Globalization, Imitation, and Eritrean Refugees

The Africa Today journal devoted its recent volume to research papers on Post-liberation Eritrea. The first of the research papers in this special issue investigates “an important variable in explaining current and recent refugee movement from Eritrea and other countries in Africa.”

“Globalization, Imitation Behavior, and Refugees from Eritrea”

Considering the significance of the matter, this paper has chosen an excellent research topic. Every month up to 3,000 Eritreans flee their country across the heavily guarded, dangerous borders.

The paper suggests it’s going to investigate what role ‘pull’ factors play in the mass-decision of Eritrean population to flee their country. Furthermore, how do ‘pull’ factors compare to the ‘push’ factors such as human rights abuses, indefinite conscription, persecution and torture?


According to the paper, ‘Imitation Behavior’ is one important variable in explaining Eritrean refugees. In psychology, imitation can be defined as the performance of an act that is stimulated by the perception of a similar act by another person.

In social science context, imitation behavior is a form of social learning where information (behaviors, customs, etc.) is transferred between individuals and down generations without the individual having to go through (potentially dangerous) personal training. Traditions and customs can be considered the result of imitation behavior, where we ‘imitate’ others in the society.

This paper gives one explanation of ‘imitation’ in the refugee context. While explaining the difficulty associated with studying imitation behavior by direct inquiry, the author explains, “not many refugees will claim that they fled their countries of origin to seek exile only because they saw others fleeing.” That is, ‘imitation’.

Unclear statements

My overall impression of this paper is that I am disappointed. Almost every significant statement is followed by a sentence that ‘moderate’ it to a point that the statement loses its punch-line. The paper then takes off without notice of the challenge it has just presented to its statement.

In fact, after reading the first half of the paper, I had a strong suspicion that the manuscript has been edited to barely meet the requirement of the reviewers. If my suspicion is right then the first half of the paper is a battle ground between the author and the reviewers, where the author dodges the reviewers’ assault left and right.

Another unpleasant observation is: whenever the logic of ‘imitation as explanatory variable’ is cornered, the talk suddenly shifts to ‘globalization’ and how technology based communications are used by Eritreans to arrange their escape.

Let me illustrate with one ‘typical’ paragraph from the paper that encompasses my concerns. Just after hypothesizing that greater diffusion of information (mentions the internet, mobile phone, television and diaspora visits) encourages individuals to consider exile as an option. The paper acknowledges that:

“Variables that impel flight in the extant literature remain as plausible as ever…these include religious persecution, a suppressive political environment, arbitrary imprisonment based on political opinion and so forth.”

Interesting list of plausible variables. Now you would assume that this paper is going to try to address how relevant the ‘imitation’ variable is in that mix of flight-impelling variables. To his credit, the author justifies such assumption by the reader, “This study… adds an explanatory variable…” But right when things start to get interesting, the rest of this paragraph makes you question if you were on the same page to start with:

“Increased access to information brought about by the diffusion of communication technology, especially for those living in urban and semi-urban areas of Eritrea, has eased flight, and this has added to our knowledge of the dynamics by which refugees flee”

Critical Assumptions

If there was anything in the paper more disappointing than seeing every significant statement the paper makes being ‘emasculated’, and constantly diverting conclusions to seek refuge in a generalized vague statements on technology use; It was how the author would ask rigorous questions only to be followed by vague answers. The answers often end up being general statements. The author gives detailed explanations on general issues and very little where it matters. Consider this statement from the paper:

“… an imperative question is why Eritreans are fleeing at present, despite a much more restrictive anti-refugee and xenophobic international environment.”

This means the researcher is working with an established premises that the international environment is “much more restrictive”. In other words: Eritrea is less restrictive and cozier than the refugee destinations.

You probably would not expect to find such a game changer assumptions in page 8, stashed in the last paragraph of a sub-section on “The Current Refugee Flight from Eritrea”. The paper makes it difficult to put your finger on any of the basic assumptions.

As with all other similar statements in the paper, the discussion is interrupted by what follows and goes vague before one can put their finger on what just happened. Consider the ending to the same paragraph:

“[this article proposes] that individuals in countries with closed political system who contemplate exile make good use of modern means of communication.”

Unclear Methods

Many of the central points the paper says is going to achieve–the ‘promises’ that get you reading eagerly; they don’t exist. I will illustrate with just one example I consider typical in the paper. Making the case for the importance of the study, the paper makes the following statement:

“Whether or not refugees imitate when they flee has been conspicuously absent from refugee studies, probably because of the problem associated with obtaining credible data.”

After reading this, it is not unfair to assume this paper has come up with some method to overcoming this difficulty. But all you get is an assertion that lacks vital details,

“… however, at present additional information makes it possible to determine whether imitation behavior among Eritrean refugees… is an important variable in the formation of modern-day refugee situations, even if some of the factors mentioned above still persist.”

 Statistical rigor:

Main findings of the research hardly justify the conclusions. In one instance the paper explains:

“For almost fifty years, conflict and displacement have remained unchanging attributes of the Eritrean political and social landscape. If it was possible to establish that a tiny percentage of pre-independence era Eritreans refugees had sought exile because of mass behavior (imitative behavior) then it makes more sense to propose now that imitative behavior has become an important factor in the movement of Eritrean refugees…”

The pre-independence data the author is refereeing to is a study he did in 2001, the end-note on this reads:

“Bariagaber (2001) has documented that about 4 percent of a sample of 104 Eritreans who repatriated during 1992-93 had left simply because they saw others leaving.”

In other words, imitation behavior was unimportant among pre-independence era refugees. It follows then that it must now be important variable among modern day refugees who are exposed to ‘information’.

Even assuming the above statement is logical, it definitely lacks statistical rigor.

Empirical support

For the most part of the paper, it makes promises in almost every page that “empirical support for refugee imitation behavior” will be presented. The anticipated empirical support finally  shows up on page 13:

“Nonetheless, to provide empirical support to the contention that current Eritrean refugees use modern means of communication in their effort to seek exile, I conducted a focus-group interview with five Eritreans in an American city on 12 April 2009.”

I have taken the liberty of putting the entire data from this ‘focus-group interview’ in the following table:

Yes No
Used internet 4 1
Used mobile phone 5 0
Has Bachelor’s degree 4 1

The paper devotes a page and a half discussing the above table.

The research paper does not consider it a stretch to extrapolate from this table that globalization (as expressed by telephone and internet) is rampant among Eritrean refugees. The findings from this table were also applied to other “African countries”.

“and other African countries”

The paper often throws in the words “other African countries” in statements that should otherwise refer to just Eritrea. It might be that the author is trying to expand his conclusions, or he is trying not to present Eritrean case as unique. It was also interesting (and sometimes entertaining) how the paper now and again reasserts that Eritrea has “a closed political system.”

For example, the paper argues that one reason why mobile phone and internet is preferred means of communication by those trying to flee is because it is secure method. The author argues that such modern means of communication is harder to be intercepted by the government security. The author, however, does not address what other means of communication these are preferred over. What are the alternative means of communication?

But that’s a different point. Let me come back to the author’s amendment of statements with “and other African countries” in statements that should refer just to Eritrea. As far as I know, Eritrea is the only African country where government is so obsessed with trying to prevent citizens from leaving the country that citizens would fear government interception when “contemplating” and “agonizing” over the decision to leave their country to seek exile. In this regard I would think that the author’s decision to generalize here and to include other African countries is to emphasize that Eritrea is not unique. It feels like the paper is camouflaging Eritrean problem by making it seem continental problem. The following statement from the paper supports my theory better: “Nowadays, however, people are fleeing because they see no political and/or economic future if they stay home,” qualified by, “ such as many in Central and Easter Europe… after the Second World War”

The conclusion

In its last  last paragraph, the paper concludes:

“Therefore, the combined effects of the expansion of modern means of communication and closed political systems in many countries are expected to generate refugees, even in the presence of nominal peace,… This is as true of Eritrea as it is of many countries in Africa.”

 My Conclusion

All in all, this paper feels more like a newspaper opinion article.

Imitation.  (Annoying clown impersonating a police officer)

(A clown imitates Monk)

{This post published at}

Minor edits: March 17

4 thoughts on “Globalization, Imitation, and Eritrean Refugees

  1. Pingback: The Best Dissident Diaries of the Year | dissident diaries

  2. Gedli times where youth joined en masses can be explained as ‘imitation behaviour’. An easy assumption. The migration not that easily explained theory.


  3. Hi Samuel,

    Your review has created some sort of urgency on my side to read the entire article by Assefaw Bariagaber. I will read it first, then I will come back and share my own views. It looks, from your observation, the article is fundamentally flawed; eager to read & see for my self if that is (or not) the case 🙂




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