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The impact of the Peace process in the Horn on the European Union’s policy to curb human trafficking and Slavery: The role of the UAE


In recent years, human trafficking has dominated European Union (EU) approaches towards the Horn and Northern African region. In the same period the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has rapidly expanded its maritime military and trade presence in the Horn, as have China and other players competing for access. The UAE has played a key role in mediating a peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea that led to a historic peace agreement signed on 9 July 2018. The peace agreement may lead to new dynamics in Eritrea and in the Horn. The question examined in this article is how the peace agreement affects the realization of the EU’s objective to curb human trafficking in light of the competition between global security networks in the Horn.


European strategic focus on curbing Human Trafficking in the Horn

In 2014, the EU Ministerial meeting adopted a political declaration in Rome, a key strategic document, initiating The Khartoum Process. In this document the EU committed itself to the fight against international human trafficking and smuggling.[i] In the same year, the AU adopted The Khartoum Process as a regional dialogue for “enhanced cooperation on migration and mobility and regional collaboration between countries of origin, transit and destination regarding the migration routes between the Horn of Africa and the European Union (EU).”[ii] The Valetta Action Plan set out EU measures to support the Khartoum process.[iii]

The EU Trust Fund established to support actions under the Khartoum process included pledges worth 3.3 b€. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia are amongst the beneficiaries of the Trust Fund and additional development cooperation programmes. The EU agreed cooperation packages with the major actors in the Horn to combat human trafficking, included a package of projects worth almost 90 m€ to Eritrea[iv], following an earlier package of 200 m€ guided by EU “efforts to stem the outflow of refugees and economic migrants, many of whom seek asylum in Europe.”[v] The funding allocated by the EU for  the purpose of containing the outward flow of people  from Eritrea has been  criticised  as being ‘“flawed” [vi] based on the argument that “aid tends not to improve Eritrean living standards.”[vii] In Ethiopia, the EU provided in 2017 development aid worth 745 m€ over 2014-2020 through the European Development Fund and an additional 91m€ for emergency relief.[viii] In 2016, the EU approved a Special Measure of 100 m€ to Sudan, from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, in addition to the 196 m€ approved from 2010 onwards through the European Development Fund. The EU was also active in Libya, mobilising 286 m€ on migration-related projects.[ix]


Strategic Competition in the Horn

Despite considerable efforts of the EU in curbing human trafficking in the Horn, its interests stand in competition with new actors in the region. Recently, the Horn has once again become an arena marked by fierce external competition to secure access through ports. The strategic interest in Africa from China, Asia and the Gulf has made the Horn a flash-point for security interests. This is not without precedent. In ancient times the Erythrean Sea included the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Eritrea’s location has been strategic since the beginning of maritime trade.[x]

The Chinese Belt and Road Project is a new dimension of the fierce competition over access in the Horn; its strategic location defined as a ‘chokepoint’ – a point where key routes could be blocked by naval forces. In 2014, Chinese President Xi revealed the 1+2+3 strategy, a collaboration with the Gulf States aiming to globally secure access to (i) oil, (ii) trade and investment and (iii) high tech.[xi] The interest in raw materials, including oil as well as markets, is driving the competition; controlling the infrastructure to secure routes, ports, means of transportation and pipelines form a critical element of the current changing relations in the Horn, which is a key strategic location, involving Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen:

“The Bab al-Mandeb – linking the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez Canal – is one of the world’s most strategic maritime transit points. An estimated 3.8 million barrels traverse the Bab al-Mandeb every day, in addition to being an important jumping off point to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa alike.”[xii]

The competition for access to the Horn – and through the Horn to Africa, involves a rapid expansion of trade-facilitation and military ports in the Horn operated by the UAE, Israel, China, Turkey, Iran, Russia and the US and Europe. The competition for control is manifested by a race for military bases to secure such access. When China opened a military base close to the American and French bases in Djibouti in 2014, the UAE decided to open a military base in Eritrea in 2015 in Assab, after having been ejected from Djibouti. Since 2014, three loose coalitions are competing for presence: China, the Saudi and UAE led coalition and the Qatar-Turkey coalition. Recently, the Russian government is engaged in  discussions with Eritrea on a new facilitation port for Russia to get foot on the ground in the Red Sea,[xiii] a negotiation that alludes to the interest to help facilitate the transportation of potash exports, through the port of Massawa.[xiv]

Eritrea aligned with the UAE in 2014, after dropping an earlier alliance with Iran, during  which the Eritrean government is alleged to have trained members of the Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthi) for the war in Yemen. After changing alliance, Eritrea sent troops to fight alongside UAE troops in Yemen.[xv] UAE’s perception of Iran’s attempt to gain control to block the strait of Hormuz has led to a critical re-evaluation of its strategic location of Eritrea and of the Horn[xvi] and Yemen, where UAE established two military bases.[xvii] UAE secured access to the port of Berbera in Somaliland.[xviii] The UAE has been engaged in an intense campaign as a ‘proxy’ for its allies, notably Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel.[xix] The UAE military base in Assab, Eritrea, is almost completed, despite military support to Eritrea being seen as violating United Nations Security Council Resolutions.[xx]

The value of investment generated through the licensing of the ports, military bases and infrastructure generates a sizable revenue stream for the relatively poor countries in the Horn. The UAE Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, provided 3 billion US$ in much needed aid to Ethiopia, which was on the verge of a financial crisis due to high investment in infrastructural projects[xxi], in an agreement that preceded the Ethiopian offer for peace to Eritrea.[xxii] According to UN monitors Eritrea was offered military aid and compensation by UAE for the use of land, airspace and territorial waters in the fight in Yemen.[xxiii]


Human trafficking networks in the Horn and the Gulf

Whilst Eritrea has maximized its strategic and financial gains from its geo-strategic location, actors in Eritrea are alleged to be deeply involved in the facilitation and organization of lucrative human trafficking with high profit margins from Eritrea to North African and Europe, the Gulf states and Southern Africa. Despite the European partnership to curb migration, the government of Eritrea has pursued policies that inadvertently contribute to the trade in persons – . Trade in persons is facilitated by the alleged involvement of certain officials and human trafficking facilitators to assist people who can organize payments to help them leave the country.[xxiv] Human Trafficking is implemented by networked organizations, which include Eritrean nationals and collaboration across Sudan and Libya.[xxv] This is a lucrative business. Europol, which is Europe’s police agency, estimated in 2016 that people-smuggling may have generated between USD3 billion- USD6 billion.[xxvi]

Among the main culprits, Eritrean human traffickers are also credited with having developed the “Libyan route” which allegedly operates with the involvement of groups in the UAE and also the Libyan faction in the current civil war led by General Haftar:[xxvii]

The UN Sanctions Committee in collaboration with Interpol has identified several individuals engaged in human trafficking networks that cover the Horn, North Africa and the Gulf[xxviii]

The identification of these individuals represents a first step towards the prosecution of individuals engaged in leading human trafficking and slavery structures in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Coordinated and intensified international cooperation can bolster such initiatives to end human trafficking. This is particularly true of emerging international actors such as the UAE which aspire to be regarded as a globally responsible actor, an aspiration which is also expressed in the UAE’s international cooperation policy[xxix], launched in 2018, which states:

“The overall goal is to bolster security, social peace and stability in all other countries that are in need of assistance, in the Middle East and North Africa in particular.”[xxx]

The attempts to change the challenges that human trafficking present on the ground may necessitate further action by the regional administration in Tigray and the Ethiopian government. Tigray has played a limited role in the peace process so far, but has a vested interest in supporting the people-to-people peace on the 900 km long border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.[xxxi] People living in these border areas seem to be determined to ensure that peace changes the border situation.[xxxii] This will positively affect the fight against human trafficking, as smugglers would no longer benefit from profits to facilitate persons across the closed border.[xxxiii]

Internal dynamics in Eritrea may also help curb human trafficking, especially if a change of policy on the infinite national service and changes of shoot-to-kill policy at the border would be realised. A first step in that direction has recently been announced by Eritrean authorities, in follow up of the Peace Agreement, although the status of these announcements is unclear.[xxxiv]


Drawing initial conclusions

The peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been an externally driven process, especially responding to the interests of competing strategic coalitions for access in the Red Sea, the UAE interest to exploit the Assab-port and gain access to various valuable mining initiatives, requiring a normalization of the situation in Eritrea. The UAE and other actors therefore have an interest to end the international sanctions against Eritrea and to facilitate the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea The investments from the Gulf in the infrastructure development (including ports) and other sectors require stability in the Horn and the avoidance of a resumption of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia with all its attendant consequences. The peace process is an important step in this strategy.

In the last decade, human trafficking has emerged as a key cross-cutting security concern in the Horn. Individuals and groups in the Horn, North Africa and Gulf have facilitated human trafficking operations. The normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea will create a conducive environment for national, regional and international efforts to eliminate human trafficking and smuggling operations. However, looking at a normalization, this may be dispensable for the authorities of both countries, particularly since it has served as a flashpoint of international criminal investigation.

Moreover, the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has raised expectations of free movement of people between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The restoration of air and land transport routes between the two countries is already a reality. Regions on the Ethio-Eritrean border such as the regional states of Tigrai and Afar will derive benefits from the lowering of barriers for the movement of people and goods across the border.  This would undoubtedly reduce the profit margins of human trafficking networks operating from Eritrea, and hence its financial attractiveness.

In order to gain international acceptability, the UAE is keen to be identified as a player acting for the good of global humanity. The allegations and perceptions of ignoring international human trafficking and slavery related activity will negatively affect the UAE’s bid to take on the mantle of a respectable global player. The UAE needs to be seen as taking on a more active stance in combatting human trafficking.

The visibility and presence of the UAE in peace-building in Eritrea and Ethiopia therefore presents the opportunity for a more vigorous approach in combatting human trafficking and slavery networks in the region. The EU should actively engage with the UAE, as one of the key global strategic partners in the Horn.

The peace-building efforts promoted by the UAE should be extended to involve people-to-people peace, ensuring that the encouragement of human trafficking is meaningfully diminished and the criminal organization of it is prosecuted, and it should involve meaningful reforms within Eritrea, notably of the indefinite national service, which has been feeding large migration and human trafficking streams from this country into Africa and Europe.


Mirjam van Reisen is Professor of International Relations, Innovation and Care at Tilburg University and Professor Computing for Society at Leiden University. Van Reisen is a member of the Dutch Council for International Affairs. She can be reached at


[i] International Centre for Migration Policy Development. Khartoum Process. EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative. Vienna: ICPMD, Undated.

[ii] International Organization for Migration. EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative (Khartoum Process). Geneva: IOM, 2014.

[iii] Valletta Summit. Action Plan. November 11-12, 2015.

[iv] Finnan, Daniel. EU mustn’t ignore human rights in giving Eritrea aid. June 20, 2017. RFI, June 28, 2017.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] European Union Commission, ‘’Worsening humanitarian situation in Ethiopia prompts additional €15 million in EU aid,” ECHO, December 8, 2017,

[ix] European External Action Service, Web site,  ‘’EU-Libya relations,’’: (Sept, 3, 2018).

[x] Casson, Lionel. The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

[xi] Gresh, Geoffrey F. ‘’A Vital Maritime Pinch Point: China, the Bab alMandeb, and the Middle East.’’ Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 11, Issue. 1 (2017): (37-46).

[xii] Gresh. ibid. p. 39.

[xv] Khan, Ibid.

[xvi] Karim, Umer. Horn of Africa Bulletin. ‘’Turkish and UAE Engagement in Horn of Africa and Changing Geo-Politics of the Region.’’ Horn of Africa Bulletin 29, Issue. 5 (Nov 29 2017).

[xvii] Telci, Ismail N. Telci. ‘’A Lost Love between the Horn of Africa and UAE.’’ Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies,

[xviii] Khan, Taimur. ‘’Ethiopia-Eritrea Reconciliation Offers Glimpse Into Growing UAE Regional Influence.’’ Stratfor, (July 26, 2018).

[xix] Middle East Monitor. Somalia passes law banning UAE port, Emirates continues work. Memo. March 15, 2018.

[xx] VOA News. UN: Saudis, UAE Likely Violating Arms Embargo in Eritrea. Nov 4, 2016

[xxi] Crabtree, Justina. United Arab Emirates gives Ethiopia $1 billion lifeline to ease foreign exchange crisis. CNBC. June 18, 2018.

[xxii] Maasho, Aaron. ‘’UAE to give Ethiopia $3 billion in aid and investments.’’ Reuters,June 16, 2018.

[xxiii] Manek, Nizar. ‘’Eritrea’s Military Got Help From U.A.E., Foreign Firms, UN Says.’’ Bloomberg,

[xxiv] Van Reisen, Mirjam and Munyaradzi Mawere. Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era. Researchgate. 2017.

[xxv] Jaura, Ramesh. ‘’Security Council Backs Dutch Sanctions Against Eritrean and Libyan Traffickers.’’ June 10, 2018.

[xxvi] Gebrekidan, Selam. ‘’Behind the refugee crisis, families in the West willing to pay and pay.’’ Reuters, Special Report, Feb 24, 2016.

[xxvii] ‘’Italian Police Arrest Ghirmay Ermias, Redae Medhane and 22 International Human Traffickers.’’ April 20, 2015.

[xxviii] United Nations. Narrative Summaries of reasons for Listings

[xxix] Government of UAE. Foreign Aid Strategy 2017-2021.

[xxx] Gulf News, ‘’ UAE launches five-year foreign aid strategy,’’ December 14, 2016,

[xxxi] The Eritrean Government announced a withdrawal from the border in July 2018, although the implementation of the withdrawal is unclear according to independent observers at the border. Al Jazeera.

Eritrea withdraws troops from border with former foe Ethiopia. July 20, 2018. Available at: Witness accounts include: (posted on facebook by author after visit to border, August 23, 2018); Kjettle Tronvol, posted following a visit (Sept 1, 2018) on:

[xxxii] (translation KFB)

[xxxiii] The facilitation across the border is 2500 – 3000 US$ (from Eritrea to Sudan), according to latest information provided by administrator of collection centre, Ethiopia (21 august, 2018, face-to-face interview by author).

[xxxiv] Whether this will be realised remains to be seen. Announcements made at lower government levels maybe overruled by the President. Nizar Manek. Eritrea May Alter Army Draft That Forced Thousands to Europe. Bloomberg. Sept 3, 2018. Reposted as Eritrean government suggests smaller army, reform to conscription. 3 Sept, 2018. EritreaHub. Available at:



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