The New York Times and the Missing Eritrean Footballers

News Opinions
The New York Times continues to provide shoddy and biased coverage of Eritrea, lacking in context and ignoring the role of forces behind politicized transnational migration. (Photo: The 18 missing Eritrean football players)
The New York Times continues to provide shoddy and biased coverage of Eritrea, lacking in context and ignoring the role of forces behind politicized transnational migration.

By Simon Tesfamariam,

ON May 22, 2014, James Montague penned an article in the New York Times entitled “A National Team Without a Country,” which recounts the two year journey of 18 players on Eritrea’s national soccer team as they migrate from Uganda to the Netherlands.

Notably, publication of the article falls just two days before Eritrean Independence, painting a rather gloomy and one-sided picture of life in Eritrea that starkly juxtaposes with the current celebratory spirit seizing the soon-to-be 23-year-old nation. 

The article is concerning not because it provides yet another run-of-the-mill, hopelessly bleak outlook of an African state but rather because it is riddled with gross factual errors and biases that are impossible to ignore. Furthermore, it fails to delve deeper into critical issues, starving the reader of the essential context needed to formulate informed opinions on Eritrea.

To the author’s credit, the piece does begin by highlighting the unusual mode in which the Eritrean migrants were repatriated. While most other migrant groups are repatriated “often in groups of two or three,” the Eritrean soccer players all arrived via Romanian UNHCR holding facility “in the same manner they had fled their homeland: together, as a squad.”

Montague proceeds to explain that the soccer players, who claimed political asylum, were “high-risk refugees” yet fails to give any reasonable explanation as to why they were designated as such by UNHCR. He simply states that “the team was deemed to be in danger given its high profile.”

How exactly is their high-profile status, automatic grounds for granting political asylum? Is there any proof or even mere suggestion that persecution awaits them upon return to Eritrea?

It’s not just high-profile Eritrean migrants that receive expedited resettlement to the West. Montague fails to mention that Eritreans in general, unlike other migrant groups, are preferentially resettled via transport through the Romanian holding facility in large groups of up to 40 people. In fact, Eritreans were the first experimental group migrants to use the facility when it opened in 2009. Furthermore, these resettlement operations, according to multiple Eritrean diplomats in Europe, are based along ethnic and religious lines that serve to divide the Eritrean diaspora.

The reality is that the process of resettling and granting Eritreans political asylum is part of a broader scheme of politicized transnational migration. In 2004, the heavily U.S.-influenced UNHCR took the shotgun approach by granting all Eritrean migrants prima facie status, which deemed all future Eritrean migrants “refugees” and called for their automatic processing as political asylum-seekers.

Why the Change, Exactly?

A UNHCR 2004 position paper referencing U.S. State Department annual human rights reports justified the new policy position by concluding that “the human rights situation in Eritrea has seriously deteriorated in the past two years…with regard to the treatment of opposition political groups and movements, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, arbitrary detention…and the treatment of draft evaders.”

This new position by UNHCR makes two important errors. The first mistake was to base UNHCR policies towards Eritrea on the work of a non-neutral party—the U.S. State Department.

A leaked 2009 diplomatic cable entitled “Promoting Educational Opportunity for Anti-Regime Eritrean Youth” exposes the U.S.’s compromised neutrality and its integral role in driving Eritrean youth out of Eritrea. The then U.S. Ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald K. McMullen explained that “Post plans to restart visa services (completely suspended in 2007) for student visa applicants; we intend to give opportunities to study in the United States to those who oppose the regime.

UNHCR’s next mistake was to take a reductionist approach and ignore all other factors that could possibly lead to the migration of Eritreans.

In line with the Harris-Todaro theory of migration, economic migration was as much, if not more, an issue for Eritrea as it was for any other nation of the so-called developing world. However, this obvious reason was strangely absent. Also missing from the discussion was the fact that there were ongoing hostilities with Ethiopia—the historic reason for Eritrean migration since the 1960s—and continued internal displacement of thousands of Eritrean citizens.

Thus, to this day, all Eritrean migrants are processed as political asylum seekers en masse rather than on a case-by-case basis. According to UNHCR’s flawed logic, there can be no other reason why they leave.

By contrast, the migrants from neighboring states like Somalia and Ethiopia are today considered “migrants” by UNHCR as opposed to refugees with prima facie status. This comes in spite of the fact that Ethiopia faces multiple active insurgencies, annual famines, and widescale protests while Somalia’s beleaguered government is ensnared in a devastating war with Al-Shabab as well as famine. Though there are occasional acts of terrorism along the Sudanese and Ethiopian borders, there are currently no reported active insurgencies, protests, or obvious signs of internal instability in Eritrea.

Montague, along with practically every reporter on Eritrea from essentially every major Western newspaper, fails to question, let alone present reasonable justification, as to why all Eritreans are the only Horn of Africa migrants deserving of prima facie designation. Instead, he accepts with blind credulity the universal equation that “Eritrean migration equals Eritrean human rights abuses.”

As his article moves on to provide the context of Eritrean history and politics that triggered the flight of the soccer players, the reader catches a glimpse of Montague’s misunderstanding of Eritrea. He writes:

After gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a bloody civil war, Eritrea rapidly disintegrated into one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and U.N. investigators. There was no democracy, and little or no freedom of speech or movement. Torture remained routine, and young people were kept in a continual state of army conscription. Human Rights Watch estimated in 2011 that 50,000 Eritreans lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and that thousands try to flee from Eritrea every week despite troops at the border having orders to shoot to kill.

First off, Eritrea was never in a “civil war” with Ethiopia but rather in a war for independence that started in 1961 even before Eritrea was illegally annexed by Ethiopia in 1962.

Second, Montague erroneously states that Eritrea “rapidly disintegrated into one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights.” Rapid, according to whom? The first HRW report on the state of democracy in Eritrea wasn’t published until 16 years following Eritrean independence (i.e. 2009).

Eritrea wasn’t even on the international radar concerning “human rights abuses” until the decade following the cessation of the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, which he conveniently fails to mention. In fact, the NYT itself, in an article published as late as 2000, indicated that “President Clinton anointed the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea as princes of an African Renaissance” towards an era of democracy and good governance.

Whether justified or not, the war with Ethiopia is the Eritrean government’s primary stated reason for the ongoing and indefinite mobilization of soldiers against a foe 15 times Eritrea’s size. Does this not deserve mention? The two-and-half-year conflict, which led to the deaths of more than 150,000 troops, led to the occupation of roughly one-fourth of Eritrean territories and is an integral reason for Ethiopia’s ongoing illegal occupation of Eritrea today.

Third, Montague bases his claims of human rights abuses on reports by HRW, which doesn’t operate in Eritrea, is funded by the U.S. State Department and is increasingly recognized as a biased rubber stamper of Foggy Bottom’s policies. Earlier this month, 100 scholars, including multiple Nobel Laureates and former UN officials, sent a letter to HRW’s leader Kenneth Roth, calling into question the organization’s independence from the U.S. government.

Montague attempts to corroborate HRW’s claims of human rights abuses with those of the players. Unfortunately, he fails to acquire one interview among the 18 migrants. He does, however, manage to salvage the words of a 47-year-old high school math teacher, who explains that “Eritrea is not safe for its own people.” Although a Motley Fool piece concedes that it “feels safer in Asmara than…some places in the UK,” no such views challenging Montague’s are necessary, of course.

It’s hard to imagine balanced and fair reporting from the same Montague who explained in his recent book “Thirty-One Nil” that “Eritrea is one of the worst countries in the world by almost any metric. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, torture, poverty and, of course, football.” His article seems to be but an extension of his tunnel vision.

In the end, the NYT article leaves the reader with a disheartening image of life in Eritrea that runs counter to realities on the ground, with the sort of shoddy reporting on Africa that serves American imperialism and intervention.

According to Morehouse Professor Laura Seay, the days of NYT reporters like Howard French are long gone. In her Foreign Policy piece “How Not to Write About Africa,” she expresses how “French’s mid-1990s reporting for the Times was nuanced and balanced, and reflected the reality of Africa as a place that is not simply a land of war and poverty, but rather a complex system of societies like any others filled with normal people doing their best to make a life.”

“Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa?” Seay asks. “Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent — more than 11 million square miles.”

NYT’s correspondents are notably absent from Eritrea. Montague, who has never stepped foot in the nation, is yet another manifestation of a crisis in African reporting.

In regards to NYT’s go-to Eritrea “experts” running the gamut from Jeffrey Gettleman to Nick Cummings-Bruce to James Montague, gloom and doom is the obvious common denominator. If we look at the six other NYT headlines from this past year, we see a very familiar trend:

Rights Group Details Kidnapping and Torture of Eritrean Refugees, February 11, 2014
African Refugees Protest Detainment in Israel, December 17, 2013
Government Abuse Drives Eritreans to Flee, U.N. Says, November 25, 2013
Eritrea: Report Tallies Repression, May 9, 2013
Eritrea: Calm After Coup Attempt, January 22, 2013
Coup Attempt by Rebel Soldiers Is Said to Fail in Eritrea, January 21, 2013

Gloom and doom, not to mention lies. Such reporting is unacceptable from the so-called “Newspaper of Record” and should not be tolerated. Eritrean migrants deserve better coverage. The world deserves better coverage.

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