The long road to Paris for Eritrea's refugees

Even in Paris, Eritreans fear the ‘mosquitoes’ – informers for the regime of Isaias Afwerki, a freedom fighter turned alcoholic dictator who has ruled the country with an iron fist since Eritrean independence in 1993.

In a report published June 8, a UN investigation concluded that the Eritrean government’s systematic human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

It’s what fleeing Eritreans have been saying for years: the country is run like a massive prison camp. Teenage conscripts are often held in slavery-like conditions indeterminately and reports of arbitrary detention and torture are widespread.

The Eritrean government polices the borders, controls movement (even from one neighbourhood to another) and keeps tabs on the population with an integrated network of “mosquitoes”.

Eritrean refugees in Paris still seem plagued by fear. Sentences trail off, suggesting haunting experiences that are left unsaid. However, they will likely reveal more about the horrors of life in Eritrea to French officials during closed-door asylum claim meetings.

Yet even those meetings can be dangerous.

“There’s been a consistent problem with Tigrinya translators,” said Léonard Vincent, RFI journalist and author of “The Eritreans”. “Several European countries accidentally hired Afwerki sympathisers who pressured migrants to change their stories or relayed information to Asmara [the Eritrean capital].”

'Life in Eritrea is impossible'

Fear is the reason that Eritrean refugee Tes doesn’t want his photo taken. He slept rough for weeks after arriving in Paris in May, explaining that he fled Eritrea after he “got in trouble” with the authorities.

Life for Eritreans deteriorated in 2000. Afwerki, who had just lost a war with Ethiopia, wanted to re-assert his power. He began a policy of indefinite national service, shut down the free press and arrested dissidents. The first wave of Eritreans fled in 2003.

Although Afwerki has tightened his grip in the years since, the human smuggling network has also strengthened, often working with Eritrean or Sudanese military border patrols. No one gets out of Eritrea alone.

“Families save for years to pay one person’s passage,” said Vincent. “Departees are considered deserters. Families pay fines of around 3,000 euros and can even be imprisoned, especially if the ‘deserter’ is well-known.”

Tes said he crossed the border on foot, with two friends. When asked about their whereabouts, there was another pause, then another haunted look.

Eritrean refugees run enormous risks to flee the country. Eritrean border guards have a shoot-to-kill policy. A kidnapping racket is active on the Sudanese border and many captive Eritreans are taken to the Sinai peninsula where they are held for ransoms in makeshift prisons.

Tes left the borderlands quickly. In Khartoum, he stayed with a cousin. He quickly realised that "life was impossible in Eritrea, but it was also impossible in Sudan."

He then started saving money for the most perilous leg of his journey: through Libya.