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Is Eritrea stoking conflicts between its migrants abroad?

Mimi Mefo Takambou
September 18, 2023

The repressive regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has forced many Eritreans to seek refuge abroad. Is Afwerki inciting conflicts between Eritrean migrants and their host nations?

A group of people is escorted by police officers after clashes at an Eritrea event in Stuttgart, Germany
Clashes in Stuttgart between Eritrean government supporters and opponents are the latest in a string of such incidentsImage: Jason Tschepljakow/dpa/picture alliance

Authorities in several countries are facing a moral, legal and diplomatic conundrum over migrants from Eritrea

Clashes between Eritreans broke out on Saturday in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart ahead of a cultural festival organized by supporters of the Eritrean government. 

Police deployed 300 officers to stop fighting between supporters and opponents of the East African country's government. Six officers were hospitalized, while 228 Eritreans were arrested.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser led condemnations from politicians, saying that "foreign conflicts must not be carried out in our country." 

Earlier in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the deportation of Eritrean migrants who were involved in fighting in south Tel Aviv.

The clashes between rival groups of Eritreans left dozens of people injured, including several police officers.

What's behind the violence between Eritreans in Tel Aviv?

Political divisions spread to the diaspora

On the same day, Norway's second-largest city, Bergen, witnessed clashes between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean government during a rally marking the country's independence day. 

Meanwhile, authorities in the western German city of Giessen, which is not far from Frankfurt, are considering measures to prevent future clashes after at least 26 police officers were injured during riots at an Eritrean festival in July.

In early August, Swedish media reported that about 1,000 protesters stormed an Eritrean festival in Stockholm, setting booths and cars on fire and using rocks and sticks as weapons. The violence left at least 52 people injured and led to 100 people being detained.

The 'distant' catalyst

According to Nicole Hirt, a researcher at the GIGA Institute for African Affairs in Hamburg, the Eritrean independence day festival has a long and peaceful tradition in Germany going back decades but has morphed significantly in recent years.

"We are in a moral conflict here. On the one hand, the festival has always been a propaganda tool for the regime in Eritrea, but on the other hand, we have freedom of assembly in Germany," Hirt told DW.

While these governments are striving to resolve this dilemma, the Eritrean regime of Isaias Afwerki is allegedly stoking the flames from a distance.

Dr. Selam Kidane, a psychology lecturer at the School of Human and Social Sciences at West London University, expressed unease at the unfortunate events. She pointed to the Afwerki regime as the source of the problem.

"The organizer of these events is the system that controls power in Eritrea," Kidane told DW. "This system is doing many things out of law."

Abdurahman Seeid, an African and Middle East political analyst, echoed this sentiment. He outlined two reasons why the Afwerki regime organizes the festivals — and he said they have little to do with commemorating the country's independence day.

"The first one is for a propaganda purpose in a way to show the diaspora societies, who are already controlled by the system, as a cult community and to tell them that they are different Eritreans and not interact with others," Seeid said. "The second reason is to collect foreign currency."

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki
The UN Human Rights Council has described the human rights situation in Eritrea as dire, with no signs of improvementImage: Khalil Senosi/AP Photo/picture alliance

High costs for host nations

In addition to the high price of policing and medical costs incurred by nations that host Eritrean migrants, there are other social, political and diplomatic implications.

Following the August clashes in Stockholm, Sweden's Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer said it is not justifiable for his country to become involved in the internal conflicts of other nations.

"If you flee to Sweden to escape violence or are on a temporary visit, you must not cause violence here. The police's resources are needed for other purposes than keeping different groups apart from each other," he said in a written statement to Swedish news agency TT.

Hesse's Interior Minister Peter Beuth similarly expressed outrage following the July riot in Giessen. He firmly stated that police officers should not be used to resolve conflicts originating from other countries.

"Our police officers are not a buffer stop for conflicts in third countries," he said.

Israel: Migrants must leave

Challenges for refugees and asylum seekers

This situation is creating a complex problem for Eritreans seeking refuge from the oppression of Afwerki's government.

President Afwerki has ruled Eritrea in a one-party dictatorship since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. 

Eritrea has one of the world's worst human rights records, and migrants living abroad say they fear death if they were to return to their homeland.

An Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel said that these actions by the government are simply a ploy to get them into conflict with their host nations.

"The dictatorial regime in Eritrea has been pursuing us from our very first day in Israel. It's not enough that we fled from the regime in our homeland. It won't stop seeking us out in the places where we're seeking asylum and are trying to rehabilitate our lives," he said.

According to data from the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, the majority of Eritrean migrants who arrive in Germany are granted asylum — around 86% in the first half of 2023 — but Hirt fears that recent events could have an impact.

"This could result in a certain potential for aggression towards those who live in safety here and celebrate the government of Eritrea," the researcher told DW.

In Israel, where Eritreans make up most of the 25,000 African asylum seekers living there, Netanyahu said during a meeting with a ministerial committee tasked to deal with the aftermath of the violence that a "red line has been crossed."

"Riots, bloodshed — this is lawlessness that we cannot accept," he added.

"They have no claim to refugee status. They support this regime," Netanyahu said. "If they support the regime so much, they would do well to return to their country of origin."

DW's inquiries to the Eritrean diplomatic missions in Europe did not receive a response before the publication of this article. Festival organizers and Eritrean community speakers in Germany declined to comment.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Editor's note: This article was updated on September 18 to include clashes in Stuttgart

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