WASHINGTON — A group of BBC journalists were recently allowed to enter and report from inside Eritrea. This is the first time in over a decade that foreign journalists have been allowed to film inside the country, which is one of the poorest in the world. Famines are common and malnutrition is high. To make matters worse, it is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The country is often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa.”
Eritrea was once an Italian colony and was joined with Ethiopia after the Second World War in what is frequently referred to as a “shot-gun marriage.” For thirty years the country fought a bloody war with Ethiopia before gaining independence in 1991. It became an officially recognized sovereign state in 1993.
Eritrea has been in a constant state of tension with Ethiopia ever since; its border remains heavily militarized. Eritrea has been ruled by a military regime since independence and has never had democratic elections. The government declared a state of emergency due to tensions with Ethiopia. The government claims that drastic measures are still necessary to ensure the country’s safety and stability.
There is no freedom of expression in Eritrea and all media outlets are government owned. Critics and political opponents are regularly detained and tortured. Many disappear altogether. The government has publicly denied the existence of secret prisons, but others claim the country has secret camps where detainees are hidden and tortured inside shipping containers.
Perhaps the worst part is the government’s policy of indefinite national service, whereby young men are forced to perform national service duties and work under strenuous conditions without pay for an indefinite period of time. Human rights groups say this policy amounts to forced labor. The government says the program is necessary for Eritrea to defend itself against Ethiopia and defends the policy by claiming that service only lasts for 18 months. Other sources report that many serve for decades.
Many flee to escape national service. The conditions inside Eritrea have led to a mass exodus from the country. It is estimated that four thousand people leave the country every month. Many are unaccompanied minors as young as seven. Many work as migrants in other African countries or across the Red Sea in Yemen. Others seek refuge in Europe. Eritreans are one of the largest groups of asylum seekers coming across the Mediterranean to Europe, second only to Syrians. All the migrants who make the journey out of Eritrea do so at great risk and are often subject to violence and abuse. Once they leave, they are not allowed to return.
Despite all of this, the government has still managed to make significant progress in providing healthcare in Eritrea. This is the principle reason the government has allowed foreign journalists into the country, it wants to showcase its success. A lot of aid money has been invested in Eritrea as part of the Millennium Development Project to improve the quality of healthcare. The authoritarian government has been very successful at implementing the project initiatives and using the money for its intended purposes. The government is a lot less corrupt and dysfunctional than its neighbors.
The U.N. has praised Eritrea for its successes in public health. Its health statistics are much better than many of its African counterparts. Infant and child mortality rates are lower, vaccination rates are higher and Eritreans have better access to healthcare facilities. The government covers the hospital bill for people too poor to afford care. New clinics have been built across the country and healthcare workers travel to villages to advise and educate locals, deliver supplies and provide vaccinations. Eritrea has made some major progress in improving public health, a major victory in the fight against poverty, but it has come at a terrible cost.
*Some information found using this text: Phillips, M., & Carillet, J. (2006). Ethiopia & Eritrea (3rd ed.). Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet.
– Matt Lesso