- Refugees, Migration, and Gated Nations: The Eritrean Experience
Said Ibrahim, aged twenty-one, orphaned and blind, was making a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of Eritrea’s national security force claimed that one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the notorious Adi Abieto prison (interview, Adi Harush Camp, Ethiopia, May 30, 2012). After a month Said was released, but he was stripped of his disability payments for two years when he refused to identity the lyricist. “I went back to my village and reflected about it,” he told me over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush refugee camp in Ethiopia four years ago. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.” After appealing to his neighbors for help, two boys, aged ten and eleven, sneaked him into Ethiopia and all three asked for asylum.
Tigiste Beyene, aged thirty-five, was pregnant with her second child when she was sent to a desert prison in northern Eritrea for attending a banned Pentecostal prayer meeting (interview, Mai Aini Camp, Ethiopia, May 28, 2012). Upon release, she was given ten months to renounce her faith and pressed to do so by the local Eritrean Orthodox priest, who had turned her in in the first place, and by her family, who had to guarantee the state EN50,000 to get her out (U.S.$3,300 at the official exchange rate). Four months later, she paid a smuggler EN30,000 to take her to Ethiopia. “The dark side of my life was not the year in prison, but the time I spent at home with my family,” she said as she sat on the dirt floor of her cramped mud-brick house. “It was a torment I could not bear.” [End Page 217]
The newcomers joined more than sixty-five thousand Eritreans housed in five camps along the tense border with Ethiopia that year, a border whose disputed location was the spark that set off a fierce fight between the two countries a decade earlier and remains both a source of potential conflict and Eritrea’s rationale for keeping the younger generation in the army indefinitely today. It is also the reason the government gives for prohibiting nearly every organization or activity it doesn’t directly control, from political parties and NGOs to private prayer meetings and protest singers.
Today their small northeast African country, about the size of Pennsylvania with a population of about four million, is one of the largest per capita producers of asylum seekers in the world (UNHCR 2015a). Many languish in desert camps. Some have been kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed—or killed—in the Sinai (Connell 2013a; Van Reisen 2012, 2013). Others have been left to die in the Sahara or drowned in the Mediterranean. Eritreans in South Africa have been brutally attacked in paroxysms of xenophobic violence; some in Israel have been firebombed or beaten by ultranationalists. Some trying to reach the United States and Canada have been refused entry under post-9/11 “terrorism bars” based on past association with an armed movement—the very one they are now fleeing.
When I returned to the camps in Ethiopia in March 2016 for the fourth time in as many years, the number of Eritrean refugees in the country had swollen to nearly 155,000, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCRed on to other destinations—or died trying—that these statistics didn’t begin to reflect the magnitude of the exodus (ReliefWeb2016). By this time, many I had met in 2012 were no longer there, gone instead to Libya to try to reach Europe. A growing number of the newest arrivals were just kids. A whole generation appeared to be on the move.
Over the course of these four years, I’ve traveled to nineteen countries on five continents to dig deeper into who the refugees are, why they fled, how they got out, and what they experienced on their journeys, interviewing more than five hundred in lengthy private sessions that I recorded and transcribed.1 A remarkable number manage to survive and carve...