What Peace in Eritrea Means for Forced Migration

For two decades Eritrea has been in a frozen conflict with Ethiopia. The conflict is used as an excuse for mandatory and indefinite “national service,” one of the major reasons—alongside limited economic prospects—people are leaving Eritrea. The formal declaration signed by Ethiopia on July 9, 2018, to end the long-standing conflict has been a fast-moving situation, one that could have enormous and long-term positive impacts on people being forced to leave the country. For almost two decades, Eritrea’s national service policy has kept the entire society available at all times to defend the country and ensure Eritrea’s survival. It remains a source of many of Eritrea’s current problems. The formal end of the war should set off a chain of reactions that should enable Eritrea to relax its national service policy and thereby reduce forced migration from the country.

Or so I was told by many Eritrean policymakers when I was there a few weeks ago.

The global forced migration crisis has forced nearly 68.5 million people around the world to leave home, often due to conflict. Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, has had tens of thousands of its citizens leave the country over the last 10 years. Many of those fleeing Eritrea are primarily young men and women who were forced into indefinite national service. If current rates of those fleeing are accurate and nothing changes, Eritrea could lose anywhere between 50,000 to 500,000 people over the next 10 years.

As peace appears perhaps on the horizon, it is worth understanding the historical context within which peace is being sought. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after 30 years of war, with few, if any, reliable friends. Eritrea’s history taught it to trust no other country. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a second war in 1998 that lasted two years, where the combined deaths from both countries are estimated at 90,000. The threat of yet another conflict with Ethiopia, a country of close to 100 million people compared to Eritrea with approximately 5 million, has been Eritrea’s justification for indefinite national service, much of which manifests in indefinite military conscription. Eritrea has one of the largest militaries in Africa and likely spends a large percentage of its GDP on its military, though this is difficult to decipher since Eritrea has not published a budget for over nine years. Today, decades of conflict and isolation mean that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, rife with human rights violations and a one-man dictatorship.

Eritrea’s 1991 independence left unresolved issues with Ethiopia that continue to cause issues. These largely unresolved issues include the final agreement on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia; disagreements over the border led to the second war in 1998. Of particular concern was the fate of the small town of Badme, which seems to carry more emotional than strategic significance.

After the 1998 war, Ethiopia maintained control of some disputed territory. The Algiers Peace Accords in 2000 determined that Eritrea and Ethiopia would cease all hostilities and allow an appointed committee of the UN Organization of African Unity (OAU) to investigate and determine origins of the conflict and border demarcations based on those established upon independence. The UN experts on borders concluded that the territory held by Ethiopia was, in fact, part of Eritrea and had to be returned to them. Both sides had agreed that the UN decision would be final and binding, but Ethiopia, with the tacit assistance of outside powers, including the United States, refused to withdraw from the contested territory.[1]

Officials told me that since Ethiopia’s noncompliance with the Algiers accords, Eritrea has considered itself in a “no peace, no war” frozen conflict that thus justifies its national service policies. When Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahmed visited Asmara and signed the declaration ending the frozen conflict just a few days ago, he was signaling acceptance of the Algiers commission’s ruling of the border demarcation—a major point of conflict for the countries for almost two decades.

Indefinite National Service

Eritrean officials told me a few weeks ago that with peace would come an end to the frozen state of emergency used to justify its policy of indefinite national service. It remains to be seen what changes will be made, but there is room for both cautious optimism and doubt. Eritrea has tense relations with its neighbors and bad relations with the West. The Freedom House Index rates Eritrea’s government as “not free,” with a score of 3 out of 100. Eritrea also has sanctions on it because of its bad reputation of human rights abuses and history of supporting Al-Shabaab, though it is worth noting that the Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) has reported no evidence that Eritrea has been supporting terrorist groups for the last six years. Given these findings and the recent peace declaration, now would be a moment for the international community to revisit sanctions on Eritrea. The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, recently stated that following the peace deal, the sanctions will naturally become obsolete.

Eritrea’s indefinite national service is in effect from age 18 until age 50. Though it varies, “indefinite” can easily go on for a decade or more. On the one hand, Eritrea’s political leadership does not want to force large amounts of young talent to flee the mandatory service given its small size but, on the other hand, it has been useful for Eritrea’s government to have an “escape valve” for those Eritrean citizens who are not supportive of the Eritrean government.

The mandatory national service policy enacted in 1995 has received justified international criticism for being a source of government abuse of its citizens and human rights violations. The frozen conflict with Ethiopia enabled Eritrea to freeze the country economically, politically, and socially for more than 20 years. The formal end of this conflict could be a game changer. It is time for the Eritrean policy of indefinite national service to end.

Forced Migration from Eritrea

Though not the only reason people are forced from home, indefinite national service has resulted in Eritreans being the seventh-largest group of asylum seekers in Europe and the third-largest group of people crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. In recent years, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have accepted a high percentage of “Eritreans” seeking refugee status but not commensurate levels of Sudanese, Djiboutians, Ethiopians, and Somalis. European governments and European courts, following the UNHCR guidelines regarding Eritrea, have granted many of these people refugee status. More than 95 percent of cases submitted from Eritrea were accepted in 2017, the fourth-highest percent acceptance. This differentiated approach to countries in the Horn of Africa has served as a pull factor for people across the Horn of Africa to come to Europe, many claiming to be Eritrean.

In other words, it seems that not all who say they are “Eritrean” are actually Eritrean when they arrive in Europe. UNHCR estimates suggest Eritrea has one of the highest rates of asylum seekers globally, but that figure may include a large number of non-Eritreans that claim to be Eritrean. In response, countries like Denmark and the United Kingdom have sought to reduce the number of Eritreans granted refugee status in their country.

Assuming all those claiming to be Eritrean actually are, more than 30,000 Eritreans are estimated to have arrived in Europe in 2015 alone. The lack of verifiable statistics on this matter makes it more difficult to give an estimate on the actual number of Eritreans that have left the country in the last 18 years, but simple extrapolation could mean that this figure is between 150,000 and 600,000, an enormous percentage of an estimated 5 million total people in the country. UNHCR has recorded that at the end of 2016, there were over 459,000 Eritrean refugees. These numbers are unlikely to decrease (even with peace, I have trouble believing many Eritrean refugees will be returning home anytime soon).

Though, as I’ve mentioned, the impact of peace on the policy of indefinite national service remains to be seen, it is likely that the end of the frozen conflict with Ethiopia is far more impactful in terms of addressing people being forced from home than any aid package to Eritrea could be. Eritrea has had historically conflictual relationships with traditional foreign assistance agencies and Eritrean government officials balked when I asked them about traditional donor/recipient relationships. Eritrea halted engagement with the World Bank after the government determined that the World Bank’s assistance was “not aligned with local needs” and only recently has considered reengagement options. Eritrea also kicked out some UN staff, forced the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to stop operating, and scaled back assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) years ago.

Goals for Peace

Ethiopia, not without its own human rights and economic challenges, has undergone significant changes in the last six months under the direction of the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Mr. Ahmed has promised sweeping changes to the political and social landscape, has released political prisoners, and has opened state-owned enterprises to private investment. As discussed, he also sent a delegation of Eritrean officials to Ethiopia this June and, after only a few weeks, Ethiopia signed the peace agreement in what is a historic and widely celebrated moment for both countries.

Given the formal restoration of relations between the two countries, it is time for Eritrea to relax its indefinite national service policy and move away from many of the excuses it has used to maintain a repressive, dictatorial regime. The peace agreement was an important step that should set off a chain of reactions that should reduce the flow of migrants from Eritrea into Europe and other parts of Africa and end sanctions on Eritrea. The peace and normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea will require countries like the United States to arbiter the implementation of the peace agreement and to support Eritrea as it emerges from economic isolation.

This article draws on research conducted under a Ford Foundation grant supporting CSIS's research on forced migration globally. The views are the author's own.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis and directs the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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[1] In John Bolton’s book, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, he questions the actions of former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, on the decision to award part of the disputed territory to Ethiopia, which suggests that the United States supported Ethiopia’s rejection of the peace agreement.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development