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One Eritrean Generation, Two Worlds: The established Diaspora, the new exiles and their relations to the homeland

At the time of Eritrea’s independence in 1993, roughly one million Eritreans had fled the armed conflict with Ethiopia [1] and settled in neighbouring Sudan, in various Middle Eastern countries, Europe, North America and Australia. The vast majority of these Eritrean refugees supported the independence struggle from abroad, although political loyalties were divided between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which had initiated the struggle in 1961 and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which had dominated the liberation war form the mid-1980s on and led the country to independence.

In spite of an initial “liberation euphoria”, only a small number of Eritreans returned from exile for good, while the vast majority chose to remain in their respective host countries. However, most Eritreans abroad maintained links to their homeland and considered themselves as part of a transnational community. The EPLF, re-named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in 1994, took over the government, and one of its major efforts was to consolidate its control over the diaspora. It introduced a 2% rehabilitation tax levied on all Eritreans residing outside the country, and established community organisations in all regions with significant diaspora populations with the aim of controlling its citizens abroad[2]. Initially, most Eritreans in the diaspora volunteered to support their war-torn homeland financially, and when renewed war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, many of them redoubled their efforts.

In the aftermath of the war, when President Isaias Afewerki crushed emerging internal dissent in 2001 by jailing prominent PFDJ-reformers who had demanded democratisation, the number of critical voices in the diaspora increased as well. However, the political opposition, which consists of more than 30 groupings has been weakened by rifts along ethnic, regional and religious lines and has so far failed to find a functional roadmap to facilitate regime change in Eritrea. The older generation’s political focus has always remained the independence struggle, and the rift between ELF and EPLF has continued with some modifications. The old ELF disintegrated by splitting into various sub-organisations, and many former EPLF supporters distanced themselves from the ruling PFDJ and formed new parties, most prominently the Eritrean Democratic Party[3]. Some PFDJ dissidents also engage in newly emerging political forums. However, there are still many Eritreans living in the diaspora who have not distanced themselves from the autocratic regime that is ruling their homeland. The government has been successful in developing a narrative in which Eritrea is portrayed as a heroic nation struggling against the rest of the world in order to achieve independence and self-reliance, a fact which, according to the government’s narrative, has triggered an international conspiracy in order to weaken the young nation. Other diaspora Eritreans have in turn engaged in civil society movements with the aim to counteract the regime’s efforts to mobilize the diaspora for its goals, by committing themselves to shed light on the worrying human rights situation at home while striving for peaceful political change[4].

The Second-Generation Diaspora Youth’s Long-Distance Nationalism

Since independence a new generation of Eritreans have been raised far from their homeland, but many of them still consider themselves as Eritreans, even if they have acquired their host country’s nationality. As Lyons and Mandaville remark, long-distance nationalism often thrives in the diaspora, which can also be a breeding-ground for anti-democratic behaviour[5]. The PFDJ itself has actively tried to mobilise the diaspora youth abroad by establishing the Youth PFDJ as a mobilisation hub in 2004. This political youth organisation has developed a “festival culture” combined with seminars conducted by regime cadres that gives second generation diaspora youth the feeling of contributing to an important cause and motivates them to donate money for the regime. It tries to attract young Eritreans, some of whom are facing difficulties integrating into their host societies, where they feel like “second-class citizens”.

However, in recent years the numbers of government supporters has declined due to various factors including rising international criticism of the regime and the imposition of sanctions on Eritrea[6]. In recent years various civic organisations have flourished in the diaspora, among them Human Rights Concern Eritrea and “Arbi Harnet” (Freedom Friday), a movement that tries to mobilise people inside the country to engage in acts of civil disobedience. Many younger diaspora Eritreans consider the traditional opposition parties as ossified and unable (or even unwilling) to bring about change, and accordingly some independent political movements have emerged in recent years. One of the most prominent is Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, one of the participants in the 2013-founded Bologna Forum that seeks to gather diaspora Eritreans from all walks of life and to present an open platform for pro-democracy advocates under the motto “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems[7].”

The pro-government as well as the opposition camp have regularly engaged in demonstrations to express their opinion about Eritrea-related UN policies. Following the imposition of targeted sanctions including an arms embargo in 2009, both government supporters and opponents demonstrated in Geneva and other cities to express either their condemnation or their appreciation of this punitive measure, respectively. Similarly, the devastating report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights on Eritrea that was released in June 2015 and accused the government of possible crimes against humanity triggered both pro-government and anti-government demonstrations. While the regime opponents expressed their gratitude to the commission and encouraged it to take further steps to unveil human rights atrocities committed by the Eritrean regime, government supporters dismissed the work of the Commission altogether and called it an “unwarranted attack on the state of Eritrea[8].”

The New Exiles and their Ties to the Homeland

Inside Eritrea, developments have gone from bad to worse since the political crisis of 2001. In 2002 the government introduced a so-called development campaign as a reaction to the prevailing no war no peace situation with Ethiopia as a consequence of the latter’s refusal to implement the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC)’s final and binding decision, which had awarded Badme, the border war’s bone of contention, to Eritrea. The duration of the obligatory military and national service was extended from previously 18 months to unspecified periods. Women between 18 and 27 and men between 18 and up to 50 years have since been forced to serve in the army or to perform civilian tasks for pocket money[9].  This has resulted in a state of social anomie where people are no longer able to perform socially expected tasks such as caring for their own spouse and children and for their elderly parents in the absence of a social welfare network provided by the state[10].

While high-ranking military officers and PFDJ cadres profit from the unpaid work of the conscripts on plantations and in PFDJ-owned construction companies, the regime has virtually delegated the task of feeding the population to the diaspora. This situation has triggered an accelerating mass exodus, and according to the UNHCR currently about 5,000 Eritreans are fleeing Eritrea every month illegally, because national service conscripts are forbidden to leave without exit visas. The majority end up in either Sudan or Ethiopia, but many are struggling to make their way to Europe, where Eritreans currently make up the largest group of asylum seekers after Syrians. These new exiles find themselves in a much more vulnerable position than the second generation diaspora youth. While they face arduous dangers en route to their destiny while passing through the Sahara desert, civil war-ridden Libya and the Mediterranean, they also face growing xenophobia in many European countries that feel overwhelmed by the rapidly growing numbers of refugees.

In addition, their government does nothing to alleviate their problems once they have left, viewing them as deserters who have failed to fulfil their national service obligations. Eritrean officials have been involved in smuggling and trafficking of their own citizens[11], and once they are abroad, they are made to sign a “letter of regret” if they are in need of consular services, in which they pledge to pay the 2% tax immediately and to accept any punishment the government deems appropriate upon their eventual return. However, the aim of these young refugees is not to return, but to live their lives autonomously and to plan their lives far away from the tentacles of their government. By doing so, they are striving to reach the same status that the established diaspora enjoys, whose members are considered as “first class citizens” and are granted more rights than the people inside Eritrea and the refugees on the road[12]. Only when they have settled and have become a source of financial largesse for the government, are they treated as citizens. It remains to be seen how the new exiles will position themselves in relation to the regime they fled. Having grown up in an authoritarian environment, few of them actually have opted for political activism. Exceptions are some university-educated Eritreans who left the country shortly after the 2001 political crackdown, among them lawyers, journalists and former government officials, who have since engaged in human rights advocacy, civil society movements and political forums.

Conclusion: Can Eritrea’s Diaspora Contribute to Peace in the Horn?

Eritrean youth are currently fleeing from a country whose government has embarked on a course of societal militarisation in order to counter (real or perceived) threats from its larger neighbour Ethiopia. The mass exodus of the Eritrean conscripts in itself can be interpreted as a powerful “no” to the Eritrean regime’s policies towards Ethiopia. More than a hundred thousand Eritreans have meanwhile found shelter in Ethiopia and some of them are allowed to continue their education and to integrate into Ethiopian society, which in the long run may contribute to the normalisation of relations between both peoples. However, some Eritreans in Ethiopia have joined groups committed to armed resistance against the Eritrean regime from Ethiopian soil, which so far has been largely ineffectual.

While the only option for those residing inside Eritrea is voting with their feet in the absence of any possibilities to raise their voice in a highly authoritarian environment, diaspora Eritreans have more choices, at least in theory. They could lobby international political decision makers to put pressure on Ethiopia to implement the EEBC’s boundary decision, which serves as a pretext for Eritrea’s militaristic policies. Alternatively they could, and some groups are indeed engaged in bringing about political change in Eritrea in the hope that a new government may engage in a constructive dialogue with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has tried to facilitate the consolidation of the political and civic Eritrean opposition movements by promoting the Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change (ENCDC), albeit without much success. And of course there are those diaspora Eritreans who support the hard-line position of their government and consider Ethiopia the archenemy.

In a nutshell, the young generation born inside Eritrea has made it impressively clear that they want to live in peace and are unwilling to participate in the belligerent policies of their government.  Diaspora Eritreans, who are not directly affected by the indefinite military and national service, have so far not focused on lobbying for a solution to the stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia for various political reasons, and their influence on political decision-making inside Eritrea is extremely limited.

Therefore, it will be the task of the international community to pressure for a solution of the conflict. European policy-makers are currently considering to support the Eritrean regime with fresh EU development aid in order to curb the youth exodus, which is unlikely to yield any tangible results unless a process of demilitarisation will be initialized. In order to advance into this direction, European policy-makers should resume efforts to pressure for a diplomatic solution and bring the two governments back to the negotiating table. Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the EEBC decision and Eritrea’s refusal to engage in any form of dialogue have been left unchallenged for too long by the guarantors of the Algiers Peace Agreement, which include the EU, the USA, the UN and the African Union.


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. Her current research interests are diasporas, transnationalism and the persistence of authoritarian rule. She can be reached at:



[I] World Bank (1994) Eritrea. Options and strategies for growth, World Bank Report No. 12930-ER, Washington D.C.

[2] For analyses of the Eritrean diaspora, see for example Nadje Al-Ali, Richard Black and Khalid Koser (2001) ‘The limits to “transnationalism”: Bosnian and Eritrean refugees in Europe as emerging transnational communities’, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (4), 578-600; Gaim Kibreab (2007) “The Eritrean diaspora, the war of independence, post-conflict (re)-construction and democratisation”, in Ulf Johansson Dahre (ed.): The Role of Diaspora in Peace, Democracy and Development in the Horn of Africa. Research Report in Social Anthropology 1, Lund University, 97-115; Samia Tecle (2012) The Paradoxes of State-Led Transnationalism: Capturing Continuity, Change and Rupture in the Eritrean Transnational Field. York University, Toronto, M.A. Thesis.

[3] For details, see Mohammad, Abdulkader Saleh and Kjetil Tronvoll (2015) Eritrean opposition parties and civic organisations, NOREF Expert Analysis,

[4] For an analysis of political diaspora activities, see Hirt, Nicole (2015): “The Eritrean Diaspora and its Impact on Regime Stability: Responses to UN Sanctions”, in: African Affairs 114 (454), 115-135.

[5] Lyons, Terrence and Peter Mandaville (2012) “Introduction: Politics from afar: Transnational diasporas and networks”, in ibid. Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas and Networks, Hurst, London, 1-23.

[6] Hirt, Nicole 2015: “The Eritrean Diaspora”, 19.

[7] Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, “Bologna 2015”,, accessed 27.09. 2015.

[8] “Demonstration against all hostilities, 22 June Geneva”, , accessed 27.09.201

[9] Kibreab, Gaim (2009) “Forced Labour in Eritrea”, in: Journal of Modern African Studies, 47 (1), 41-72.

[10] Hirt, Nicole and Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad (2013) ‘“Dreams Don’t Come True in Eritrea”: Anomie and Family Disintegration due to the Structural Militarization of Society’, in: Journal of Modern African Studies, 51 (1), 139 – 168.

[11] For details see Mirjam van Reisen, Meron Estefanos and C. Rijken (2013): “The Human Trafficking Cycle. Sinai and Beyond”. Tilburg University.

[12] Jennifer Riggan calls this phenomenon ‘Eritrea’s version of graduated sovereignty’, see Riggan, Jennifer (2013)  “Imagining Emigration: Debating National Duty in Eritrean Classrooms” in Africa Today, 60 (2), 90-91.

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