some areas, there’s a shortcut where cars can go, sometimes by foot, it takes them days, but they get to Sudan. Eritrea is a mountain country and not a lot of cars through the shortcuts, so camels are the known transportations, but because they’re tall, they can be seen. They hide them in the daytime, but at night, they go.”

People acknowledge the danger present in the journey from Eritrea, making the attempts to aid Eritrean asylum-seekers through policy that addresses human trafficking inherently flawed.

Delegitimization of Irregular Migration Through Economic Aid

Ethiopia: hosting the most refugees in Africa
© EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

While the UN Human Rights Council has acknowledged that these flows of refugees will not stop without the Eritrean government becoming more accountable for human rights governance within its borders, attempts by politicians in the European Union to regulate migration flows from Eritrea through developmental aid have ignored this. In July 2014, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli visited President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara on behalf of the European Union to encourage constructive dialogue on development policies and a shared commitment to human rights. These were quickly followed by visits by British, Danish, and Norwegian officials with similar purposes, and they were welcomed by Eritrean officials who promised an end to policies of indefinite military conscription and to pay conscripts a living wage in the future. Eritrea was promised a grant of 200 million euros, and while this was already the subject of ongoing discussions by the European Commission for International Cooperation and Development, it gained urgency among EU states only as a “development contribution to the root causes of migration in Eritrea.”

Viewing development aid as an opportunity to stem irregular migration from Eritrea has come with harsh consequences for Eritrean asylum seekers. In 2014 and 2015, Denmark and Britain began revising their policies to refuse Eritrean asylum applications, and in 2017, Sweden chose to stop automatically recognizing Eritrean migrants as refugees because some Eritreans were able to return home safely for short-term visits after gaining asylum status. Unfortunately, the Eritrean administration had little intention of introducing these reforms. While Britain revised its process to grant asylum to most Eritrean applicants in the next year and few Eritreans had been deported during that time, there is an inherent danger in promoting regional development only to pursue an end to irregular migration to Europe. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa funds economic development programs, food and nutrition security, and improvements in overall government, but the language used throughout directly links these programs with country governments’ ability to stifle irregular migration from the Horn of Africa. The success of these partnerships is ultimately measured through border management, and as a result, they create obstacles to Eritrean asylum-seekers attempting to reach safety. For example, following the improvement in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, Switzerland courts ruled that conditions in the Eritrean national service were not severe enough to make deportation unlawful despite the few tangible changes in these conditions. Attempting to reduce migration flows from Eritrea by funding stronger border management and denying human rights reports from the region will only further harm the safety of asylum seekers.


As we begin approaching the second anniversary of the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, what is becoming clear is that human rights abuses in Eritrea will continue, as they have remained during my family’s time living there. Because of this, we must maintain a watchful eye on ongoing human rights violations and forced migration from Eritrea. Human rights considerations have their limitations for refugees whose asylum claims are inextricably tied to economic survivability as well as political persecution. In the case of Eritrean refugees, national service is inextricably intertwined with fears of unemployment and economic survivability. These attempts to parse them out are ultimately unhelpful to refugee protection. At the same time, financial support for stifling migration is not a stand-in for supporting refugee rights. We must be critical of how aid-based partnerships between Europe and countries in East Africa can work to delegitimize these claims.

Editor: Layla Dargahi