The Arab Revolt and its Consequences on African Migrants: Focus on Eritrean refugees
The social upheaval that engulfed the Arab world following the dramatic incidents that helped ignite the Tunisian revolt in the summer 2010, African forced migrants was affected in many ways.
Written by Professor Yebio Woldemariam, International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER)
First of all the route to Europe where illegal immigrants used in the past was almost blocked and at times become deadly when the window of opportunity seemed to open. This is in reference to when the defunct government in Libya and unscrupulous human smugglers used the migrants as pawn in the power politics. In a bid to annoy Europeans who unequivocally took the side of the rebels, the Libyan leader in turn let loose thousands of refugees mostly from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and West Africa to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a worthless rickety boats of whom hundreds lost their lives.
Following, the signing of the Italo-Libyan Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 2008, the route to Europe was heavily policed by the Italian and the Maltese coast guards while the Libyan forces kept a watch full eye on the southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea.The symbolic dividing line between the North and Southern hemisphere or metaphorically speaking between the rich and the poor nations of the world.
The North African revolt had serious ramification on African migrants in particular on Eritreans who were leaving their homeland to the tune of 1500 to 2000 a month. Unable to stay still in their place of refugee, that is, in the refugee camps located in the Sudan and Ethiopia, they usually undertake an adventurous journey to end up in an imaginable situation painful to describe. Relatively speaking the Libyan route was safer and by far cheaper when compared to the one that the Eritrean reverted to after the tightening of the Libyan route and subsequent popular uprising. In their desperate attempt to leave Africa for Israel they have to pass through numerous hurdles including the sale of their soul, their organs and most of all their dignity. No doubt, had the road to the dream destination, Europe was relatively safe and open as has been the case up to 2008, the number of Eritrean refugees in Israel would have been a fraction of what it is now, 36,000.
Although the number of Eritrean refugees wanting to enter Europe through the traditional route, Libya has dwindled to almost nil many still continued trekking through the Nile Valley to sneak to Israel illegally. But the price paid to enter Israel was awfully heavy that few died on the way and at a given time many were kept as hostages by their Bedouin captors only to be released after paying hefty sum of ransom money. The Bedouin smugglers use every means available at their disposal to squeeze the ransom money from their captives.
They torture, brand with hot iron, electrocute and most often kill those unable to come up with money. To make their message heard and show their determination that they mean business, the torture session is conducted live where telephone lines are kept open for family members, friends and concerned people to listen. The going price for a hostage to be released from the clutch of the human smugglers has gone up from 8,000 USD in 2008 to 35,000 USD today. Beginning 2010, the business of human smuggling became so lucrative that the Bedouin Arabs, the Rashidas and Eritreans facilitators residing in Ethiopia, the Sudan and Eritrea resorted to kidnapping unsuspecting refugees from the camps some lured for jobs others tricked through dubious means to fall into their hands.
The unsettled political climate in these countries further complicated the already tenuous position of the Eritrean refugees who have never been welcomed by the host societies at large and the governments in particular who choose to disregarded international convention on the treatment of refugees that permit their protection from adversity. As a matter of fact, the change of regimes in Egypt and Libya unleashed uncontrollable forces within the society that has little regard for authority and hence for committing crimes not contemplated before. During the power struggle in Libya, Eritrean refugees were found stashed in crummy tiny rooms for fear of reprisal by the so called revolutionaries who branded every dark faced African person as Gaddafi supporter. The Africans and in particular the Eritrean refugees has been taunted by ordinary Libyans for most of their illegal stay. Prior to their deportation to Eritrea as was most often the case during the previous regime were kept in cruel make shift prisons for a lengthy period of time.
This being the case, various forces among them the Bedouin in the Sinai took advantage of the void created after the downfall of the Mubarak regime by preying on helpless Eritrean refugee who yearned to reach Israel. The inhuman treatment meted on the refugees went to the extent of harvesting their bodily organs and killing few of the unfortunate ones who were unable to pay the ransom money demanded for their release. Before the upheaval in Egypt, the human smuggling ring was as normal as one expects, where refugees would pay a reasonable sum of money to be smuggled into Israel. But as law and order begun to give way to the chaos so was the brutal act of the hostage takers. To make matters worse officials all along the lower Nile basin cooperated with the smugglers to facilitate their safe conduct to the Sinai where the torture and extortion begins. The change in guards in the Egyptian state, therefore, left African refugees helpless and nowhere to turn into including the UNHCR that remained overwhelmed to address the problem of the thousands of refugees already in Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt.
The UNHCR has been dealing with the Eritrean Refugees in the Sudan since the early 1970s where hostility between the Eritrean Liberation Fronts and the Ethiopian armed forces was at its apex. At times over quarter of a million people were catered by the organization but when violence flares up which most often is the case in that region the refugee population swells to several hundred thousands more. But the most problematic of all for the UNHCR is the recent steady stream of refugees escaping the harsh rule in Eritrea. For one these refugees are young, mobile and somewhat literate being part of the millennium generation. Unlike their predecessors who were mostly rural/pastoral and unskilled/semi-skilled workers whose worldly outlook is confined to their immediate environment, the new generation of refugees are anxious and with intense urge to move.
In the process, refugees are subjected to all form of oppression including exploitation by few local UNHCR workers who demand money to register refugees and also a promise of early repatriation. It is estimated that between 2,003 and 2011 an estimated at 80 -100,000 persons entered in each Sudan and Ethiopia not to return home and tragically not to stay put in the temporary refugee camps either. As the result many find themselves victims of human hostage takers and many die crossing the dessert to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the odds, the UNHCR remains a bulwark that refugees lean to. However, its advocacy and/or relief supplying role is minimal in Egypt because of the government intransigence not to treat Eritrean refugees as escaping political persecution. The IOM’s role in securing the safe conduct of refugees from Libya and the travel of few to a third country was crucial when hell broke loose in that country.
However, in the heat of the popular revolt in Egypt and Libya the UNHCR and other NGOs where able to establish temporary shelters across the border and inside the countries concerned. The tragedy was that Eritrean and other refugees were left unprotected in the camps that in the summer of 2011, 4 Eritreans were burned alive in their tents in Chocha camp in Tunisia and many were harassed and few killed inside the shelters in Libya by angry citizens. Days after the deliberate fire incident, the local population fell suddenly on the camp, burned what is left of it and looted the UNHCR supplied food and medicine, all this in front of the Tunisian border guards. Suffice is to say that there was no sympathy toward the refugees instead were left to fend for themselves against future attacks. Fewer than 20 Eritrean refugees were migrated from the Tunisian camp to Romania until permanent settlement was found for them.
The Mediterranean Sea at a given point in time is littered with tens of small boats carrying illegal immigrants wishing to enter Europe undetected. Most often than not, many get stranded unable to navigate toward their destination, short of food and drinking water. At occasions the boats capsize killing all the occupants. The incident of August 2009 where 68 African migrants among them many Eritreans perished and the March 2011 over 400 young and old, men and women as well as infants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea is fresh in our memory. At about the same time a boat carrying 72 immigrants, mostly of Ethiopian origin left the Libyan coast to end up adrift for 16 days in the middle of the sea with no help in sight. All but 11 survived the ordeal.
The irony is that an Italian helicopter coast guard hoverd above the ailing boat and dropped water from the sky. It is doubly sad to relate that numerous merchant and warships passed by without offering help. This is in contravention to the Law of Sea in particular to Flag States which are obliged under the convention ( SOLAS- safety of life at sea convention and SAR- search and rescue convention) to offer help in the time of distress. Some experts argue that “the fact that the vessels in question were warships and thus the masters, with which the pertinent duty lied, were de jure organs of the States involved, their conduct was directly attributable to the flag States (article 4 of ILC Articles on State Responsibility, 2001).” It is, therefore, crucial that NATO and the US war fleet in the Mediterranean assume some sort of the responsibility in the unfortunate incident and should at least be obliged to saving human lives in the future.
The EU policy on migration was adopted in October 2008 with ten cardinal points at heart. Among the ten points the salient ones are Pursue of Prosperity, Matching Skills and Needs, Partnership with none EU members and Integrated Border Management to deal with the issue of migration. One of the important points relevant to the paper is the Stepping up of fight against illegal immigration and zero tolerance for trafficking in human beings. It urged member states to use biometrics as an effective tool in the fight against illegal immigration and trafficking. It also calls on countries within the union to apply fundamental human rights to non-EU nationals residing illegally in the EU. Victims of human trafficking were to be provided protection and assisted in the recovery process and reintegration into the society. The classification is broad and may require an iron-clad evidence to qualify.
It is true many of the refugees attempting to get access to Europe’s social and economic privilege are not by long shot all victims of political persecution. In the first quarter of the 2011 alone due to the political turmoil and military conflict in North Africa an estimated 30,000 migrants is believed to have made the journey across the Mediterranean. The EU could only follow its present guidelines in receiving refugees. The impact of its action is, therefore, minimal given the number of people wishing to enter the continent. However this may be under the European Union Relocation Malta (EUREMA) 227 Eritreans were relocated and some 360 are in the pipeline. Few countries including Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands have pledged to take many more.
The question arises what is needed to support capacity building for the future human mobility which for obvious reason is going to continue? In that case modalities have to be worked out to prevent the mistreatment of refugees on their illegal trek to Europe. The mass murder of Africans by Libyan militia, the forced imprisonment of refugees by Egyptian nationals in the Sinai, the extortion by Egyptian and Sudanese border guards and the collusion of Eritrean armed forces with human smugglers must be dealt with in the international arena. Thus, existing conventions governing refugee treatments and proper handling of mobility of people need to be strengthened by adding provisions that will have legal implications on countries who knowingly disregard respect for human rights. In as long as the international court is mandated to deal with individuals committing crime on fellow human beings, there is no reason why a corporate state could not face the court of law if conventions are violated to the determent of helpless refugees and mobile people. Egypt is a typical example that should made to account for the action of its outlaw citizens and its unwillingness to cooperate with UNHCR and NGOs operating in its territory. The EU resolution passed in Mid March of 2012 clearly blames Egypt of avoiding responsibility in dealing severely with the outlaw elements in its territory preying on Eritrean refugees. This being the case, it is important to look deeper at the cause of the influx of people from Africa including its northern part.
Sweeping statement as it may seem, one is tempted to ask a question on whether the world economic ordered as it is structured now could have an invisible hand in the making of worldwide refugee problem that human beings are unable to solve collectively. Leaving aside the multitude of internal political problems that aggravate the uprooting of people from their original domicile, the affluent North is partly to blame for its indifference to the existing gap between it and the rest of the world, in particular Africa which occupy pathetically the fourth tier in world development ladder.
The unfair trade stuck against Africa, the piling of loans which more or less line the pockets of rulers placed to serve the interest of international bankers and miners, the overt gun running operations taking place are but few of those issues complicating the refugee problem in our time. Sooner or later it is going to preoccupy the human race regardless of where one is located in the world map or what philosophy he/she professes. Addressing world economic problem, therefore, becomes an urgent matter before the globalization that is perceived only in strict economic term is metamorphosed into globalization of disease epidemics, terror and despair that knows no boundary. One of the top World Bank experts in his book entitled The Bottom Billion put it succinctly when describing the world of haves and have-nots this way ‘A cesspool of misery next to the world of growing prosperity is both terrible for those in the cesspool and dangerous for those who live next to it.
 The Rashidas are from three branches of Arab tribe, all belonging to the supra tribe of Rashaida scattered in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Eritrea, Libya, South Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. The three Rashaida tribes of Eritrea are: Al-Baratikh, Al-barai’ids and Al-Zilaimat collectively known as bani-rashid-al-absia