The Lampedusa tragedy - why Eritreans risk everything

One Young World Ambassador Meron Semedar from Eritrea reflects on the tragic deaths of migrants off the coast of Italy and why young Eritreans are taking such great risks to escape the country.

On 3 October 2013, a boat carrying an estimated 500 migrants, many of them Eritreans under the age of 40, capsized less than one kilometer from the island of Lampedusa, Italy. It is estimated that just 155 passengers survived. A week later in the early hours of October 11, another boat was capsized 60 kilometers off the same island killing another 30 people. 

Fleeing Eritrea is costing us hundreds of lives. In 2011, during the Libyan uprising, an estimated 300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea and, in recent years, we have lost thousands of young people who attempted to escape the country through the Sinai Desert. Many of these people are being held to ransom and in the event that they fail to pay money are being killed for their organs.

The sinking of the overcrowded boat on 3 October is believed to be one of the greatest losses of life in Italian waters since WWII. In response, Italy held a day of national mourning, the European Union called for immediate action and Pope Francis described the event as "a day of tears". 

Back home in Eritrea the national television simply called the victims “illegal African migrants”.  

I fled Eritrea in 2005 and I want to explain why so many young Eritreans take such great risks to leave the country and what can be done prevent these tragedies in the future. 

Why many Eritreans migrate despite the risk?

The need for basic human rights and freedom is what makes Eritreans risk their lives to leave their beloved country. 

Human Rights Watch has described Eritrea as a 'giant prison' and, as an Eritrean, I can testify to this. There is no freedom of press, religion or movement. Carrying a bible can be considered a crime and one has to show a pass book when moving around the country. There are continuous street round ups for indefinite conscription and national service. Almost every family is part of the army and even those above 55 are being forced to carry an AK47. Families are being disintegrated with no one to look after older people, young couples divided by indefinite national service and most children growing up without a father figure.

Following the latest tragedy, the Eritrean regime released a press statement, blaming the CIA for the domestic problems. The truth is that, if you ask me or any Eritrean migrant about why we left, there would be no mention of the CIA. At this moment Eritreans both inside the country and in the diaspora can be described as stateless, people with no one to address their problems or to take responsibility on their behalf. At this very moment, Eritrea is like a derailed train. Living in this situation makes you feel hopeless and without a future.

What could be done to stop unsafe migration?

Addressing the political situation in Eritrea is the only way to reduce or end the deaths of hopeless Eritreans leaving the country. This year I took part in an online dialogue with Mr Kofi Annan in which I put forward the situation facing young people in Eritrea. His response was:

"Some of the issues you raised about the governance and the political issues in your country can only be tackled through the people of Eritrea forming civil societies, making civil society organization to put pressure on their leaders and government to do the right thing. I know the situation in Eritrea is very difficult both in terms of politics and economics and that is why you having the sort of migration that you referred to, but to tackle it you need strong social society organizations otherwise the leaders and the politicians are not going to give any attention to you.” 

As much as Mr. Annan's point is true, there is no any social society organization in Eritrea because it has not been permitted by the government. Eritrean political parties and civic societies are all operating from overseas, the closest are in Sudan and Ethiopia. These organizations have brought the plight of Eritreans to embassies, parliaments and international organizations. In many cases some of the nations show their support for the regime and self-anointed president instead of the needy people. 

We hope change will come from inside Eritrea, taking into account that there was an attempted coup in January this year, however, that does not mean Eritreans in exile as well as peace loving comrades cannot play a role in changing the situation in Eritrea once for all.  

Eritreans overseas must build a central body that is representative of all the civic and political organisations aimed at drawing a clear road map to democracy and handling the expected uprising in Eritrea. We must make our voices heard through robust demonstrations and continuously writing and signing petitions against the regime and the activities of their diplomats overseas. 

Eritreans must report the names of individuals who are assisting the government in the collection of the tax of Eritreans in the diaspora which has been condemned by the United Nations. Eritrean’s living overseas are forced to pay 2% of their income for every year they have been outside the country in order to access things like passports, transcripts and documents that they held in Eritrea. 

We must call on the Human Rights Council set out by the United Nations on Eritrea, to update and increase its efforts to address the conditions of Eritreans both inside the country and in neighboring countries and to suggest possible solutions to end the mass migration.

Finally the international organizations, UN, EU, AU, IGAD must put pressure on the dictatorial Eritrean regime to implement the constitution, put the rule of law in place, allow social organizations and free press and release all prisoners of conscience.    
The Eritrean people live in extreme fear but with fear comes opportunity and it is time that we all come out together, united to bring about lasting change and make the dream of our fallen heroes of our peaceful, prosperous nation come true.

The deaths off the coast of Lampedusa will not be the last tragedy to hit Eritrean migrants and migrants from other countries. Right now there are thousands of young men, women and children awaiting their fate in Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia and Israel. Due to limited humanitarian assistance and their desperate need for a safe home, they will try what Lampedusa victims have tried and the consequence is anybody’s guess.We must take responsibility to address these circumstances and we hope the international community will help us in this era of desperation as well. 

Published on 23/10/2013