The Traffic Racket: The Activist Syndicate and the EU

The role of diaspora based Eritrean 'Activists' in the Trafficking of Eritreans and their shadowy links with journalists
The role of diaspora based Eritrean ‘Activists’ in the Trafficking of Eritreans and their shadowy links with journalists and state officials vis-à-vis Eritrean migration and the resultant consequences for Europe, Eritrea and the migrants.

By Red Sea Fisher,

IN PART one of our series on the “The Traffic Racket,” we spoke about the dubious roles of Eritrean “activists” Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos, and Elsa Chyrum. We spoke about the role of misinformed journalists and sometimes outright biased activist-journalists like Dan Connell, who have been promoting the work of the activists to bring about regime change in Eritrea. Do these ties go deeper?

Part two looks into the shadowy links between these activists, journalists, and state officials vis-à-vis Eritrean migration, in a loose syndicate, and looks at the consequences for Europe, Eritrea, and the migrants.


Emerging evidence suggests that regime change activists Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos, and Elsa Chyrum have all been involved in facilitating the smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean youth.

Before any formal cooperation on trafficking and smuggling took place, the three activists and Dan Connell—an activist himself—were all closely linked to one another, meeting under the framework of human rights cooperation prior to their alleged smuggling cooperation. A proto-syndicate to the traffic racket, perhaps.

All four were present at a conference in Brussels hosted by the European External Policy of Advisors (EEPA) in November 2009 entitled “Joining EU and US policy towards Eritrea and the Horn of Africa: for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights.

Also in attendance were former US Ambassadors and State Department notables alongside a smorgasbord of today’s most quoted, press-approved Eritrean human rights activist. As the conference title suggests, the aim of the gathering was to get the EU to go along with US policy towards Eritrea under the mantra of promoting human rights.

It’s critical to note that prior to this conference, Eritrea and the EU, despite their differing views on modes of governance, shared cozy relations. EU Commissioner Louis Michel felt that Eritrea was a “key player” in the Horn of Africa and proposed that Eritrea receive €122 million during the 10th round of the European Development Fund, which would make Eritrea the highest per-capita recipient of EU development funding.

The US felt this was too much to bear. According to a diplomatic cable sent from Brussels on April 22, 2009 by Wayne Bush, acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Phillip Carter was actively lobbying against Eritrea-EU engagement: “he questioned the wisdom of giving EUR 122 million to a regionally-destabilizing pariah regime in Eritrea.”

In the end, the deal was never signed and Eritrea was sanctioned by the UN the very next month, which would have been unlikely without an EU change of heart and the EU’s tacit support.

Though the diplomatic inertia between the EU and Eritrea has kept relations between the two relatively unchanged, save for recent positive developments, the US-supported and financed activists and UNHCR, which itself receives 30% of its funds from the US, have worked incessantly since then to create a rift between the two—or, more precisely, the image of a rift.

It appears that separating Eritrea from its international partners was part and parcel with the US and US-backed Ethiopian regime’s plan to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically,” as revealed by a leaked US embassy cable by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston on November 1, 2005.

US State Department Involvement

Further evidence suggests that the isolation strategy employed by the likes of Mussie, Meron, Elsa, and Connell had official support from the US State Department.

In a May 5, 2009 leaked US embassy cable sent from Asmara, entitled “Promoting Educational Opportunity for Anti-Regime Eritrean Youth”, the then US Ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald K. McMullen outlines US plans for politicized smuggling of Eritrean youth, explaining 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.”

So great was US state sponsorship for smuggling Eritreans out of Eritrea, that Obama himself—who never before uttered the word “Eritrea” publicly—said in a 2012 speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, which inaugurated human trafficking as “modern slavery,” “I recently renewed sanctions on some of the worst abusers, including North Korea and Eritrea. We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers.” Who are these partners, exactly?

The statement was seen as symbolic and a re-declaration of the position taken during 1884 Berlin Conference, which provided a moral justification for Europe’s infamous Scrabble for Africa on the basis of “human rights” enforcement that sought to relieve Africa of the Arab slave trade.

Obama’s admission of “partnering” with smugglers was concerning given the US State Department’s own definition of smuggling: “the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation or illegal entry of a person or persons across an international border, in violation of one or more countries’ laws.

Often the smuggled émigrés are exploited and killed en route to Europe’s southern shores, making the US and the human rights activists potentially party to not only the smuggling but also the trafficking of Eritreans.

Europe Suffering the Consequences

Thus, it’s only within this backdrop of trans-Mediterranean smuggling and trafficking, exploited by the US state and US-supported entities, such as the aforementioned activists and UNHCR, that one can make sense of the latest mass-casualty shipwrecks, the reporting of these incidents, and the EU’s policy responses.

On Monday, April 20, the EU Joint Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Council met in Luxemburg to hold an emergency meeting, which led to the release of a 10-point plan aimed at addressing the dangers of growing trans-Mediterranean migration. A follow-up summit of the European Commission was held in Brussels on Thursday, April 23 to further address the issue and expand upon the 10 point plan.

In essence, EU leaders agreed to double emergency aid to frontline member states Italy, Greece and Malta to the tune of €50 million per year. They also pledged ships, aircraft and equipment to assist with humanitarian efforts for migrants, such as support for reception centers and medical personnel to deal with the influx.

EU leaders also decided to address growing smuggling activities, pledging to triple funding to €9 million a month for Frontex, the EU’s border operation patrolling the Mediterranean. Frontex ships will travel closer to the Libya, the starting point for 90% of all smuggled trans-Mediterranean migrants, to prevent illegal migration before it starts.

The funds for Frontex are earmarked for its Triton mission, which will not conduct active search-and-rescue operations but will instead focus on military operations against smugglers.

Protest by UNHCR and Human Rights NGOs

The new EU position led to criticism by the media and protest by UNHCR and human rights groups. At the helm was UNHCR’s Commissioner Antonio Guterres, who explained that the most recent shipwreck “confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe.”

“It doesn’t mean it has to be Mare Nostrum,” Guterres said, referring to the Italian search-and-rescue operation that was suspended last year due to cost. “It can be European Union-sponsored operation but different from Triton.”

According to USA News & World Report, Guterres’ logic that justifies a boost in search-and-rescue operations, is predicated on the observation that “42,000 migrants arrived in Italy via sea in 2013, but that number increased to 170,000 in 2014.”

On the surface, these numbers seem to provide support for search-and-rescue but Guterres, UNHCR, and human rights NGOs fail to mention that Operation Mare Nostrum was actually in operation during the majority of that period in which the migrant spike occurred, running from October 18, 2013 – October 31, 2014.

In contrast to Guterres, last year’s EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom indicated that the success of the Italian operation has created a pull factor and made the sea crossing attempts more dangerous.

In the wake of the October 2013 mass-casualty shipwreck near Lampedusa, Italy, the Swedish commissioner warned, “The tragic backslide of this [search-and-rescue operation] is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean, which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved.”

Two years after her warning, it appears that traffickers and smugglers have become emboldened by search-and rescue-centric EU. According to a recent study by Frontex, traffickers have started openly marketing their smuggling services on popular social media sites like Facebook.

Despite the statistics and realities behind migration, human rights groups remain seemingly averse to the facts on the ground.

According to Amnesty International’s Deputy Program Director for Europe and Central Asia, “Europe has scaled back search-and-rescue capacity based on the flawed argument that such operations were acting as a ‘pull factor’, attracting more migrants. But the reality in the Mediterranean is exposing that fallacy, since the numbers of desperate people seeking to make it to Europe are only going up.”

The Other Solution No One’s Talking About

Absent from virtually all arguments by UNHCR and human rights group as well as the EU’s debate on migration are the root causes of the phenomenon, both push and pull factors. Responses to migrant shipwrecks by both UNHCR and the EU seem to ignore these two key factors and focus entirely on symptoms—namely, the facilitation of migration en route to Europe.

Such facilitation comes in the form of search-and-rescue and boosting asylum quotas. Although this sort of facilitation is undoubtedly much needed, allowing for more humane treatment of migrants and legal routes of entry for those in distress, there’s essentially nothing being done to address the root causes and to curb migration.

In fact, the causes of migration are even worsened.

The oft quoted Eritrean activists, who often work with UNHCR and human rights NGOs, seem to go a step of further by playing an active role in worsening the causes of migration, calling for an end to the EU’s development aid to Eritrea and engaging in illegal smuggling activities.

By working with these political activists, UNHCR is stepping beyond its mandate, limited to purely humanitarian operations, enshrined in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

In UNHCR’s frame of thought: forget about addressing the instability in Libya resulting from the European war of aggression; forget about addressing Ethiopia’s ongoing illegal occupation of Eritrea; forget about busting the trans-Mediterranean smuggling racket; forget about the real causes of desperate journeys; just focus on symptoms—rescuing migrants.

Given UNHCR’s logic of facilitating ever-expanding search-and-rescue without addressing root causes, why not cut the smugglers out of the loop and simply provide the recently pledged European rescue vessels at Libyan ports to directly transport willing migrants from Libya to Italy, provided they pay the right price? Why stop there?

Or, better yet, why not rescue persecuted Eritreans from directly inside of Eritrea? After all, according to UNHCR’s 2009 and 2011 Eligibility Guidelines on Eritrean Asylum Seekers, the entire state of Eritrea is deemed the “persecutor,” making flight a virtual necessity for all citizens and making Eritrea the only nation in the world with such an exceptional designation.

Justification for this exceptional position by the UN’s refugee agency is provided by the “continuous high numbers of asylum applications by Eritreans.” However, even these number are hotly contested given the rampant asylum fraud, in which non-Eritreans are claiming Eritrean identity. Much like the prematurely estimated 150 versus 350 dead in the recent mass-casualty shipwreck, the numbers of Eritreans are often questionable, at best, and largely inflated, at worst.

In a recent Voice of America interview, Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council, explained that people all over the world are claiming Eritrean identity to gain entry into Europe, which ascribes to UNHCR’s exceptional asylum recommendations for Eritrean:

When I hear a number like 400 people on a boat, I have to suspect that at least some of those people were actually refugees from another country, taking advantage of Europe’s automatic asylum policy. If you’re from Eritrea or you can convince a refugee officer that you’re from Eritrea, you get an automatic green card in Europe–no questions asked. And that means that Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somalis…everyone has an incentive to walk through this open door from some of the poorest countries in the world to some of the richest countries in the world.

UNHCR’s policies towards Eritreans have made it far too easy and tempting for Eritrean youth not to take the transnational journey in spite of the dangers. Questions of moral hazard come into the picture. The agency’s claims of an increasing number of Eritreans “fleeing” Eritrea have become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy, making migration socially fashionable among teenagers unaware of the horrors that lie on trek ahead of them.

The EU is also largely to blame for the current migrant spike and is misguided in its focus on petty migrants-turned-traffickers.

The chaos currently seen in Libya is largely the doing of Europe’s “humanitarian” R2P war that has destroyed the Libyan state and given new life to criminals like Ermias Ghermay. Declaring war on his foot soldiers and burning every rubber dingy lining the Libyan coast will likely do little to stop trafficking into Europe and deaths in the Mediterranean.

No one is talking about the ongoing illegal Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea, forcing thousands of young Eritreans mobilized against a foe 15-plus times its size. No one is talking about the unjustifiable and now internationally discredited sanctions, choking foreign direct investment and serving to isolate the nation from its would-be international partners.

Life in the militarized nation is hard and punishing as it’s locked in a protracted existential crisis exacerbated by a hostile US-Ethiopian isolation strategy that resulted in unjust UN sanctions in 2009. Writing for Al-Monitor, Israel’s former deputy minister of defense Ephraim Sneh indicated, “Over the last decade, the United States has espoused a policy designed to isolate and weaken the country.”

The EU, as a guarantor of the 2000 Algiers Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, can curb migration by pushing Ethiopia to abide by the terms of the peace agreement and demanding its unconditional withdrawal from Eritrea. Additionally, it must push to end the UN sanctions and break-up the trans-Mediterranean smuggling networks by arresting criminals at the highest levels of the racket.

It is only when such holistic efforts are carried out in earnest that search-and-rescue makes sense; that one can expect search-and-rescue to lead to more favorable outcomes for the EU, Eritrea and, most importantly, the migrants.

Instead of designing policy responses based on reporting from a media that uncritically trumpets the words of regime-change-oriented activists, human rights NGOs, and UNHCR with an axe to grind against Eritrea, the EU and world public must push for more rational, evidence-based responses to stem the growing tide of migrants washing up on the shores of Europe.

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Part three of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” will look closer into the role of Ethiopia and its refugee agency in promoting the escape of Eritrean children from Eritrea.