‘After Lampedusa, everybody was talking about protecting refugees; now we’re talking about how to keep them away’


Radio host, activist and co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, Meron Estefanos is a leading voice on irregular migration and human trafficking on both sides of the Mediterranean. Now living in Sweden, Estefanos is from Eritrea, a country ruled by a repressive, military dictatorship which uses forced labour, indefinite military service and brutality to sustain itself. As a result, Eritrea has produced tens of thousands refugees. According to UN figures, around 4,000 Eritreans left the country each month in the first half of 2014. Here Estefanos explains exactly what Eritreans are fleeing from and what Europe can do to help them.

How would you describe the experiences of Eritrean refugees in 2014?

The case of Eritrean refugees is a human tragedy in the making and the world is watching quietly. Firstly, there is a shoot-to-kill policy for escapees. And once out of Eritrea, most refugees head for either Ethiopia or Sudan en route to Libya, Egypt and Europe. But flawed international responses mean that hundreds of Eritreans have been forcibly repatriated from Libya, Egypt, and Malta in the past few years and have faced detention and torture upon their return.


Why are so many Eritreans fleeing the country?

Prolonged military conscription, arbitrary arrest, torture, appalling detention conditions, disappearances, forced labour, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, and worship forces Eritrean youth to take desperate measures in search of freedom. Military service is compulsory for all men and women aged 18 to 40. There is no limit on the length of service. If you try to flee you risk the possibility of being shot by Eritrean border guards. The government also punishes your family if you manage to escape national service with fines or imprisonment. However, if you don’t take the drastic decision to leave your country, you face spending years in trenches facing Ethiopian forces dug-in across the border. Between necessity and survival, it’s no wonder that people decide to undertake perilous journeys in search of a better life.


And what happens to those who leave?

Eritreans take great risks to reach the Sudanese border but once there, it is not safe. They might get kidnapped by Eritrean security operatives from inside the UNHCR refugee camps or at the border. They can also experience physical and verbal abuse from the Sudanese security officials. That’s why many people decide to continue their journey to countries like Libya and Egypt.

They put their lives in to the hands of people smugglers, and those who make it to Libya face severe mistreatment, racial discrimination and detention in centres where the conditions are absolutely inhumane, and where the police exercise repression, rape and extortion. At best, you are subject to indefinite warehousing in remote areas without access to courts or due process.

If you survive this, then you prepare for the third round of another risky journey, usually to Italy, which is a springboard for travel to other destinations. These refugees are forced to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels hoping for refuge in Europe, although asylum is far from assured. When the smugglers are in trouble, they throw you overboard. You may also die from thirst, hunger or heat exposure.

If you are among those who cross the Sahara to enter Egypt, you risk fines for illegal entry, harsh imprisonment and, worse, forcible return to Eritrea. If you cross into Israel you run into the harsh reality of the modern state, where an anti-infiltration law criminalises asylum seekers, and where they are either imprisoned or forced to live in slums. Similar to Libya, the journey to Israel is harrowing. People are forced to pay anything between US$2000 to US$5000 and face illness, punishing heat and exhaustion, as well as the risk of being sold to renegade Egyptian Bedouins who torture the refugees in order to obtain huge ransoms from the victim’s relatives, typically between US$30,000 and US$50,000. The refugees are burnt with hot irons and molten plastic, deprived of sleep, food and water, and the women are raped continuously. If the ransom is paid, the hostage is released. If not, some are kept as slaves – the rest are killed and dumped in the desert.


Your radio programme brings many of these terrible stories to light. How would you describe your work advocating for Eritrean refugees?

Firstly, it’s about bearing witness. Every time I interview people who are in difficult situations, the aim of my program is to tell the people in Eritrea. I always remind them that fleeing is not a solution. They should stay at home and change whatever is dragging them out of the country, instead of getting out and thinking everything will be good..


But staying in Eritrea means living under a repressive regime. Isn’t it reasonable for people to want to flee?

Well, you know, the Arab Spring was possible because we had young people who wanted to change things. In Eritrea, those unhappy with the system are fleeing, so that means they are prolonging the dictatorship. Human rights issues in Eritrea are the root cause of why people are dying in the Sinai, dying in the Sahara, dying in the Mediterranean Sea. People should stop fleeing and fight back.


Eritrean refugees still make up the highest number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. What can Europe do to help them?

At the moment it’s all about keeping the poor away. Over 400,000 people arrive by plane to Europe every year and nobody discusses that because these people have money, they’re educated. We don’t hear about this. Europe could have better resettlement programmes, better family reunification programmes. They could be investing in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries – in Sudan, Ethiopia – in education, allowing people to move freely and work.


But the conversation in Europe now seems to have moved from humanitarian assistance, like Italy’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, to talk about border control and regulation – typified by Frontex’s scaled-down Operation Triton or the Mos Mairoum police operation on land.

Yes. When the Lampedusa tragedy happened in 2013, everybody was saying we should protect these people and that there should be a safer way for refugees. The whole world was affected when we saw what happened at Lampedusa. But within a year, everything shifted and now we’re talking about how to keep them away. How many more lives need to be lost?


There are some, including the UK Immigration Secretary James Brokenshire, who say that search-and-rescue operations have actually encouraged irregular migration. Do you agree?

I don’t think people in Eritrea are thinking: ‘Italy is saving people from the sea so let’s go…’ And these new policies are not going to stop people fleeing. They’ll keep trying – but the conditions will be harsher. It just means there’ll be more suffering than there is already.