Reviewing ICG’s Eritrean “Exodus” Report

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Evidence based critical analysis of the ICG report and its policy recommendationsons on Eritrea Exodus by the Red Sea Institute
Evidence based critical analysis of the ICG report and its policy recommendationsons on Eritrea Exodus by the Red Sea Institute

By Red Sea Institute,

INTRODUCTION: On August 8, 2014, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report on Eritrea entitled Eritrea: Ending the Exodus?

The report expresses grave concern that unsustainable mass emigration of an exceptional nature is taking place in Eritrea as a direct result of the Eritrean government’s policies, while the burden of transnational migration primarily falls upon the downstream nations in the region and Europe. The report proceeds to make specific policy recommendations for “the broader international community, led by the EU and Italy (currently EU president), and coordinated on the ground by the EU Special Representative.” 

The intent of this report by the Red Sea Institute (RSI) is to:

 Conduct a critical analysis of the ICG report and its containing policy recommendations with the intent of guiding sound policy and actions by governments, non-state actors, international bodies and the broader international community to most effectively address Eritrean translational migration; and

 Make suggestions to the ICG for future reporting on Eritrea.


Since September 2010, nine months after Eritrea was sanctioned by the UN, the ICG has published three reports on Eritrea, with each concluding that the Eritrean government’s policies have failed and painting a rather gloomy picture of the nation’s future (see section: ICG’s Shortcomings). The current report in question echoes in like fashion.

Notably, the report comes in the form of a “briefing update” suggesting a recent status change on this issue. In the overview section the ICG states that there is now “official recognition” of the problem in Eritrea. However, it provides no reference regarding where this claim arises. Though it is commendable that the overview proceeds to make some germane observations regarding the seriousness of the Eritrean migration issue, it also contains a set of unreferenced, erroneous or contradictory claims (not later covered or expounded upon by the report). Thus, RSI has carefully reviewed each of these claims as follows:

ICG Claim 1: “The large emigration of youths is the clearest sign of extreme domestic discontent with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government. Social malaise is pervasive.”

RSI Review: According to the ICG, there has yet to be a single report of a protest in Eritrea. As they put it “although there is no open protest, the government cannot take this for granted over the longterm.”1 If there are no signs of unrest, how can the claim of “extreme domestic discontent” be made? Similarly, no evidence of “social malaise” is given in the report. Undoubtedly, Eritrea faces many serious social challenges but RSI is wary not to assign “social malaise” designation a priori. Lastly, the ICG claims that discontent or social malaise is due to “President Isaias Afwerki’s government” however RSI found no citing of evidence to support this claim.

ICG Claim 2: “Once outside, the ties that bind émigrés to their birthplace are strong and lead them to give financial support to the very system they escaped, through the 2 per cent tax many pay the state as well as remittances sent home to family members.”

RSI Review: RSI finds this claim to be internally contradicting. On the one hand, the ICG’s claims that Eritrean citizens emigrate due to discontent with the government, while on the other hand claiming these migrants then give financial support to that same government through a voluntary tax. Why would a people discontent with a government voluntarily give money to that government? The voluntary nature of this tax is covered in detail by the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations.

ICG Claim 3: “The government ostensibly accepts that educated, urbanised youths resistant to the individual sacrifices the state demands are less troublesome and more useful outside the country – particularly when they can continue to be taxed and provide a crucial social safety net for family members who stay home. Meanwhile, those who remain tend to be the more pliant rural peasant and pastoralist population.”

RSI Review: RSI finds this claim to be false due to a logical fallacy, reductio ad absurdum: if it is true that the Eritrean government believes that educated youth are “more useful outside the country,” then the government, in order to maximize their presumed utility, would maximize the flight from Eritrea. Such a result of this rationale is absurd. Additionally, the greater utility of “educated, urbanised youths resistant to the individual sacrifices” is not expounded upon, not referenced and RSI has been unable to find support for this claim from any external sources.

ICG Claim 4: “Ending the exodus requires greater engagement with Eritrea – potentially ending a decade of isolation…”

RSI Review: According to Eritrea’s Permanent Mission to the African Union (AU), Eritrea currently has 36 diplomatic missions abroad, while Uganda has 31, Ethiopia 39, Tanzania 32, Kenya 50, Sudan 64, and Djibouti 50. Eritrea has only been independent for 23 years yet its scale of diplomatic engagement appears comparable to that of the older nations in the region. Additionally, there have been multiple calls for rapprochement, diplomatic restarts, and re-engagement of Eritrea since December.

ICG Claim 5: Eritrea is experiencing “a growing internal crisis.”

RSI Review: It is not clear what the internal crisis refers to. If the ICG is referring to internal security, then it would contradicts itself again as the report later explains that “there have been few internal security threats.” Assuming these concerns are due to “extreme domestic discontent,” the ICG contradicts itself by pointing out the lack of protest (see ICG Claim 1 above).


Next, the report moves on to a section that gives some historical context behind Eritrean migration. The section is surprisingly brief, limiting critical context. The ICG explains that Eritrean migration is a problem that goes back to the 1950’s, which consequently led to a large global diaspora.

Next, the report explains that after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) led the nation to liberation in 1991, “hopes were high that a new era of freedom and development had begun, and a growing number started to return home. Yet despite some initial promise, independence did not bring an opening of political space; authoritarian attitudes formed during the guerrilla period persisted.” The ICG suggests that domestic politics in Eritrea limited repatriation.

Further examination of the footnote for the claim of “a growing number,” the report notes that according to “Crisis Group analyst’s interviews and observations in another capacity,” there was conversely a limited level of repatriation: “There were waves of return from 1993 to 1998, though few resettled permanently…repatriation of Eritrean refugees from the U.S. proceeded slowly. An estimated 180,000 (of some 342,000) returned from 1991 to 1996” (the latter numbers refer to global repatriation). Thus, the footnotes directly contradict the text.

It is critical to note that the ICG’s numbers and presumed reasons for low repatriation (i.e. “authoritarian attitudes”) contradict the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). First, UNHCR, in an official report on the protracted Eritrean refugee situation, notes that there were actually 500,000 Eritrean refugees in 1991 in Sudan alone, that 342,000 were still there in 1998, and that only 36,600 refugees repatriated between 1993 and 1999. Therefore, few Eritreans returned home even in times of peace.

Second, the reason for low repatriation was explained in 1996 by UNHCR-Sudan chief, who conducted a study and determined “that 80-90 percent of those in camps want to repatriate” but “we (UNCHR) created a monster in Sudan” with “vested interests in keeping the Eritrean refugees. If they repatriate, their refugee empire will collapse.” As opposed to the ICG’s claim of “authoritarian attitudes,” UNHCR’s primary stated reason for lack of repatriation is UNHCR’s own failure.

The ICG proceeds to explain that “though skepticism slowly grew” among Eritreans abroad about the “EPLF’s promises” of “a multi-party system and governance reforms,” Eritreans, in response to renewed war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, “united behind the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)–as the EPLF was renamed in 1994–against what they perceived as renewed Ethiopian imperialism.” According to the ICG, Eritrea, following the 2000 Algiers Agreement with Ethiopia, transitioned into a “consequent state of ‘no-war, no-peace’” that “continues to be used to justify mobilization and authoritarianism,” which in turn has made Eritrea “one of the world’s principal sources of refugees.”

According to the ICG, the aforementioned historical events are ostensibly the reasons why Eritrea is facing an “exodus” today. However, the ICG does not mention the 342,000 refugees that were still present in Sudan when war broke out in 1998.

There is no mention of the fact that the war additionally “displaced hundreds of thousands of people” with 95,000 leaving in May 2000 alone. 7 Without this much needed context, one is left to conclude that the more than 450,000 unaccounted for migrants must have newly emigrated from Eritrea after the 1998-2000 war, during the ‘no-war-no-peace’ period in which Eritrea supposedly underwent “mobilization and authoritarianism.”

The ICG finally concludes the section by explaining that “according to UN estimates, around 300,000 have fled since 2000, and roughly 4,000 still flee each month.” Referring to a 2013 publication by Assefa Bariagaber, the rationale for these dramatic numbers is given in the footnote: “In 2008, Eritrean refugees were estimated at 186,400, ‘yet in light of continuous human rights violations in the country this number grew by more than 121,000 persons worldwide over the past five years.’”

If it is in fact true that 300,000 have left in the last 14 years, then that means an average of 21,000 Eritreans must emigrate from Eritrea every year. If 4,000 currently leave per month, then an extrapolated total of 48,000 Eritreans must leave each year. RSI compared these values to UNHCR’s own numbers and found serious miscalculations in the ICG’s cited numbers.


In order to examine the accuracy of the ICG’s emigration numbers, RSI referred directly to UNHCR data instead of secondary UN sources. To reiterate, the ICG endorses the claim that:

 An average of 21,000 Eritreans emigrated from Eritrea every year since 2000; and
 A projected total of 48,000 will emigrate this year.

By tracking UNHCR statistics in their yearly Global Reports issued from 1994 to 2013 for both Sudan and Ethiopia—the two nations where virtually all Eritreans immigrate to first—one can calculate and project Eritreans emigration numbers. It should be noted that UNHCR does not directly track emigration numbers from Eritrea. However, it is possible to estimate the level of Eritrean emigration using raw UNHCR data. All relevant UNHCR data and estimates are tabulated in Table 2 using methodologies employed by UNHCR. (See table 2, Fig 1 and 2)

Based on the tabulated data, it is clear that there has been a net reduction in the total population of Eritrean refugees from 367,735 to 194,000 since 2000, a total decrease of 173,735. This means that an average of 12,410 Eritrean refugees have left the camps each year. Regarding “asylum seekers,” there is also a net reduction by 90,328 (total) and 6,452 (yearly average) since 2000.

In essence, this means that there is a much greater efflux than influx of both asylum seekers and refugees. How, then, is it possible that since 2000 there has been an average of 21,000 Eritreans emigrating from Eritrea into UNHCR camps, let alone a projected 48,000 per year? The ICG’s numbers are markedly off.

Although it is clear that there is an influx of Eritrean asylum seekers into Ethiopia over the last decade, the Eritrean refugee and asylum seeker population, on the whole, is diminishing. Given that refugees are leaving camps at a greater rate than asylum seekers (12,410 vs. 6,452), it follows that a significant number of Eritreans leaving UNHCR camps today are part of the old refugee population in Sudan that still has yet to be resettled or repatriated. It may even be the case that the entire old refugee camp population may have left the camp while simultaneously being replaced by a camp population of newer refugees. This would constitute a slowly decreasing steady state despite the changing flux of migrants. This may also be better understood when the yearly change in asylum seekers from the rightmost column of Table 2 is visualized on a graph as shown in Figure 1.

Note the significant drop in asylum seekers in 2003. This is the direct result of UNHCR policies the year prior. Since the war ended in 2000, UNHCR invoked the “cessation clause” in 2002 (under Article 1. C. (5) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees), which terminated Eritrean refugee status that same year unless individual refugees could demonstrate a continuing need for international protection.

Therefore, Eritrean “refugees” were suddenly deemed “migrants.” Hence, the enormous and sudden disappearance of 168,522 refugees. Eritrean migrants, for the first time in their long history of migration, had to apply for asylum on a case-by-case basis in order to obtain refugee status. All who did not receive refugee status would thus be unaccounted for and would either later resurface as official “asylum seekers” or move onward to other nations as economic migrants. Unsurprisingly, asylum claims went from zero in 2001 to 26,851 in 2002. These migrants were essentially moved from one column of the ledger to another.

The increase in asylum claims caused by the invocation of the cessation clause led UNHCR to the conclusion that conditions must be worsening in Eritrea. As a result, UNHCR took on a new 2004 policy position on Eritrea that re-designated all Eritrean asylum-seekers with ‘prima facie’ status (i.e. automatic recognition of Eritreans en masse) on the grounds that there were human rights abuses in Eritrea.  All the former refugees who lost legal status were still in Sudan and would later be reclassified as “asylum seekers.” This is a significant source of asylum-seekers that often goes ignored.

As UNHCR-Sudan indicated as late as 2008, “it is urgent to define the legal status of nearly 70,000 Eritreans who lost their refugee status with the application of the cessation clause in 2002-2004. These people, who remain of concern to UNHCR, lack legal documents, limiting their access to basic services and rights… UNHCR’s strategy for the protracted refugee situation in Sudan includes searching for the most suitable durable solutions for 150,000 long-staying Eritrean refugees” Note that there were still 70,000 without legal status in 2008 and likely many more in 2002.

Figure 2 illustrates the results of these policy changes by UNHCR. Note the decrease in refugees and simultaneous increase in asylum claims following 2002. The decrease in refugees significantly outpaces the increase in asylum claims by orders of a magnitude.


The ICG presents emigration from Eritrea as an exceptional case. The report’s conclusion states, “though clearly part of a larger global socio-economic phenomena, the Eritrean youth exodus is particularly acute.” The use of the hyperbolic terms like “exodus” highlight this point. Though Eritrean emigration and “brain drain” is undoubtedly a serious challenge for Eritrea, as it is for many developing nations, it must be noted that Eritrea, unlike other nations, faces unique and highly detrimental policies by international bodies that have served to worsen the degree of the problem.

The ICG makes passing mention of the ease in which Eritreans receive asylum. The ICG’s downplaying of this fact, possibly inadvertent, is manifested in by its passive mentioning and burial within the footnotes: “anecdotally at least, Eritrean migrants appear to have an advantage over other Africans in receiving political asylum on the grounds of resisting military conscription and political or religious persecution.” The reality is that increased asylum recognition rates of Eritreans over other African groups is not anecdotal but rather a recognized fact.

As aforementioned, UNHCR’s adopted a 2004 policy position on Eritrea that designated all Eritrean asylum-seekers with prima facie status (i.e. automatic recognition of Eritreans en masse).12 Eritreans and Sudanese are the only African groups that are accepted by UNHCR without questions asked. Even Somalia, which remains locked in a civil war between Al-Shabaab and the government does not have such a designation for its migrants. Thus, Eritreans do in fact have an asylum processing advantage over other African groups.

Furthermore, the ICG fails to recognize the consequence of Eritreans’ prima facie status: many African groups, particularly Ethiopians, claim Eritrean identity and commit asylum fraud in order to resettle in third nations. Multiple accounts of this have been reported in Israel, England, Sweden, the United States and other nations. In Israel, a reporter for Ynet went undercover in a predominantly Eritrean and Sudanese neighborhood to further shed light on the pervasiveness of Eritrean asylum fraud:

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.”

A Ha’aretz article explains that false claims of Eritrean citizenship in Israel were so common by Ethiopian “infiltrators” that the Interior Ministry began to seek “documents issued by the Ethiopian consulate…to attest to the fact that asylum seekers in Israel who claim to be Eritreans [were] entitled to Ethiopian citizenship and [were] therefore not eligible for asylum…the Ethiopian consulate’s documents are routinely issued in almost every case in which the documentation is sought by the Israeli Interior Ministry.”

UNHCR has not yet officially recognized or investigated this issue for reasons that are not understood and the ICG fails to consider the serious implications resulting from aggregate false asylum claims by African migrants purporting to be Eritreans. Naturally, this may substantially inflate the Eritrean asylum seekers numbers, leading groups like the ICG to falsely come to the conclusion that Eritrean migration is relatively greater than that of other African groups.

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