It sounds like every developing country in the world has economic migrant issues except for Eritrea. This is because when Eritrean economic migrants leave their country, they are falsely labeled as “refugees” or “asylum seekers“. This unfair politicization of migrants is kept in place to induce more Eritreans to leave their country by promising them a quick ticket to the West.
One sad consequence of this policy is the Sinai tragedy in which a few thousand African migrants, Egyptians (including police officers), and Western tourists were kidnapped and taken hostage by Bedouins of the region. But why were so many non-Egyptian Africans even in Sinai in the first place?
In 2006, Israeli officials did something unprecedented: They allowed Eritreans a six-month visa to work in their country at the behest of the Bush Administration. This was largely done to weaken Eritrea politically and military by inducing Eritreans of working and fighting age to flee their country. What ended up happening, however, was a flood of economic migrants from Africa (most masquerading as Eritreans) who entered the lawless Sinai region to get to Israel.
In calling attention to this phenomenon, the Eritrean ambassador to Israel, Tesfamariam Tekeste, wrote a letter to the Israeli government about the alarming number of Africans, particularly Ethiopians, using Eritrean identity to enter Israel. Based on his findings, the ambassador believes at least half of the 36,000 that Israel says are Eritreans were in fact Ethiopians and other Africans using Eritrean identity.
“They know the Eritreans automatically receive a six-month visa, so they pretend to be Eritrean,” he said.
Most of these African migrants who use Eritrean identity cards buy them in Khartoum from Eritrean intermediaries or manufacture them since Eritrean identification cards are easy to forge. A 2008 report by the Indian Ocean Newsletter, which is cited by UNHCR, shed light on this issue:
The United States (US) Department of State indicates in its “Reciprocity Schedule” that Eritrean national identity cards “are easily alterable” (n.d.). In addition, an article in The Indian Ocean Newsletter reports that many Ethiopian refugees use Eritrean identity documents that they “buy in Khartoum from Eritrean intermediaries” (3 Mar. 2008).
Once they obtain their Eritrean ID cards, these economic migrants are then given a number of canned stories to sell to UNHCR officials upon entering the country of their destination. Among the most popular story they are told to say is they are Eritreans who are fleeing military service, and if returned to their homelands, they will be killed. Last year, an Israeli reporter, who went undercover as a migrant, brought attention to this false story being echoed by African migrants.
My cover story has not been finalized yet, but luckily I run into Jeremiah, who’s been in Israel for three years now. “What do I tell those who ask how I got into Israel?” I ask him. “Lie,” he says. “Don’t tell the whole story. The Israelis, and mostly the non-profit groups working with the infiltrators here, like to be lied to.”
“Say you were a soldier, and that if you return to Eritrea you’ll get a death sentence. Keep in mind that you must be consistent with your story. The bottom line is that everyone uses the story I’m telling you here, and this way they fool everybody,” he says. “Almost none of them arrived on foot from Egypt to Israel. None of us crossed any deserts…it’s all nonsense.”
More concerning is the great lengths UNHCR and similar organizations go to stop courts from finding out the true identities of these so-called ‘Eritrean‘ refugees. In one case, a man named Ibrahim, who claimed to be an Eritrean refugee, was frequently shielded by UNHCR officials to prevent investigations of his identity. After an Israeli court ordered Ibrahim to visit the Eritrean embassy to prove his identity, UNHCR officials claimed this would subjugate him to punishments and fines back in Eritrea. In the end, Ibrahim only admitted he was Ethiopian after he was caught using a forged Eritrean birth certificate.
The Population and Immigration Authority said that Ibrahim attempted to escape during the interview, and eventually admitted he was Ethiopian, rather than Eritrean, and was therefore immediately returned to custody.
Eventually, it would dawn on Israeli officials that the “Eritrean refugees” entering their country were nothing more than economic migrants. As the Minister for Education, Mr. Gidon Sa’ar, announced, “we need to stop the flooding of this country with immigrants from Eritrea. They are not refugees, but rather labor immigrants.”
On his part, the former head of the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, Mí. Yaakov Ganot also acknowledged that “in our examinations, I would say that 99.9 percent of them are here for work. They’re not asylum seekers: they are not at any risk.”
In 2012, Israel finally ended its six-month work visa policy for Eritreans, and not surprisingly, African migrants stopped coming. But it was six years too late. Tens of thousands of migrants had already entered their country posing as Eritrean refugees or asylum seekers because of their politically motivated policy. Imagine if America did this to Ecuador? Every Latin American citizen leaving his or her country would also say they were Ecuadorian to enter the United States. You can’t blame economic migrants for wanting to earn a higher standard of living; after all, it’s human nature. The people who should be blamed are the politicians and UNHCR officials who are setting the right conditions to induce them to flee in the first place.
Despite being aware of a large number African migrants pretending to be Eritrean, UNHCR and other similar organizations, continue to include these migrants as “Eritrean” in their statistics. So what you end up with is a greatly exaggerated number of migrants leaving Eritrea. These skewed figures are purposely kept this way so they can be used in reports to ‘prove‘ how bad the human rights situation in the country is when in reality, many to most of those being called Eritreans in their statistics are Ethiopians or other African migrants.
Democracy is not what Economic migrants seek
Perhaps the biggest misconception is these economic migrants from Africa, especially those coming from Eritrea, are leaving because of the political situation in their countries. This is not the case at all. Some of the best democracies in Africa have tens of thousands of people fleeing to Europe annually. For example, in Senegal, the youth have a saying of “Barça or barsat!” (Barcelona or death!); a popular slogan meaning they rather risk their lives in the sea to get to Europe than stay in a democratic and relatively peaceful country like Senegal.
Even most of the Lampedusa survivors, who were wrongfully described as “refugees fleeing from military service in Eritrea“, have fled Italy, a democratic country with a developed economy. Despite the migrants being provided housing and money to spend, they still illegally left Italy for greener pastures in the UK. Apparently, these so-called ‘Eritrean refugees’ who are desperately seeking ‘freedom‘ in the West must also dislike European democracies that have sluggish economies, too.
In conclusion, labeling Eritrean economic migrants as refugees or asylum seekers is dishonest at best and an attack on Eritrea at worst. Not only is it inducing them to leave but it is also creating a situation in which other African economic migrants are claiming they are Eritreans to get into the West. This irrational policy of providing Eritrean economic migrants with refugee and asylum statuses, like that of Israel’s former work visa policy, was created at the behest of the United States, which wants to weaken and politically isolate Eritrea for challenging its policies in the region.