Escaping Eritrea: Understanding the Complexities

By Christopher P. Sarachilli | February 16, 2016

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage.

Eritreans, who hail from an east African country of five million, are the third largest group of refugees behind Syrians and Afghanis, comprising 8% of migrants to Europe. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men. Increasing numbers of unaccompanied children are also leaving Eritrea. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing? My forthcoming book, The Struggling State: Nationalism, Mass Militarization and the Education of Eritrea (Temple University Press, 2016), sheds light on the troubling and peculiar pattern of refugee flight from Eritrea. Explanations are not as straightforward as we might expect.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/military service by law consists of six months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been demobilized—released from military service—since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/military service.

In fall 2003, as I began my fieldwork, new educational policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa. Teachers and students were disillusioned by this re-purposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. Many young people flee the country before they enter this conduit. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes.

Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion and, at times, violence.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished, and feeling imprisoned. There is no rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police, and teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

It is neither the presence of a strong and cruel state, nor the weakness of an ineffective state, that victimizes Eritreans and leads them to flee the country in droves. It is the simultaneous presence of both and the uncertainty that emerges from this ambiguous condition. Understanding the uncertain and ambiguous nature of fear that results from conditions in which state violence is arbitrary and unpredictable is key to understanding everyday life under authoritarian rule and the reasons why people flee in such large numbers.

Dr. Jennifer Riggan is an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University.