This is a legitimate question given the polar opposite answers out there. “There are two sides to a story” the saying goes, but in the case of Eritrea it is more appropriate to say “There are two stories,” period.
On one side, the Eritrean government and the Iranian State television (Press TV) tell us that Eritreans choose to leave their country for economic reasons. For better jobs, bigger salaries, etc. On the other side, many nations, many more humanitarian agencies, and the immigrants themselves tell us that Eritreans are forced to flee their country because of extreme government oppression.
What makes the Eritrean story two stories altogether is the degree of how these opposing reports are presented. You see, according to the government of Eritrea, the country is not just merely “OK” for a third world country. It’s showing remarkable development and fast growth (and Press TV can verify these claims, just Google any ‘Press TV’ / ‘Eritrea’ combination and take your pick).
According to the other story, the one narrated by the immigrants/refugees and human rights agencies, Eritrea is not just an oppressive State, it is hell-on-earth.
The Human Rights Watch country profile for Eritrea opens with this statement “Torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religious freedom remain routine in Eritrea.” (emphasis mine).
A recent report on Eritrea by Amnesty International summarizes its findings: “In Eritrea, 20 years after independence, there is no freedom of expression, no independent media and no civil society.”
The Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks Eritrea as the worst nation in the world for press freedom (preceded by North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria and Somalia). Major news agencies follow suit and often refer to Eritrea as “the African North Korea” (al Jazeera, The Telegraph, Haaretz to mention a few). There is absolutely no moderation.
It impossible to accommodate both (
sides) stories and come up with an account of Eritrea that that is fair to both stories. For example try reconciling the following two accounts on Eritrean economic performance in the past decade: (1) “Eritrea had the fastest economic growth in the world,” with (2) “Eritrea had the worst economic growth in the world.” There is no logical way of reconciling these two polar opposite statements outside of, maybe, quantum physics.
The government of Eritrea has aptly grasped this incompatibility and hence responds to the alternative story by not responding or through categorical denial and calling its narrators lairs and conspirators. It makes sense.
When considering Eritrea, we should forgo the idea of being “balanced” and instead aim to be just “correct.”
The government’s continued claim to the legitimacy of its narrative without even a flinch does create confusion. It deters many from saying the obvious because they fear they might sound “one sided” or “unbalanced.” But balance cannot be achieved.
For example, Al Jazeera once decided to host a show about Eritrean opposition voices, but in the face continued government assertion that Eritrea is free and democratic Country, they decided to title the program as “Does Eritrea have a dictator?” This is indeed puzzling when you consider that no one (not even the government) denies that elections have never been held and the same person continues to be the President for the past 20 years. Now if this plain fact can still be posed as a question in prominent media (apparently just because the government blindly asserts it is democratic despite the facts) what chance does the question, “Does Eritrea abuse human rights?” have.
Now allow me to take you to a hypothetical world, just for a little bit. Let’s say there is this fictional country which is being accused of human rights abuse, which the country denies, of course. So how can the world know the truth about this fictional country? (You might ask why does the world care? Good question, let’s say for argument sake, the world cares because a lot of people are leaving the country and becoming a burden to the neighboring countries).
The obvious thing the neighboring countries should do is to research the matter in order to decide for themselves. Let’s say the countries decided to send a team of researchers to investigate human rights condition in that country. Let’s say they called the team a “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights”
But wait. That’s exactly what happened in case of Eritrea! The United Nations sent a Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights in Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur came back with its findings.
The United Nations concluded that it is the “rampant human rights violations in Eritrea which caused hundreds of thousands to leave their country… The blanket disrespect of fundamental human rights in Eritrea is pushing some 2,000 to 3,000 people to leave the country monthly” (emphasis mine).
The UN authorized researcher (Rapporteur) further emphasized saying that “It is the complete deprivation of the freedom and security of the person, a fundamental human right also recognised by Eritrea, that drives entire families to leave their country in the hope to find a place where they feel protected”
There is little doubt, then, which story is the internationally accepted one. As of 2012, the UN has registered over a quarter of a million Eritrean refugees (305,723 to be exact). This can be considered as a conservative estimate since many don’t register with the UNHCR . This number is huge considering Eritrea’s estimated population of just over six million.
The bottom line is Eritreans leaving their country are indeed legitimate refugees and asylum-seekers.
It is sad however to see that the dehumanizing of refugees that is the practice of the Eritrean government authorities seems to have infected some quarters. Refugees are humans too and their sworn testament counts in the court of law. Their testimony combined with the solid research of the many recognized institutions cannot be challenged, certainly not by statements from the government that is being accused of the crime.