Persecuted, Detained, Tortured, Smuggled: The Eritrean refugee crisis


According to UNHCR, 444,091 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers have fled the country as the state, ruled by Isaias Afwerki since 1993, continues to conduct human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and persecute his people with relative impunity. The international community has remained largely desensitised to the plight of Eritreans (and an array of various other nationalities) within Eritrea and those fleeing across North Africa to the Middle East and Europe. 

The current Eritrean government headed by Isaias Afwerki, described by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea as a totalitarian state, has created a draconian system of oppression which is responsible for widespread committment of widespread gross human rights violations. These alleged violations have included; 'extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and inhumane prison conditions; violations of freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of association and assembly; freedom of religion and belief; freedom of movement; and forced military conscription.' These human rights violations committed by Eritrean authorities have been without accountability. Described by many as the North Korea of Africa, the regime's brutality has forced hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to flee the country to states across North Africa and the Middle East including Libya, Sudan, Egypt and Israel. 

The mass exodus from Eritrea has produced grave threats to the thousands of individuals and families, threats of which are diverse as they are deadly. The initial threat to those fleeing begins with border crossing where refugees are often intercepted and/or shot by border guards in Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan. 

The threat of dehydration and exposure to the harsh Saharan elements frequently means the refugees are dependent on Bedouin smugglers transporting them across North Africa. However within these smuggling networks, numerous refugees have been raped, tortured, abducted and ransomed by traffickers and smugglers, as well as systematically exploited by their transporters. Many have died on these horrific journeys due to harsh weather conditions, abuse, and are frequently killed based upon their ethnicity and religious identity. 

Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

Terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Egypt's Sinai peninsula and bases in Libya, including the ultra-violent Islamic state group, have kidnapped and killed hundreds of Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 alone. The terrorist organisations, who frequently coordinate with human traffickers and smugglers, use the refugees as a commodity to fund their various causes and military activities. The Islamic State group have also beheaded Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians,  forced men and women to convert to their violent jihadist doctrine, and enslaved men, women and children.

In Sub-Saharan countries such as Libya, the plight facing the Eritrean refugees who manage to survive after months of toil has only deepened. Libya is split by a vicious civil war and refugees have swiftly become abstracts and instruments of policy to be used as political and economic bargaining chips for smuggler and militia groups alike. Refugees arriving in Libya are largely unprotected by Libyan authorities from terrorist and militia groups, smugglers and criminal gangs. 

Militias such as the Nawasi Brigade have exploited the refugees plight for economic and political leverage in the battle for Libya's future. This war economy, fuelled by forced labor, exploitation, trafficking and smuggling networks, has thrived in the environment produced by the civil war. An equally troubling fact is that many of the militias and smugglers perpetrating these abuses are directly funded and contracted by National Salvation Government because of the authorities' inability to provide for the refugees pouring into the country.

The exhausted refugees and asylum seekers placed within militia-run detention compounds face the threat of starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, disease, separation from family and loved ones, exposure due to inadequate provision of clothing, arrest, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and death as accountability has significantly decreased with the disintegration of the Libyan state. 

Concurrent to this, refugees live in desperate living conditions and face mistreatment by security personnel within the detention compounds such as Tarik as-Sikka. Numerous witnesses have reported that authorities and guards have separated families, raped women, withheld food and water, chained people, and beaten men, women and children. Those who attempt escape from these various compounds and detention centres are usually killed or tortured. 

The plight of the Eritrean refugees and the horrors they face fleeing across North Africa must be addressed by the international community, nor can the human rights violations committed by various states, government authorities, militia groups and individuals remain unaccountable. It is the responsibility of Libyan authorities and other states to provide sanctuary to and respect the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants seeking sanctuary, the vast majority of whom have been forced to flee their home country due to political, religious and sexual persecution, dictatorships, civil war, deadly familial or community violence. 

Matthew Williams