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Evidence-Based Review: International Crisis Group’s Eritrean “Exodus” Report

Red Sea Institute response to the International Crisis Group's report on Eritrea entitled Eritrea: Ending the Exodus

Evidence-Based Review: International Crisis Group’s Eritrean “Exodus” Report


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 in Table 1.

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Historical Context 

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 globalrepatriation). 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 1999.5 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.”6 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 scepticism 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.

ICG Versus UNHCR Data

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.8

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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.”9 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.10 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”11 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.

Eritrean Migration: An Exceptional Case?

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.13 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.”14

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.”15

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.

Reasons For Emigration

The report moves on to make the argument that Eritrean national service is the primary cause of Eritrean emigration and dedicates an entire section on the national service program. 

......Continue reading below:

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Evidence-Based Review: International Crisis Group’s Eritrean “Exodus” Report Reviewed by Admin on 11:34 PM Rating: 5


  1. A big thank you to the The Red Sea Institute for making such a timely and well researched rebuttal that presents the facts, rather than soundbites and Ethiopia-friendly opinions.

  2. The International Crisis Group's themselves are the cause or making crises around the globe. If really are dedicate to stop crises , Why not stop the disaster in Gaza, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, Irak, Syria, and etc?
    Their aim is to fabricated lies over Eritrea and People in order to destabilize Eritrea and People. They have forgotten, that is the Eritrean People are self reliant and walk by their own foot. They don't need advice from such a trouble and crises maker institution.
    First of all these International institution are the same, they are just changing their name to pretend to be justice. Since I am born I have never seen an international organization that ends conflict among citizen. On the other hand they are the cause of war, poverty, disability, illness, migration, rape and everything that is evil on the earth, which contributes harm to the majorities. They work for self interest.
    The Eritrean People are conscious about them, and will never kneel down. They must know they are simply cheating themselves.

  3. I apprrove this message !
    Thank you brilliant hawina, shimkan gibrikhan ab hade megedi n ab hade meadi
    Kikherba aykian eyen :) well done bro!

  4. I guess this article is written for those Eritreans with no connection with Eritrea like YPFDJ but for rest of us we know the truth. I don't need UNHCR or ICG to tell me how alarming the youth migration is. I have many relatives, friends etc who left the country recently and all those who try to get out from HGDEF open prison for any price including death. So Mr dictator lover please don't waste your time with playing around with numbers, all decent Eritreans already know the truth.

  5. I believe this issue raised should be seen in a wider context. It raise the important Question. What is the basis for all the influx of Eritreans? Why? is it because the so called legal advisers have managed to create cases for the innocent Eritreans there by persuading the host countries to issue asylum the very moment you mention Eritrea? Is it because there is hardship in Eritrea? We Eritreans just like the rest of African brothers have in the first place failed to return to Eritrea to participate in nation building we were sent abroad for further studies. being the selected very best and having a privilege to study further so that we would change the lives of our fellow citizens. we choose the west. luxury. and betrayed our people. and then we blame the government and the leadership for the problems.They have done their part in leading us to independence.But when it comes to nation building we failed them. This is not rocket science. this is fact. those agencies who continue to distort the truth didn't gather the information by field interviewing inside Eritrea. Why? because the government knows their aim hence they are not allowed.They did ask those who flee Eritrea. what do you expect them to say then.Those who flee have to say that Eritrea is the north Korea of Africa. unless otherwise there is no asylum.Those who have been educated in Eritrea but choose not to return did manage to tell lies and act as interpreters to widen the fabrication. They did set up a network in the name of human right just to hide away from the fact that they are the ones who created this mess. Hence the only way we will succeed against those who twist truth is by playing our part. Lets ask the question. What is my contribution in this influx?

  6. "According to Eritrea's Permanent Mission to the African Union (AU), Eritrea currently has 36 diplomatic mission 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."

    Man just that alone tells your the creditability and intent of our beloved nation.

    Wedi Eritrea, From California, U.S.A.

  7. You mean decent Ethiopian agame we know who you are and who your relative's are Ethiopian nothing but Ethiopian who tries to be Eritrean

  8. Mr WediAbou,

    Your objection to the report by RSI centers on “Absence of
    evidence is not evidence of absence.” To make your point you start with the concept of statistical significance—a procedure carried out to find whether data lend evidence to hypotheses. You call the authors intellectually dishonest and names. You must have been too exited to discredit the authors that you did
    not see your own dishonesty—this report by RSI does deal with statistics (here used to mean data, one of the several definitions of the word), but does not test any hypothesis! Therefore, there was no fraud of the kind you accuse them of—one based on statistical significance. The authors summarize UNHCR
    data but they do not perform any statistical test to find evidence that support or reject a hypothesis nor do they infer about a population! You must have hoped that saying so would give your piece more weight—I might add an undeserved one.

    Next, you claim that UNHCR data is not reliable since, you claim, those who leave the country do not register for protection in the Sudan, but at other countries. This is a valid point. However, it does nothing other than casting doubt on the validity of the data source the authors used. The reasons the authors have provided in order to disregard ICG data is valid, too. You and the RSI do not agree on the appropriate source of data. The fact is that the ideal data for any study is not always available and when it can be
    gathered the cost of doing so is often prohibitive. If you do have evidence that the RSI purposefully ignored a superior data source that is available for them, then please present it. Otherwise, once again, there is no academic fraud here, either.

    Perhaps you can come up with the appropriate data along with
    the argument(s) for its superiority and give us an explanation on the topic discussed. It looks like there is a huge logistical and other problems with the sources you are suggesting. One such problem is that many Ethiopians have claimed that they are Eritreans in order to obtain asylum. Another point is that data
    obtained from Ethiopian refugee camps is not reliable because the numbers are inflated for ulterior goals. They are not “as clear as white sky” as I have personally met some who were in such a refugee camp where Ethiopians were added to increase the number to obtain more funds!

    Thirdly, you speak about protest in Eritrea. You have not denied that there are no protests in Eritrea. You have simply provided plausible (not necessarily true) reasons why there are no protests in Eritrea. One reason you have mentioned is that if they protested Eritreans would in fact protest against their own relatives. It could well be. However, could it be because they understand the machinations by Ethiopia/Weyane and the powerful countries behind them? Could it be because they have decided that protecting the independence and sovereignty of the country is of utmost importance than whatever other complaints they may have? Could it be because if they do protest, outsiders would be able to manipulate the “legitimate” protest to further their own agenda at the expense of Eritreans? After all, we have ample
    examples around the world in which such protests were engineered and often hijacked to cause thousands of deaths, absolute insecurity, tyranny—situations a thousand times worse than before. Eritreans are wise people!

    Where is the academic dishonesty? If an academic exercise is what we are talking about, the authors have indeed provided evidence that the ICG’s assessment of the situation in Eritrea is faulty. In fact, the ICG has several times committed academic dishonesty in its report on Eritrea. Organizations like it are hiding behind academic exercises, providing the pretext under which aggression is justified. Isn’t it the ICG that once recommended that Ethiopia should intervene in Eritrea in case Eritrea collapses, which it claimed would be soon? Did you not see the academic dishonesty involved in its analyses? Is it because you, yourself are dishonest?

  9. " I have many relatives, friends etc who left the country recently." Could it be because your many relatives and friends influence each other (You spend time with people like yourself.)? Could it be the relatives and friends have high hopes that one the long established family members or friends would assist them in reaching their destination? Could it be because, . . . There could be thousands of reasons! The issue is more complex than you think!


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