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Eritreans Fleeing Their Country in Droves and their Complicated Migration Routes

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Eritrea FlagAmanuel Akalu is a 32-year old native of Eritrea who recently came to the US after a two year journey through Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. He is among the thousands of young men and women fleeing Eritrea in search of freedom and a better life in the US. He crossed through Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico before he was finally able to cross the US border through Texas. The journey cost him more than $26,000 in bribes and coyote payments in addition to his expenses for travel, food and lodging.

Eritrea is a country in East Africa that won its independence in 1991 after thirty years of war with Ethiopia. Eritreans in the Diaspora and within the country were excited and proud of their newly found independence. They had high hopes and were highly supportive of the new government. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was short lived. Besides the typical dictatorial governments’ usual traits of lack of democracy and total disregard for the rule of law, the government has imposed a perpetual military national service and forced labor program, along with a strict crackdown on religious activities. All these factors have been driving young Eritreans to flee the country in droves to the US and Europe forcing them to use complex migration routes that typically span up to twelve countries in three continents.

Soon after the Eritrean government came to power, it instated an open ended national military service program that applies to anyone under the age of 50. Some of these young men have been forced to stay in the service since the early nineties. Those who refuse are jailed for long periods of time that could last several years. Besides the perpetual military training, these young people are subjected to forced labor as part of the national service. Refusal to comply would result in detention and in most cases it is accompanied by torture as punishment. This has created an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair that’s forcing the youth and their parents to risk their freedom and their property so that these young men and women are able to flee the country through the borders of Sudan and Ethiopia. Parents whose children have fled are made to pay 50,000 Nakfa ($3,500) per child or face imprisonment if they can not afford it.

Amanuel started serving in the national service program soon after he finished high school in 1996. Little did he know that he was going to end up serving the Eritrean military until the day he fled the country in June 2008. He was forced to take part in Eritrea’s proxy war in the Sudan on behalf of John Garang of South Sudan as well as the two year war with Ethiopia which claimed more than a hundred thousand lives. He was jailed for two month and tortured by the Eritrean government as punishment for expressing his reservations in taking part in Eritrea‘s proxy war in the Sudan. He was again jailed for six month on “suspicion” of being an army deserter as part of the government’s practice of randomly rounding up young men and women they find on the streets of Asmara, the capital. They were detained in rows of cargo containers in an area known for its extreme heat. They were routinely tortured for complaining about the conditions of their detention.

Another major factor that is creating this exodus is the lack of religious freedom within the country. In 2002, the government came up with a directive that basically allowed only four religious groups to practice their faith within the country. Only Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Evangelist and Muslim religious groups were allowed to carry on. All other religious groups were barred from any kind of religious activities or practices. Members of the Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal Churches, and other similar groups were being harassed, beaten and jailed for practicing their right to religious assembly and religious expression.

Amanuel and other young people like him are fleeing Eritrea by the thousands every week. They usually have to cross to the Sudanese border mostly on foot traveling by night to avoid being shot at by the Eritrean government. Once in Sudan, it took him over a year to set up his traveling arrangements that will take him to Dubai, then to Cuba through Moscow and finally to Ecuador. It took him three month to arrange his trip to Colombia. After about three more months in Colombia, Amanuel and his friends were able to link up with professional smugglers who took them on a dangerous voyage that took them through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and finally Mexico. This leg of the trip took them a month and a half and involved a lot of hiking, sometimes for days in a row, a boat trip in which they almost drowned and traveling in the false bottom of trucks. They arrived in Mexico in March 2010 and they were able to finish their arrangements to cross to the US within a month. This long journey was finally over when they crossed the border through Texas in April 2010.

The hardship Amanuel had to go through was not over at end of his journey to the US. He had to spend four month at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Port Isabel Detention Center for trying to do the right thing and present himself for inspection and claim asylum right after he crossed the border. It was only after his family members were able to trace where he was and hire a lawyer that he was able to get out of the detention facility. Being well informed and prepared for the immigration legal challenges facing these young men and women when they arrive in the US could make their lives much easier and smoother in their quest to acquire legal status in the US.

For similar stories regarding the complex migration routes of Eritreans, read the following article in the Washington Post.

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