Understanding Eritrea, and the UK's response to its people

Posted by Natalie Bennett on 3rd March 2017

Thanks to the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, which this week organised an event at the University of Sheffield where former BBC editor Martin Plaut spoke about the current situation in Eritrea and how we reached this point, based on his recent book. He began with a reminder of the long British involvement in the area - the 1868 invasion of Ethiopia, an interference in the affairs of the region that has continued - the Eritreans having won their 30-year struggle for independence despite at various time Russian and US support for the Ethiopians against them, and the fact that Eritreans were outnumbered by Ethiopians some 30 to 1 at the start of the conflict.

He explained how the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains on a knife edge, after a border war in 1998-2000, despite the apparently related history of the EPLF (Eritrea People's Liberation Front) ruling in Asmara and the Tigrain People's Liberation Front (TPLF) being the dominant political force in  Addis Ababa. (In short - differing strategies, differing allegiances - Third World Marxism versus Albanian Maoism, and differing views of their comparative status.)

Martin attributed conditions in Eritrea now as a result of a belief that the country is in a permanent state of a war of survival, with people subjected to indefinite national service under abusive, even torturous, conditions, with women grossly abused, men sent down the mines. Not only has there been no election since independence, but the ruling EPLP has not had a party congress since 1993, and in 2001 conditions have been those of, in Martin's terms, "absolute lockdown". He spoke about the existence of "Department Zero Three" - an official organ for spreading smears and propaganda against anyone who wants to toe the party line, of the "Two Per Cent tax", levied on Eritrean outside the country who needs to get anything done inside it, and of the refusal of President  Isaias Afwerki to acknowledge a famine now hitting the country following the 2015 El Nino event. Half of all children are stunted, but international agencies have not been allowed access to assess the situation or provide assistance.

In this context, I asked Martin's view of UK policy towards Eritrea. His response was blunt, and what I expected. He described UK policy towards Eritrea, and indeed other states, as being "to stop refugees coming from Africa at all costs". What it should be, he said, was to acknowledge the clear and obvious human rights abuses occurring, to use pressure to try to reduce or stop them, and to acknowledge the need of Eritreans who do escape the country for asylum. Of course that's very much not what our government is doing, indeed it changed the country guidance in way that saw the rate of initial acceptances of refugee applications fell from 85% to 60%. However, 87% of those refusals were overturned on appeal - but with the people concerned in the meantime suffering greatly. And children in Calais who might have been offered refuge, were refused. Also: this event was one more opportunity to highlight the fact that Britain has a policy of indefinite immigration detention, the only Western state that has.

SYMAAG is joining a protest next Saturday at Morton Hall detention centre calling for the closure of such centres- a bus is going from Sheffield.