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GIGA Focus Afrika

Eritrean Refugees: The Pawns of European Interests

Number: 2 | 07/2016 | ISSN: 1862-3603

During the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled to neighbouring countries to evade the state-prescribed forced labour of the indefinite national service. Now the EU is attempting to keep these people away from Europe by providing significant funding to the Eritrean and Sudanese regimes. The plans developed to date are not working towards an improvement in the living conditions of those affected, but rather towards increased repression.

  • Since the implementation of the indefinite national service in 2002, hundreds of thousands of working-age Eritreans have been performing military and civil services for the state, for minimal pay. This system of organised forced labour has led to massive human flight and the development of organised human smuggling.

  • Since 2014, tens of thousands of Eritreans have managed to reach Europe via Libya. The majority of those who have fled, however, live in neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, often in precarious conditions. They live in fear of falling prey to human-trafficking gangs or being deported back to their home country, where they face imprisonment without trial because their flight is viewed as treason.

  • Through the Khartoum Process, the EU is attempting to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. As part of this process, the Sudanese military and police forces are to be given support to capture and intern refugees.

  • At the same time, the EU has resumed development cooperation with Eritrea and has pledged EUR 200 million for the expansion of the energy sector and to support improved governance. This assistance is not tied to conditions.

Policy Implications

The courting of autocratic regimes is not an effective strategy for combating the causes of refugee flight. Instead, development assistance should be tied to conditions and should require and support comprehensive reforms. These include, first and foremost, the shortening of the national service, which is the main cause of flight; the liberalisation of the Eritrean command economy; and the development of rule-of-law structures.


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The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

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