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The Valletta Summit and the Eritrean refugee crisis

Eritrea is one of the major source countries of refugees. It occupies a central place in contemporary debate on global migration.[1] By having a closer look at one particular concern related to the Eritrean refugee crisis, this contribution critically examines one major shortcoming of the commitments spelled out in the outcome documents of the 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration (hereinafter “the Valletta Summit” or “the Summit”).[2] The main argument is that EU’s approach of including the Eritrean government (and not the people) as a beneficiary of the newly launched and “lucrative” European Union Trust Fund (EUTF),[3] without additional measures aimed at resolving the deep-seated political crisis in Eritrea, is a classic example of contradiction in terms. As will be seen later, the flow of financial resources alone will never resolve the root causes of forced migration in Eritrea. The discussion will start with a brief encounter of two seemingly competing theories on the major driving forces of the Valletta Summit.

A more benevolent theory, espoused by the main initiator of the Summit, the European Union (EU), portrays the Summit as an effort aimed at alleviating unprecedented instances of human suffering (such as tragic boat accidents) that are taking place in the southern tip of Europe, across the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. These accidents have literally made the Italian Peninsula in the coast of the Mediterranean Sea a mass grave of migrants.[4] And so goes the theory: the Valletta Summit aimed at changing the course of things with regard to such tragedies.[5]

The second, and perhaps less benign, theory depicts the Summit as an initiative driven by the political necessity of addressing a rapidly growing xenophobic political backlash, which is concomitant to the mass movement of refugees to Europe.[6] Strongly associated with this view is the most common criticism of the Summit, which accuses European politicians of “trying to push people back to areas where there are serious questions about human rights and a lack of economic opportunities.”[7] Differences of opinion on the underlying motivations of the Summit aside, this contribution will focus on one major shortcoming of the Summit, as related to the refugee crisis of Eritrea.

The Eritrean Refugee Crisis

At the time of writing, Eritrea is the only country in Africa, suffering from an on-going situation of crimes against humanity, officially confirmed as such by the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (hereinafter “COI”).[8] Its high-ranking government officials, including the Eritrean State President, risk criminal prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).[9] In the past 18 years in particular, namely since the outbreak of the 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia, Eritrea has suffered not only from a rare instance of gross human rights violations but also from excessive levels of militarization. Eritrea’s sweeping practice of militarisation takes the form of coercive and indefinite military conscription, affecting every able-bodied member of the Eritrean society. With time, the country’s controversial military service programme (also known as national service programme) has degenerated into a form of modern slavery or slave-like practice, as authoritatively confirmed by two ground-breaking reports of the COI.[10]

A combined effect of these problems has now made Eritrea a major source country of refugees. In some specific periods, Eritrea was the leading refugee-producing country globally (both by absolute numbers and by percentage). In 2014, for example, Eritreans were the largest group of asylum seekers by nationally in some parts of Switzerland, as seen in the chart below.

Source: THRIVE Association, “Geneva Context,” available at, 22 October 2016.
Source: THRIVE Association, “Geneva Context,” available at, 22 October 2016.

Over the last five years, Eritreans were frequently mentioned as making the top of all newly arriving refugees in Europe. Based on information obtained from the Italian Ministry of Interior, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) indicated that in the period between January and August 2014, Eritreans made up the largest group of newly arriving refugees via the southern tip of Europe (the Mediterranean Sea), as shown below.

Source:, of 11 September 2014.
Source:, of 11 September 2014.

To be exact, in the period under review, 28,557 Eritreans arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, compared to 23,945 Syrians (the difference being that of 4,611). Moreover, out of nearly 500,000 people who came to Europe in 2015, most were said to be from Syria, Libya and Eritrea.[11] Furthermore, since January 2015, Eritreans have remained the fourth largest group of asylum seekers in the EU, and the second largest group to arrive in Italy by boat, after Syrians.[12]

In one of the most disastrous sea accidents in Europe, the Lampedusa Tragedy of 3 October 2013, that took the lives of more than 360 refugees, the overwhelming majority of victims were Eritreans.[13] This accident has galvanized global uproar, like never seen before. It prompted, for example, an official visit by the highest political officer of the EU at that time, President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso.[14] No doubt that one of the primary driving forces (if not the only one) behind the Valletta Summit was indeed the Lampedusa Tragedy itself. Seen against this background, Eritrea does not seem to be receiving the attention it deserves from EU policy makers, including the main initiators of the Valletta Summit, as will be seen below.

Political timidity and the objective of “regime preservation”

It has now become crystal clear that the Eritrea government is unwilling and/or unable to meaningfully address the main causes of the Eritrean refugee crisis, namely: its own malignant malpractices, involving a pervasive situation of gross human rights violations and excessive levels of militarisation.[15] For the Eritrean government, the most important preoccupation is not resolving these issues, but preserving its iron grip on power. This is fundamentally anti-thesis to the objective of tackling the refugee crisis of Eritrea, and by implication contrary also to the ambitions spelled out in the outcome documents of the Valletta Summit.

Indeed, as has been observed for a very long period of time, the Eritrean government has no vested interest in improving the domestic political situation. The reasons are simple and clear. It requires reforming the Eritrean political landscape, which in turn entails far-fetching implications of accountability, including individual criminal responsibility of some high-ranking government officials, as recommended in the 2015 and 2016 reports of the COI. Regardless of this, for EU and other global actors, who preach the highest levels of compliance with human rights obligations, there does not seem to be any other better option than pushing harder towards this direction.

Conversely, and in a rather most cynical way, the mass exodus of the Eritrean population is seen by the Eritrean government as “a social safety valve for frustrated youthful constituencies.”[16] There are also widespread allegations that the mass exodus has at the same time become “a lucrative side-business” for high-ranking Eritrean government officials who are said to be colluding in the business of smuggling people to neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Sudan and beyond. This is in addition to a more damaging allegation that high-ranking government officials are also involved in the human trafficking saga of the Sinai Desert in which the ostensible majority of victims are also Eritreans.[17]

This boils down, as noted above, to the core objective of “regime preservation” at any cost. Inherently, the Eritrean government cannot be taken seriously as a genuine partner interested in resolving the country’s refugee crisis. While this argument may also appear valid in relation to other African governments, its cogency has a more resounding persuasiveness with regard to Eritrea than any other country in the continent. As in previous experiences, this is where the miscalculation of European policy makers begins: failure to clearly understand the very complicated nature of the Eritrean refugee crisis and the cynical machinations of the Eritrean government.

Therefore, as far as the contribution of the Valletta Summit on the Eritrean refugee crisis is concerned, the best that can be said is that the outcome documents of the Summit are nothing more than a mere expression of EU’s political timidity. EU policy makers are yet to come with the most appropriate political standing on one of the most disturbing situations of gross human rights violations in Africa. Their failure to do so is either on the basis of a deliberate choice of ignoring the facts at the ground level or a misguided instance of self-deceit. Whatever the motive, it has the sad consequence of making EU complacent at best and complicit at worst in the perpetration of gross human rights violations in Eritrea. As is already happening, Eritrea has now become a textbook case study in showing utter failures of the EU in some core areas of international law and relations.

Concluding remarks

It bears repeating, for the umpteenth time, that the EU has always got it completely wrong when it comes to its engagement with the Eritrean government. Observers have witnessed this at least for the past 15 years in the context of controversial EU-Eritrea development aid dealings, including during the time of Mr. Louis Michel, the former EU Commissioner for Development Cooperation.[18] Be it in the area of development cooperation or migration, EU’s approach towards Eritrea is characterised by the proverbial disorder of “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different outcomes.” The problem is now taking a very disturbing pattern resembling the behaviour of a recidivist offender who is way beyond redemption from such very troubling conduct.

In contrast, on the fringes of the Valletta Summit, a very unusual and strong statement was made by the French President (François Hollande) on how the behaviour of the Eritrean government should be dealt with. Noting that a lot of refugees are coming from Eritrea, Mr. Hollande said: “Nobody is talking about it. It is a country that is becoming empty of its own population with unscrupulous leaders who let their people go.” He also called for “maximum pressure” to be applied against Eritrean government leaders with a view to compelling them to mend the serious situation.[19] This is the kind of firm position the EU needs to adopt collectively, by formulating it clearly as an enforceable policy element in the context of its continued flow of “development aid” to Eritrea. Any other action short of such firm measures will remain a never-ending “cat-and-mouse” game. As it stands, EU’s policy towards Eritrea, both in matters of development cooperation and migration, lacks the requisite instinctive imperative and resoluteness against the only United Nations-confirmed situation of crimes against humanity in Africa.

Daniel Mekonnen is an Eritrean human rights lawyer. He can be reached at


[1] Daniel Mekonnen, “Eritrea at the Centre of the International Migration Crisis,” International Affairs Forum, (2016) (1)1, pp. 70-75.

[2] The two major outcome documents, the Political Declaration and Action Plan, are available at

[3] European Commission, “A European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa: Fact Sheet,” 12 November 2015, available at

[4] Daniel Mekonnen, “The Tension between Militarisation of Maritime Borders and the Human Rights of Migrants at Sea,” The Broken Rifle, Issue No. 103, August 2015.

[5] Council of the European Union, “Valletta Summit on Migration: Background Brief,” 9 November 2015,

[6] See Concept Note of the Horn of African Bulletin (background note for the current issue, copy on file with author); Nicole Hirt, “One Eritrean Generation, Two Worlds: The Established Diaspora, the Mew Exiles and Their Relations to the Homeland,” Horn of Africa Bulletin (2015) 27(5), p. 25.

[7] VOA, “France’s Hollande: Eritrea ‘Becoming Empty’ as Residents Leave,” available at, 11 November 2015.

[8] Second Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/32/47, 8 June 2016 [hereinafter “Second COI Report Short Version”], Summary, p. 1; see also paragraphs 59-95; First Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/29/42, 4 June 2015 [hereinafter “First COI Report Short Version”].

[9] Second COI Report Short Version, paragraphs 59-95, 103-104, 132, read in conjunction with First COI Report Short Version, paragraph 23.

[10] First COI Report Short Version, paragraphs 61, 65, 77; Second COI Report Short Version, paragraph 35, 65, 68.

[11] Reuters, “EU Wants New Aid for Eritrea Soon to Help Stem Migrant Exodus,” 17 September 2015, available at

[12] ODI, “UK Approach to Eritrean Refugees: What is the Reality on the Ground?,” 25 October 2016, available at

[13] Daniel Mekonnen, note 1 above.

[14] BBC, “Italy to Hold State Funeral for Shipwreck Migrants,” 9 October 2013, available at

[15] UK Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, MST and Others (national service – risk categories) Eritrea CG [2016] UKUT 00443 (IAC), Judgement of October 2016.

[16] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Eritrea: Ending the Exodus,” Africa Briefing No. 100, 8 August 2014, pp. 9-10;

[17] ICG note 16 above; see also Mirjam van Reisen et all, The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond (Wolf Legal Publishers, 2013).

[18] Martin Plaut, “Eritrea: No Legitimate Partner for the European Union,” 9 November 2015,

[19] VOA, note 7 above.

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