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A trip to Eritrea

Among African refugees in Europe, most come from one small nation, Eritrea. Why? France 24 were given rare access to the country and they went to find out. Reporter’s notebook, by Nicolas Germain.


It’s 1am when the plane lands in the small airport of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, which lies 2,400 metres above the sea. The last time I was here was ten years ago. Reporting for AFP and RFI was my first job as a free-lancer. It lasted nearly two years.

But these last few years, there has been no Western correspondent in Eritrea and very few visas are given to Western journalists. However there’s been a change in recent months: reporters from Britain, Italy and now France have been given access to the country for a few days. My colleague Romeo Langlois and I were able to stay six days in the little-known Horn of Africa nation.

This section of Eritrean countryside lies between Asmara and Massawa.
This section of Eritrean countryside lies between Asmara and Massawa.

Since I last left, little has changed: it’s still the same President Isaias Afeworki, who has been president since independence in 1993, there’s still only one party and no free press. But I do notice there are fewer soldiers on the streets, fewer check-points on the roads to Keren and to the port of Massawa.

During these six days, a government minder from the information ministry was with us most of the time. But not all the time. We were able on several occasions to go and film in the capital alone, but most residents didn’t want to answer questions about the political system.

According to the UN up to 5,000 people flee the country every month. Because of poverty, lack of freedom of expression, but above all, according to the people we spoke to, because of the poorly-paid indefinite national service. Some people do it for two years, others four, and some for more than a decade. This service can be carried out in the army, in an office or even in a café as a waiter.

One day on the road between Asmara and Keren we see about twenty men breaking huge rocks with sledgehammers. They tell us it’s the national service and that they aren’t paid enough. “No, it’s a voluntary service,” snaps their supervisor.

The authorities say the national service exists because of the border tensions with Ethiopia, following the 1998-2000 war that left some 80,000 people dead. A peace agreement said the small town of Badme belongs to Eritrea but to this day Ethiopia occupies it.

Asmara says the international community has not done enough to force Addis Ababa to accept the border ruling. It says the West favours Ethiopia, a vast country that is nearly twenty times more populated than Eritrea.

But are the tensions still strong? Several officials told us the situation along the border is quite calm. There has been no major incident for 16 years. We weren’t given the authorisation to go and film the border area.

Some analysts rightly point out that diplomats and the media are prompt to talk about Eritrea’s human rights violations and less so about Ethiopia’s, yet it also has a poor track record. As a result Eritreans are given political asylum more easily than other Africans. In Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, more than 90 percent of Eritreans obtain it. But recently countries like Denmark and the UK have decided to make it harder for Eritreans to obtain this status.

And to try and stem the number of Eritreans arriving in Europe, Brussels has just announced it will give €200 million to Asmara. “It’s shameful to support such a regime,” one man told us. “Europe has been criticizing this government, and now to stop the flow of refugees it gives it a lot of money, even though the government has made no promises to reform the country or to release political prisoners.”

When we asked Yemane Gebreab, one of the heads of the ruling party, if the eleven leaders arrested in 2001 after having criticized the president were still alive, he said Eritrea didn’t answer this question “for reasons of national security”.

Eritrean authorities are proud of the Bisha mine.
Eritrean authorities are proud of the Bisha mine.

The authorities didn’t want us to film the border area with Ethiopia, but they were eager to show us the Bisha mine (gold, copper, zinc). The Canadian company Nevsun has a 60 percent stake in the enterprise, and the remaining 40 percent belongs to the State of Eritrea. Owning a large part of the country’s firms is one of the major policies of this government, whose roots lie in a Marxist guerilla, the EPLF. It was the EPLF that fought with no outside help for three decades, from 1961 to 1991, for Eritrea to gain its independence from Ethiopia.

Another partnership has been set up by the government with the Italian construction firm Piccini. The aim is to build hundreds of new houses. We visited the site near Asmara where many employees told us they were soldiers, paid some 2,400 Nakfa per month (€160).

In this poor nation where the government doesn’t publish economic data, some businessmen nevertheless believe tourism will bloom here one day: Asmara boasts stunning art deco architecture, there is the Red Sea and the Dahlak islands, and the old Ottoman port of Massawa.

Primo Giovanni Gebremeskel, who’s half Italian, half Eritrean, is the owner of the huge Grand Hotel Dahlak in Massawa. This elderly man showed us round his beautiful hotel, regretting that nearly all his rooms are empty. “But in the next few years tourists will come here,” he said.

Supporters of the regime say several factors could help the tourism industry: the streets are safe, there are no major problems among the different ethnic groups, among Christians and Muslims, and less corruption than in many other African countries. In Asmara there are many internet cafes – but wifi is slow and there is no 3G. And there is no personality cult here like there is in North Korea. In the streets of Asmara we only saw one poster of the president, where he’s surrounded by many Eritreans.

But the opposition (which is in exile) says it’s hard for tourists to obtain visas, and in the country foreigners need a travel permit every time they want to leave the capital.

In Asmara we met several Eritreans who grew up in Europe or the United States, and who after their university studies have come to live in their native land. They support the government and stress that education and health are free here. They told us the regime is slowly opening up.

Yet some diplomats are more skeptical. They say that until former guerilla leader Afeworki, who’s 70, remains president, he’s unlikely to implement radical reforms.

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