Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis: Diplomatic Isolation Erasing the Deaths of Thousands

Around the second of September, a heart-wrenching photograph of a small toddler, faced down and washed up on a Turkish beach, went viral. Aylan Kurdi was one of around 2,500 people who have lost their lives due to human smuggling and violent travel while fleeing from home this year. This circumstance captures a mildly concerning aspect of the European Migrant Crisis: it has been apparent time and time again that in order for the general public to show some concern and put pressure on leaders to make concrete change, the victims, their photos, and their stories need to be attainable on the internet. Humans of New York, a Facebook photo page with upwards of 15 million likes, is currently “telling stories of refugees in Europe” through a photo series filled with elaborate profiles and provocative photos. Globalization and the development of technology have added a new requirement to action in diplomacy: universal public concern.

What does this mean for those countries that have been unable to garner public concern?

Out of sight, out of mind.

Namely, Eritrea is a country that is the home country of about 7% of the European Union’s asylum seekers, and there is very little information available to the general public as to why, how, or with whom these crises come to exist. The UNHCR reports that about 5,000 Eritreans flee the country every month, and up to 3% of citizens have fled. In May of 2015, the emergency response mechanism under Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union gave Eritreans and Syrians who arrived in Italy and Greece immediate placement in a relocation scheme to other EU member states, for the sole benefit of Italy and Greece.

Eritrean migrants traveling to Europe by way of Libya are often subject to torture and inhumane conditions on the ships, as well as deportation to Libya where migrants are persecuted and tortured.

Eritrea, as a country that lacks Internet traffic in the first place, has remained isolated from the world throughout the migrant crisis. The population of people moved by Aylan’s photograph do not know of the political instability in Eritrea prompting mass exodus of the country, because there is no means to find out. With faulty infrastructure, statewide poverty, and heavy government censorship, the prospects of an Internet presence appear to be slim to none. Because of Eritrea’s isolation from the international system, neither diplomatic institutions nor international news outlets will cover stories about the thousands dying every year in the pursuit of a better life. Even following the (comparatively) huge story on the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013, where up to 363 people died on a fishing boat, the boat was described to have hailed from Libya in almost all stories, but only marginally concerned with the fact that most victims were Eritreans and Somalis, who had been raped and tortured on the boat before the shipwreck occurred.

Because pressure on the government and intergovernmental organizations to act on international crises largely require public concern and demand, the development of technology in East Africa and a commitment to journalism in target areas like Libya and the Mediterranean are integral to institutional change for the life of an Eritrean migrant, although this is only a short-term fix.

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