Security concerns of female refugees from Eritrea and the Horn of Africa

by Helen Kidan

© private

Helen Kidan started to work as a human rights activist in 1998, just after the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted. She co-founded Horn Human Rights in 1998 and Eritrean Youth in the UK (EYUK) in 2003. Helen is a member of the Network of Eritrean Women and is an Executive Member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) based in South Africa.

The Horn of Africa is one of the most destabilised regions in Africa with Eritreans, Somalians and Sudanese people being one of the highest number of refugees worldwide. A portion of these refugees go through Libya to reach Europe. Eritrea a country of 5 million people is the fastest emptying country in the world. The United Nations (OHCHR, 2016) have estimated that 5,000 Eritreans leave the country every month.
The vast majority fleeing the country are young people trying to avoid the indefinite – theoretically 18 months but in reality there is no time limit – national service which as stated by the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea is “tantamount to slavery” (p. 50-56). The Commission of Inquiry Report on Eritrea, which came out 8 June 2016, found that “rapes committed in military training centres, in the army, in detention centres by military officials, trainers as well as detention officials and guards continue to be committed with impunity” (p. 30). The report confirmedalso finds sexual enslavement within the Eritrean military. “The Commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea since 1991. Eritrean military officials have engaged in persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the country’s civilian population. They have committed, and continue to commit, the crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder” (p. 83). It therefore, comes as no surprise that people are forced to flee the country to protect themselves and their families from such heinous crimes.
The human rights violations against these Eritreans do not end once they have fled into neighbouring countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia. Shagrab refugee camp in Eastern Sudan has had a persistent problem with kidnapping by Bedouin criminals alongside Sudanese military officials who are engaged in human trafficking as reported by reliefweb and dabang TV. Defend defensers, who monitor the situation in Sudan, continue to document grave human rights violations.  and tThe Bashir Government in Sudan is known for having committed crimes against humanity on civilians in South Sudan. Therefore, there is no security for Eritreans in neighbouring Sudan. Women are in an even more difficult position as they are held at the mercy of smugglers, criminals and Bedouin gangs who prey on these vulnerable refugees and commit all sorts of violations – rape, sexual abuse, torture – so that they can extract ransoms from their families. Many refugees kidnapped from Sudan have ended up in the Sinai desert.

© Natalia Jidovanu/Amnesty

It is from this utter desperation of their conditions that many travel to Libya to find safety and sanctuary in Europe. The route from Sudan to Libya is dangerous and many women and children have died in the Sahara Desert. Today there are around 700,000 to 1 million African refugees in Libya and many of them are used as bait between the various militias in Libya or are taken as hostages by the Islamic State (IS). Whilst the men are killed, the women are sold off or given to IS fighters. The CNN report that recently came out highlighted human trafficking and sexual violence by the IS (see video of 12-year-old Eritrean girl).
We need to understand that the vast majority of refugees from the Horn of Africa are not migrating to Europe but are seeking safety and security in neighbouring countries. Ethiopia itself hosts 847,000 refugees from 19 countries but most are from neighbouring countries as stated by the UNHCR. It is the lack of humanitarian assistance and security in the East and Horn of Africa that is pushing people to take dangerous routes such as those to Libya.
Europe has dealt with this problem by trying to build a wall and close its doors to migration from Africa; it was out of this thinking that the Khartoum Process was born in 2014. It is led by a Steering Committee comprised of five EU Member States (Italy, France, Germany, UK, Malta), five partner countries (Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan) as well as the European Commission, the European External Action Service and the African Union Commission on the African side. The Karthoum Process has further compounded the humanitarian disaster for Eritrean and Horn of African refugees. Instead of those seeking sanctuary and refuge from the human rights violations in their home countries are given protection, they are being forcibly returned to Eritrea from Sudan, Egypt and Libya where they once again encounter massive state repression and different forms of violence. The countries the EU is allying with are well known for severe human rights violations and are refugee producing countries. This makes a mockery of human rights and questions the legitimacy of the EU itself in colluding with such regimes.

© Natalia Jidovanu/Amnesty

As per written evidence submitted by the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sudan and South Sudan, “The EU - Horn of Africa” (EU-HoA) Regional Action Plan identifies both migration and “violations of human rights, absence of the rule of law and authoritarian governance” (p. 7) as challenges but it is silent on how to address the inevitable tensions between the EU’s policy approaches on migration control and human rights protection. The Khartoum Process also risks failing to comply with the EU policy that stresses consistency and coherence in its actions in relation to international crimes. While the EU does not directly deal with individuals subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant, it engages with representatives of, and relies on forces, such as Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services and the RSF militia (also known as Janjaweed militias), alleged to have been responsible for crimes falling within the ICC’s jurisdiction. This RSF militia has also been used against Eritrean refugees as reported by the journalist Martin Plaut on 30 August 2016.
If we are to counter the challenges of human rights abuses and human trafficking, the EU should engage civil society organisations (CSOs) from the Horn of Africa based in Europe to address some of the serious humanitarian concerns, and empower CSOs in the region who are addressing the concerns of the people as the space for civil society in the region is shrinking. There is also a lot more that can be done in making refugee camps safer and providing access to education, health, employment and hope to those refugees. Fundamentally these refugees need to be integrated in their host countries so that they can support themselves and contribute to the society.
Providing money to Governments that are responsible for the creation of refugees is further destabilising the Horn of Africa and has security implications for Europe as well. It is high time that the international community addresses the human rights violations in this region because as long this remains neglected the crisis will continue (18 December 2017).

Further reading and links

UNHCR Ethiopia - Applying the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF)

EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative (Khartoum Process)

Defend defenders – East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

"Where is the world?: Libya responds to outrage over slave auctions", by Raja Razek and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN, 23 November 2017.
"People for sale: Where lives are auctioned for $400", by Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones, CNN, 14 November 2017.

SOAS (2016) Written evidence submitted by the Centre for Human Rights Law to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan and South Sudan Inquiry, UK - Sudan Relations − Consequences of Engagement, The Khartoum Process policy of engagement and human rights protection in Sudan, August 2016, London.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, Human Rights Council, Thirty-second session, 8 June 2016.

"Will EU aid back the feared Janjaweed’s attacks on Eritrean refugees?" by Martin Plaut, journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, 30 August 2016.

"I prayed for death" - Twelve-year-old Eritrean girl speaks about her IS capture, Independent, 24 October 2016.

“Sudan police hand Eritrean refugees to traffickers to torture: report”, Dabanga – independent news from Darfur and Sudan, 11 February 2014, Berlin.

Amnesty International (2013) Egypt/Sudan: Refugees face kidnapping for ransom, brutal treatment and human trafficking, 3 April 2013.

Indiegogo, The Forgotten - Documentary, A yound woman's risky journey to Sudan to tell the stories of the innocent in the refugee camps.Crowdfunding project of Sabrina Jamil Aman, UNHCR High Profile Supporter and Honorary Representative for the information campaign project "Telling the real story".