The Emergence of Eritrea as a Transnational Political Space
Eritrea is the second-youngest country on the African continent and gained its de-facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after thirty years of armed struggle. An Italian colony from 1890 to 1941, Eritrea came under British administration in the course of World War II. In 1952, it was federated with Ethiopia and annexed by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. The independence war was initiated by the Muslim-dominated Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), but from the mid-1970s on, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) gained the upper hand. It lost previous support from conservative Arab countries and received no help from the Eastern Bloc because in Ethiopia a military council (Derg) had ousted Haile Selassie in 1974 and followed a socialist policy, which entailed the support of the Soviet Union. This left the EPLF with little backing, and it had to rely on the emerging refugee communities abroad. Due to Ethiopian war atrocities, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fled their country and settled in neighbouring countries and in Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia. The EPLF established mass organisations with oversea branches in order to organize and control the diaspora communities and to mobilise them for fundraising purposes in support of the armed struggle.
Independence and the Introduction of the Diaspora Tax
As soon as independence was achieved, the Provisional Government – composed of the EPLF leadership – introduced a rehabilitation or diaspora tax for all Eritreans living abroad. Since then, Eritreans outside the country have been levied two percent of their income, no matter if it comes from work or from social welfare benefits. In order to organize and control Eritrean communities abroad, the regime established a network of diplomatic missions in all countries with significant Eritrean diaspora presence. In addition, the government established the so-called mahbere-koms, purportedly apolitical cultural or community associations, which replaced the mass organisations in 1989. Eritreans obtain a "clearance" after having paid their dues, which is a precondition for obtaining passports, birth certificates, for the right to buy or to inherit property in the homeland and for many other services provided by Eritrean embassies and consulates.
Renewed War and Political Crisis
Initially, diaspora Eritreans were happy that independence had finally been achieved and looked forward to a bright future. Most of them volunteered to pay the tax, which they saw as a contribution to rebuild their war-torn homeland. The EPLF renamed itself People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in 1994 and engaged in reconstruction and development. Yet, only five years after formal independence in 1993, renewed war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Although officially fought about the boundary line, personal rivalries between the leaderships of Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as economic issues have served as explanations. However, in retrospect the war can only be judged as a tragic policy misstep that took the lives of up to a hundred thousand people. The war triggered a political debate, and a reform group within the ruling party, the so-called G15 demanded reforms and democratic elections. Yet, President Isaias Afewerki put the reformers behind bars in September 2001. Since then, Eritrea has turned into an autocracy without implemented constitution and rule of law , with no civil liberties and an open-ended national service with the aim of passing the wartime-values of the EPLF to the next generation. The national service has been the main reason for a massive population exodus of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans although the regime tried to contain it by shoot-to-kill orders at the border.
In recent years, up to 5,000 Eritreans have crossed the borders to Ethiopia and the Sudan every month , but large numbers did not register as refugees and tried to continue their journey to Europe. According to the European Asylum Support Office, there were 47,020 total asylum applications of Eritreans to EU countries in 2015 and 38,808 in 2016. Currently, 175,000 Eritreans live as refugees in Ethiopia. Sudan hosts more than 100,000 registered refugees , but large numbers of Eritreans live unregistered in the large cities or have a dual nationality.
Splits in the Diaspora and the Foundation of the YPFDJ
These events had their repercussions in the diaspora: new opposition parties and civil movements emerged, and the diaspora tax became controversial. In order to enhance control over the diaspora youth, the regime founded the Young PFDJ (YPFDJ) as its youth branch abroad with the aim of indoctrinating young Eritreans and raising funds through festivals and donations. The government regards all Eritreans including diaspora-born youth as Eritrean nationals even if they have acquired citizenship of another country, and the government uses feelings of obligation and pressure to extract money from them. On the other hand, government opponents began to lobby against the tax due to the regime’s opacity and lack of accountability.
Sanctions and the Diaspora Tax
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 for its alleged support to armed groups in the Horn of Africa, including the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia and tightened them in 2011. The government was now obliged to stop using coercive measures to levy the diaspora tax. This triggered some reactions from democratic states such as Canada and the Netherlands, who declared Eritrean diplomats involved in tax collection Personae non Gratae. Eritrean diaspora communities remained divided, but the government used the sanctions to create a rally-around-the-flag effect and called for a "resolute national rebuff". It organised demonstrations, but most importantly used the sanctions to raise even more funds from diaspora communities worldwide to counter alleged foreign conspiracies. Little is known about the raised amounts and their whereabouts because the government does not publish such information, but according to estimates, around one third of the Eritrean budget is derived from the diaspora tax alone. The sanctions were terminated in November 2018 after Eritrea’s rapprochement with Ethiopia on the initiative of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The Long Arm of the Regime in Non-Democratic and Democratic Countries
The long arm of the Eritrean regime is felt strongly in non-democratic countries, where Eritreans are regarded as labour migrants and not as political refugees. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans live and work in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. They need valid passports in order to get work permits and are forced to pay the diaspora tax because they depend on the services of the Eritrean diplomatic missions. They are also supposed to attend government seminars and to donate money. In Eastern Sudan, many Eritreans feel unsafe because local officials use to cooperate with agents of the Eritrean regime and some opposition activists have been deported .
However, Eritrean transnational institutions are also playing an important role in democratic countries, including Germany. Embassies and consulates, community organizations (mahbere-koms) and the YPFDJ have all played a role in raising funds from the diaspora over time. Those who fled repression and the timely unlimited national service and have been granted refugee protection in recent years are also targeted by agents of the regime. For example, government supporters have visited refugee shelters to encourage refugees to pay the diaspora tax , and government-friendly interpreters have tried to manipulate personal interviews in asylum procedures at the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Recent field research by the author revealed that the government has infiltrated parts of the the clergy of Eritrean Orthodox Church communities throughout Europe and that fees for religious services like baptisms and marriages are being transferred to Eritrea. In addition, refugees who approach the Eritrean diplomatic missions to obtain services need to sign a "letter of regret" in which they confess themselves guilty of having failed to fulfil their national obligations and agree to accept any punishment the regime might deem appropriate – and they agree to henceforth pay the diaspora tax.
Eritrea at a Critical Juncture
Close to thirty years after independence, Eritrea has become a diasporic state with up to half of its population living shattered across the world. The PFDJ regime, which has ruled the country without holding national elections and has perpetrated gross human rights violations, relies on transnational political structures that serve to control, streamline and intimidate the diaspora. Many second-generation diaspora Eritreans have internalized the government’s narrative of a heroic nation beleaguered by enemies, while others organize themselves in pro-reform movements and refuse to get in touch with Eritrean transnational institutions. After the 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia, Eritrea is at a crossroads: while the government has yet to introduce reforms and to release political prisoners, increasing numbers of Eritreans are saying "Enough!" (or "Yiakl"!) through a vibrant international social media campaign. These pro-democratic forces will be needed to democratize the country and to put an end to the timely unlimited national service, which amounts to forced labour and has triggered an immense exodus that threatens to destroy the social fabric of the country.