Find the full issue of Horn of Africa Bulletin here


No Lessons Learned: Europe’s unconditional engagement with the Eritrean regime

In November 2015, European heads of governments and ministers of foreign affairs met with their African counterparts at the Valletta Summit to discuss migration from Africa to Europe and the problem of human smuggling and trafficking. There is little doubt that the illustriousness of the participants reflects Europe’s growing concern about unregulated migration, which has caused considerable political unrest in recent years. Europe’s top politicians, who used to be rather reluctant to pay frequent visits to the African continent now claimed to be willing to address the root causes of irregular migration, to reinforce the protection of migrants, to fight human smuggling and trafficking and to improve cooperation on return and reintegration[1].

The African and European participants of the Summit passed a joint political statement that claims: “We agree to respond decisively and together manage migration flows in all their aspects, guided by the principles of solidarity, partnership and shared responsibility. We will pursue this common cause in full respect for human rights and the sovereignty of participating states, taking into account national legislations and specificities”[2].

The problem with this approach is that Europe has started to court political leaders who often show little respect for human rights or, as in the case of Eritrea, even do not have basic national legislations such as an implemented constitution. In fact, it is an approach that tends to confuse cause and effect: Eritreans, who constitute one of the largest African refugee groups entering Europe in spite of its small population size of about four million people, are not forced out of their country by climate change or drought, but rather by the politics of the small ruling clique composed of President Isaias Afewerki and his few advisers.

The regime introduced an open-ended national service in 2002, which means that citizens aged between 18 and 50 or older have to perform work for the state or the military for nominal payment. They are deprived of personal liberties and of the capacity to maintain a family. This situation has turned the Eritrean nation into a society split between those who are trapped inside the country and exploited as forced labour by the elites of the military and the ruling party, and those who live in the diaspora.

This article reflects on the patterns of EU cooperation with Eritrea, a process which has interestingly been dominated by the Eritrean leadership to an astonishing degree, and analyses the prospects of renewed cooperation between Europe and Eritrea: is there any chance that this renewed cooperation will lead to reforms which could curb the current mass exodus? Is there any political willingness on the side of the Eritrean regime to engage in reforms? And have European policy makers reflected what it really means to reform a social and economic system based on forced labour that has been in place for more than one decade?

Is the Eritrean regime willing to reform the open-ended national service?

In 2015, presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab assured European policy makers at the Bruno Kreisky Forum[3] that the most recent round of draftees would only serve for 18 months and then be demobilised. At the same time, EriTV produced a propaganda video for its diaspora audience, titled “The Eritrean National Service – the fight that continues”[4]. One year later the Eritrean government revoked its promises, citing allegations of a continued Ethiopian military threat[5].

One important point why the leadership is unwilling to reform the national service is its stabilizing influence on the political system. This might seem paradoxical at first glance, but the national service has been producing a steady flow of refugees, who seek to reach European shores in order to be able to support their extended families from afar. Young people in Eritrea who are subjected to forced labour spend their energy planning their escape route instead of becoming a potential anti-regime movement. The Eritrean leaders are well aware of these mechanisms: the vicious circle of forced labour for the benefit of the ruling elites, mass exodus, and stabilisation through remittances.

On the other hand, a reform of the national service would require a thorough transformation of the economic system, which has evolved into a command economy in the aftermath of the border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). Shortly after the war, the World Bank had granted US $ 200 million for a comprehensive demobilisation program, which was cancelled in 2002 and replaced by the open-ended national service, a system based on systematic forced labour by the recruits (Kibreab 2009, Hirt and Mohammad 2013, COIE 2016)[6], while the economy is under the control of the ruling party and the military leadership. The industrial sector, which had survived 40 years of Ethiopian domination and was slowly recovering during the 1990s, lies now in shambles and Eritrea produces hardly any consumer goods. This makes the country a fertile playground for contraband trade, which is reportedly dominated by certain military officers and regime minions. We are currently talking about a labour force of 300,000 to 400,000 national service conscripts who need to be demobilised and reintegrated into either the subsistence sector or into an almost non-existent free labour market. With every year and every new round of conscripts, it will become more difficult to break the vicious cycle of militarization, flight and exile, which has turned Eritrea in one of the most diasporic societies globally. European policy-makers seem to be unaware of the difficulties and the efforts that would be needed to change the status quo. Accordingly, they tend to take the lip service of the regime’s representatives for granted.

The European approach: neither carrot nor stick

Back in 2009, a EU representative in Asmara told this author: “We have tried everything with the Eritrean government, both the carrot and the stick, but nothing worked out” (personal conversation, August 2009). In fact, since independence European cooperation with Eritrea has been characterized by the lack of clear principles and by a tendency to simply follow shifting Eritrean precepts. The government expelled foreign donors several times, only to call them back after short periods of time: in 1997 it claimed to have reached self-reliance and told bilateral donors to leave (Hirt, 2001)[7], and in 2005 it returned to a hostile policy towards foreign aid and expelled most international NGOs which it had called back in 2000 after the war with Ethiopia. In 2009, the government accepted EUR122 million development aid from the EU, only to turn down the remaining funds in 2011. Yet, in 2015 Eritrea shifted its strategy once more and applied for fresh EU funds, this time against the background of growing European concerns with the refugee influx, which prompted various European delegations to travel to Asmara for negotiations.

Moreover, there has been no consistent European approach to counter the deteriorating human rights situation in Eritrea. In 2001, when the president cracked down on an emerging reform movement headed by prominent PFDJ leaders and arrested eleven high-ranking officials and most journalists of the nascent independent press, the EU protested verbally through Italian ambassador Bandini. He was immediately expelled by Isaias, and the remaining EU diplomats were briefly recalled to their home countries. Yet, they returned one by one without uttering any further protest. EU Commissioner Louis Michel used a “carrot approach” with the aim of getting Dawit Issaak, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who had been arrested in 2001, released from jail. In a public hearing at the European Parliament in 2009, Michel admitted the futility of the five-year effort to convince Eritrean authorities to free the journalist[8]. For some reasons, the experience of the past 25 years has not led to any consequences: in spite of the European Parliament’s heavy criticism of the human rights crisis in Eritrea[9], the EU Commission granted EUR200 million for the energy sector and to improve governance in December 2015. The German minister for development and cooperation, Dr. Gerd Müller, travelled to Asmara to discuss renewed bilateral cooperation, and in September 2016, an Eritrean delegation was welcomed in Berlin[10].Strangely, European policy makers have failed to vehemently criticize the institutionalised system of forced labour in Eritrea, which has been labelled as a crime against humanity by the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE 2016), and which is the root cause of the mass exodus. Accordingly, the EU funds are not directed towards its reform nor are they tied to any conditions to abolish forced labour in Eritrea.

Risks and ramifications of reforming the national service

The participants of the Valletta Summit set a clear goal by stating: “We commit to address the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement resulting from state fragility and insecurity, as well as from demographic, economic and environmental trends. Our common response will focus on reducing poverty, promoting peace, good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights, supporting inclusive economic growth through investment opportunities and the creation of decent jobs, improving the delivery of basic services such as education, health and security”[11].

In the case of Eritrea, most of these goals can only be achieved by reducing the national service to its original length of 18 months and by returning from a militarized command economy to a market economy. Paradoxically, the international community seems to have blocked out the fact that post-war demobilisation would be necessary. Keeping large chunks of Eritrean society in a national service program based on poorly paid forced labour has led to severe economic disruptions: the modern productive sector has shrunk and industrial production has almost come to a halt; subsistence agriculture has suffered as well, and dependence of the population on remittances from their relatives abroad has increased. If Europe intends to reverse this situation, which is also perpetuating the exodus of the youth, it will have to insist on a demobilisation programme similar to that of the World Bank, including economic reforms and the re-establishment of a free labour market. The main justification of the ruling elite is that the national service recruits are indispensable for national security. However, in order to defend the country, a professional army would be much more effective, while the people are free to pursue their own careers after having served for 18 months, the original length of the national service. With every year the prevailing system will be maintained, the more damage will be caused to individuals who are deprived of making a decent living; to families who are losing their breadwinners either to the national service or to forced exile; and to the Eritrean nation as a whole. Eritrea has not realised its potential in commercial agriculture, fishery, tourism and other sectors due to these failed policies. Thus, it does not make much sense when European governments support vocational training programmes[12], but fail to mention the necessity of structural reforms. When young people are trained as electricians, nurses or truck drivers, but have no prospects of being paid for their work, the training will even encourage them to leave the country in search for better opportunities abroad.


European diplomats and policy makers have continuously shied away from confronting the government of Eritrea and have acquiesced in the regime’s decisions to either accept or reject financial aid at will. Relations between Europe and Eritrea are not based on trust, continuity and reliability. This can be explained by the refusal of the Eritrean leadership to follow any demands related to the respect of human rights, transparency, democratisation and good governance, but also on Europe’s failure to engage in solving the border issues between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Eritrean regime’s ideology is based on the principle of self-reliance, adopted during the independence struggle and kept up until present. However, the Eritrean economy is far from being self-reliant and the stability of the current system is based on three pillars: remittances from the Eritrean diaspora and the current refugees; payments from shifting foreign allies such as Libya’s Khadhafi, Qatar and currently the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia due to Eritrea’s military involvement in the anti-Houthi war in Yemen[13]; and finally on semi-legal and illegal activities such as contraband trade, human trafficking or black market money exchange[14].

These three pillars have worked to stabilize the current political system, which has caused tremendous suffering for the Eritrean population. Accordingly, European policy makers who aim at curbing the refugee influx into Europe by improving living conditions in the countries of origin should keep in mind that in the Eritrean case, one first step would be the acknowledgement that structural reforms rather than cosmetic aid programs will be necessary. It may be a good thing to put millions of Euros in the renewable energy sector, as the current EU aid packages intends, but as long as gross human rights violations and institutionalised forced labour will prevail in Eritrea, the flight of tens of thousands young Eritreans per year will continue.

Nicole Hirt is a political scientist focusing on the Horn of Africa, specifically on Eritrea. She is a senior research fellow associated with the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg. She can be reached at


[1] Valetta Action Plan, Nov. 2015,

[2]Valetta Summit, Political Declaration,

[3]For an audio of YemaneGebreab’s presentation at the Kreisky Forum on 08.04.2015, see

[4]EriTV 2015: “Sawa Eritrean National Service – The Fight that Continues”,

[5] (2016, May 12), Official trip finds few rights improvements in Eritrea,

[6]Kibreab, Gaim, 2009: Forced Labour in Eritrea. Journal of Modern African Studies, 47(1), 41-72. doi: 10.1017/S0022278X08003650; Hirt, N., Mohammad, A.S. (2013). ‘Dreams Don’t Come True in Eritrea’: Anomie and Family Disintegration due to the Structural Militarisation of Society. Journal of Modern African Studies 51(1), 139-168. doi: 10.1017/S0022278X12000572; UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council (2015, June 4). Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. UN Document A/HRC/29/42.

[7]Hirt, Nicole 2001: Eritrea

[8]European Parliamentzwischen Krieg und Frieden. Die Entwicklung seit der Unabhängigkeit. Hamburg.

[9] Daniel RezeneMekonnen, “An Afternoon with Louis Michel at the European Parliament”,, 11.12. 2009,

[10] European Parliament, Resolution on the Situation in Eritrea, 08.03.2016,

[11]Deutsche Welle, 07.09. 2016: “Germany and Eritrea: Defending Human Rights or Curbing Migration?”

[12] Valetta Summit, Political Declaration,

[13]Norway supports vocational training programs, see, 20.02.2016, “Eritrea: Vocational and Technical Training for Development”; Germany intents to resume bi-lateral cooperation, which had been unilaterally terminated by Eritrea.

[14] Gérard Prunier, 17.09. 2016: “Horn of Africa, pivot of the world”, in: Middle East Online,

[15] UN Security Council, Document S/2014/727, p. 33.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.