1. In Eritrea, several high level government officials have noted how although Eritrea is establishing ties and expanding cooperation with an increasing number of European countries, the country’s relationship with Italy, for reasons unknown to the officials, has not progressed to the same degree. According to Osman Saleh, Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, the Horn of Africa country “is working with the European Union, with Germany and other European countries, but not with Italy,” and “Italy does not want to work with Eritrea and we do not know why.” Moreover, Yemane Gebreab, Adviser to the President of Eritrea, suggested that Italy may be unaware of the potential trade, economic, and other benefits that can arise through expanding its relationship with Eritrea and the general region.
For some observers, the comments were characterized as reflecting a desire on the part of Eritrea for colonialism under Italy, which really could not be further from the truth. Eritrea’s period under Italian colonization was especially harsh, involving great abuses, murder, theft (e.g. of large tracts of arable, fertile land), exploitation, fascism, and racism. It is relatively clear that a return to these conditions was not what the officials meant. Rather, the officials were merely pointing out that a potentially fruitful partnership between Eritrea and Italy, similar to the former’s ongoing cordial and beneficial partnership with numerous other countries, has yet to develop. The mischaracterization of the officials’ comments also provides a useful opportunity to clarify and detail Eritrea’s general approach to foreign policy, development, cooperation, and aid.
According to official documents, Eritrea’s regional policy may be described as anchored on the promotion of a peaceful, safe, and cooperative neighborhood. Additionally, the country’s foreign policy has long been firmly based upon principles of non-alignment, and the country is willing to cooperate with anyone and everyone, based upon mutual respect and benefit. Dating back to the country’s long independence struggle, the country’s sovereign choice has always been, and remains, that of aversion to dependency, polarized alliances, and the “suzerainty” of a big brother. As strongly asserted by an Eritrean minister in response to claims of Eritrea being in a type of dependent or colonial relationship with other countries: “receiving ‘marching orders’ - from big or small powers - is anathema to our DNA,” and that anyone who thinks or suggests so should “read Eritrean history 101.”
One of the most common descriptions of Eritrea is that it is isolationist, a misunderstanding that is rooted in a lack of understanding about Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to development and external aid. Specifically, Eritrea’s championing of the principle self-reliance is often mistaken for isolationism. To be clear, self-reliance involves depending on one’s own resources and efforts to develop, strengthen, and grow, so as to integrate and engage with others cooperatively, not subordinately.
Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The country has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.
For example, several years ago, an international organization wanted to provide certain materials to Eritrea. However, the organization overlooked the fact that the country already had numerous locals engaged in manufacturing and distributing the products. Accordingly, Eritrea suggested that the international organization shift its efforts to helping improve the local producers’ capacity and promote sustainability, rather than potentially harm their livelihoods and develop dependency.
Unfortunately, Eritrea’s approach is often misunderstood or even dismissed. However, the country’s determination to rely upon itself and promote independence should be encouraged, and external organizations and potential partners should be committed to working with it on that basis. In fact, according to Christine Umutoni, the former UN-Eritrea Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Eritrea, which made considerable progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, “has a lot to share that could help formulate, shape and implement the post-2015 development outlook for the good of humanity.”
Moving forward, as Eritrea works toward improving the lives of its people, developing and fostering regional and global relations should remain a key feature of policy. Ultimately, greater integration, cooperation, and dialogue – involving Italy and others – will not only support vital socio-economic growth and general development, but also encourage peace and stability in a long troubled region.
2. Recent migration figures reveal notable and interesting trends and developments. Specifically, the number of Eritreans travelling along the Central Mediterranean route into Italy significantly decreased in 2016, almost 50 percent compared to 2015. Moreover, for the period from January to May 2017, the number of Eritreans travelling along the long popular route into Italy decreased by nearly 76 percent compared to the same period for 2016, and is less than 13 percent of the figure for the same period for 2015 (although some figures suggest the drop was 64 percent, as opposed to 76, which is still dramatic).
It is important to note that at the same time that the number of Eritreans has dramatically decreased, the total number of migrants and refugees arriving in Italy (i.e. from all other countries) in 2016 constituted a record, and the number of arrivals into Italy continues to be quite significant. Specifically, arrivals for the first seven months of this year are slightly higher than for the same period last year. Several theories, receiving varying levels of support, have been discussed as potentially explaining the dramatic reduction, including: other routes being used; migrants remaining in or shifting to other urban centers; migrants going missing or dying; and increased interceptions or deportations. Although these factors are likely influential, changing dynamics on the ground within Eritrea should also be considered.
According to Yemane Gebreab, Adviser to the President of Eritrea, “arrival numbers are dropping drastically due to changes in the country,” and also because the country is “offering young training courses, working conditions are improving, the economy is growing and young people are also aware of the situation in Europe. They first thought that life in Europe was easy, that they would be successful, but now they know that life in Europe is difficult, spending months and months in reception centers.”
One of the important changes alluded to by Gebreab is the significant salary increase for those in national service. Begun in 2015, the salary increase is based on levels of education, years of service, skills attained, and levels of responsibility. New graduates have received salaries according to the new pay scale, while the readjustment process is ongoing for those already enrolled in national service. Additionally, it is also likely that many youth have increasingly become aware of the considerable challenges, risks, and dangers associated with migration, including potentially improved patrols, smuggling and trafficking, death and exploitation, and xenophobia, racism, and obstacles to integration.
Of course, Eritrea still faces considerable challenges associated with migration, particularly of its youth. The country will have to continue to make significant and important changes in a number of areas. However, the trends do seem positive.