If one considers that around one quarter of the African migrants arriving in Italy are said to be Eritrean, then how can the crisis of governance not be front and centre as the issue needing to be addressed by the AU? If the AU is drafting an African agenda on migration to be adopted at the AU summit in Addis Ababa later this month, then it will need to speak to all the primary drivers of illegal migration in Africa.
Eritrea is one of the poorest nations on the continent and in desperate need of poverty alleviation and job creation programmes, but ultimately it comes down to an absolute failure of governance as the major factor that is driving its young population abroad in droves. Between 2012 and 2015 one in 50 Eritrean youths sought asylum in Europe, making Eritrea one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations. It is not due to conflict that 5000 Eritreans flee the country each month, it is due to dictatorship, torture, mass surveillance, indefinite military conscription and a lack of job opportunities. Prolonged torture is the consequence for migrants caught attempting to flee the country.
Many have reported having boiling water poured on their limbs and being subjected to daily beatings at midnight. But for most, the prospect of a better life is worth the risk.
The reality of life in Eritrea has hardly been a secret. The June 2016 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea accused Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki of crimes against humanity, documenting many of the excesses mentioned above. The report also spoke of enslavement and widespread rape committed by the authorities. If an Eritrean student in the final year of high school is faced with conscription, where they will be paid the equivalent of US$10 (R124.29) a month, the duration of which could be indefinite, and they are forbidden to leave the country, why on earth would they stay?
The journey that Eritrea’s youth are embarking on is the deadliest migrant trail - across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean, to Europe. As the International Organisation for Migration has reported from its interviews with Eritreans who survived the journey and arrived in Italy, almost all spoke of enduring abuse, torture and extortion along the route.
Some even cross the Sinai desert in order to seek refuge in Israel, although as of January 1 this year, Israel announced plans to forcibly relocate 38000 Eritreans and Sudanese to Africa, or detain them indefinitely. Those who have been forcibly relocated back to Africa are deposited in countries that do not offer them effective protection and they continue the dangerous journey to Europe.
The AU needs to urgently address why the citizens of countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Gambia are fleeing in the first place.
While Eritrea may be the largest source of illegal African migrants in East Africa, Gambia is the largest outbound source in West Africa - nine times more illegal migrants leave Gambia than from Senegal and Nigeria. While the economic situation in all three countries is similar, the difference with Gambia (like Eritrea) is the absolute failure of governance, resulting in repression, non-existent service delivery, weak institutions and a virtually destroyed private sector.
Like Eritrea, Gambia is one of the poorest states on the continent, but effective governance could have improved its fortunes. Instead Gambians have little trust in state institutions or recourse in the face of human rights violations, and no job opportunities. Why would the youth of Gambia not risk their lives for a brighter future?
In Somalia this week, the government authorised the destruction of 20 refugee settlements in Mogadishu affecting 5800 households displaced from conflict and hunger. Where will those people go other than to take the risk of embarking on the hazardous journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean?
What we need to ask ourselves is why the crisis of governance in countries such as Eritrea and Gambia has not been a central focus at AU deliberations. If we are to reverse the human tragedy that continues in the Mediterranean and stamp out the gross human rights violations of the smuggling networks and slave masters, then we really need to address the issue of governance and get the AU as a collective to do something about it.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.