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Eritrea: The Tragedy behind a Tragedy

Eritrea: The Tragedy behind a Tragedy

By: Tedros Abraham  21/04/2015


Greek authorities said that at least three people have died, including a child, after a wooden boat carrying nearly 100 migrants ran aground off the island of Rhodes.

 Some 350 Eritreans were among the 850 people who perished in the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Libya on Saturday night, a United Nations spokesperson said on Tuesday.

Ethiopia declared three days of national mourning after it confirmed the people brutally killed by the Islamic State in Libya were indeed its own citizens. However, Ethiopians were not the only nationals, at least three Eritrean Christians were also among them. As often, there is neither a national mourning nor coverage of the tragedy on the Eritrean state owned media. Once again, Eritreans condemned to mourning in silence, by a regime that does not even tolerate grieving publicly.

 Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians share so much in common, but politically they are divided, and the no war no peace standoff continues. However, this week, these seemingly two diaspora communities are united on social medias in anger and grief. Eritreans in particular are grieving for two different reasons. In the last Sundays’ Mediterranean boat tragedy, the UN fear more than 350 Eritreans on board could have lost their lives. The UN confirmed as many as 800 lives could have died in the latest tragedy. The 28 survivors gave conflicting accounts; according to one Bangladeshi survivor’s estimate, more than 950 passengers might have trapped inside. Other survivors stated majority of the people on board were predominantly from Eritrea and Syria, heading towards Europe in the hope of searching protection and a better life. Syrians are escaping from a bitter sectarian civil war and from the Islamic State’s onslaught. However, presumably, Eritrea is a peaceful country, where there is no active war, but its inhabitants are on the run for more than a decade.

Eritreans tragedy Europe’s moral dilemma

  Last year alone, 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, from this huge number Syrians ranked first fleeing civil war in their country, and Eritreans were second. Eritrea is often absent from the headlines of the mainstream media, except, when there are moments of migrant boat tragedies across the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

In October 2013, when a boat capsized near the Italian Island of Lampedusa, 365 people perished, 360 of them Eritreans. The magnitude and horrors of that tragedy, shocked people across the globe, consequently European governments promised to do more to save lives. That change of policy by the EU saved thousands of migrant lives, who would have died otherwise.

 However, after increasing domestic pressure to curb the mounting number of migrants, many countries began to gradually abandon their search and rescue operations. They argued, such humanitarian assistance is only encouraging many more migrants to take the risk, hoping they would be rescued. The decision by the rest of European governments to withdraw their humanitarian commitment from the Mediterranean Sea was a big blow to the Italian and Maltese governments, who felt abandoned. Prime Minister of Italia, Matteo Renzi warned to European governments, ‘Europe cannot close its eyes and commemorate the tragedy later.’

Consequently, European foreign and interior ministers gathered in an emergency meeting in Luxembourg and came up with a ten-point plan to deal with the ongoing tragedy. Some Italian politicians warned, as much as one million migrants could cross the Mediterranean Sea this year alone.

 The recent increase in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe turned out to be a huge moral dilemma to European governments. The European Union as a block is bounded in Universal moral values and Human Rights obligations. Abandoning desperate migrants at sea to face certain death could shake the very moral foundation of the Union, and many advocates of human rights warn, such indifference, could be a catastrophic mistake. However, at the heart of this crisis is a dilemma for European policy makers, ‘how to effectively deal with a tragedy which doesn’t seem to stop any time soon?’  

What should be done?

Some politicians argue ‘you can’t stop people from taking a deadly journey, if you can’t help them solve the very reasons that forced them to take that journey in the first place.’ Hence, diplomacy could be one of the main game changers in curbing these dramatic episodes. However, carrot alone does not seem to effect change on the ground, without a stick. European governments should do more to pressurize authoritarian governments in Africa and Middle the East, causing mayhem and suffering to their people. After all, in an increasingly globalized world, a mismanaged domestic affairs of one country is a burden for the rest of the international community. 

It could be for this reason perhaps, European Union indicated lately, a change of policy towards Eritrea, and promised more than 350 million Euros in financial assistance in the hope of helping the government to create job opportunities that would eventually deter the young from escaping in search of a better life in Europe. Nevertheless, this new incentive is met with a strong opposition from both human rights organizations and Eritrean oppositions groups in the diaspora. Giving financial assistance to a dictator already under United Nations sanctions for his involvement in the destabilization of Somalia and Djibouti could be regarded, rewarding for his belligerent behaviors and dismal human rights records.

After the 2011 Arab uprising, some European politicians have learnt a bitter lesson, removing dictators does not always bring peace and stability to the countries suffering from serious human rights violations. They argue, Western powers militarily engagement to remove authoritarian governments accused of human rights violations, rarely achieve the intended objectives afterwards. Libya is a case in point, in 2011; the west helped the Libyan rebels to remove Muamar Gadafi, however, today the country turn out to be European government’s nightmare. Not only it is a springboard to illegal migrants, but also most prominently, Isis is just on the doorstep.  Consequently, some Europeans blame their very governments for the lawlessness in the country and the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in the Mediterranean shores.   

Could it be such an experience, driving the European Union to deal with carrot diplomacy with dictators accused of immense human rights violations such as the one-in Eritrea? Eritrea, a country run with an unelected president, unimplemented constitution, hundreds of thousands its youth in active military service with nominal wage, and no hope of demobilization to lead a normal life. Therefore, there is no unemployment crisis in Eritrea, which demands European Union’s financial assistance. Eritreans of all social classes are fleeing the country from a system of government that enslave them for life, that deny them freedom of movement inside their own country that deny them to exercise their religion freely. The government intentionally and systematically violated all the four Universal Human Rights Declarations, forcing hundreds of thousands to pursue a dignified life elsewhere. Under the current dictatorial leadership, Eritreans have nothing to hope for, it seems for most of the young people, Europe is the only hope; ‘either get there or else die in the process.’

 When one ask them if they were not afraid to lose their lives, they would tell you blatantly, ‘a dead cannot be afraid of death.’ When they try, at least they have hope, to get a second chance to start a new life. However, that may not be the case for many of the unfortunate 1600 souls, who paid the ultimate price so far this year, in a desperate search of a new and dignified life in a strange continent.

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