Anything New Under the Sun? Analysing the shifting flow of Eritrean asylum seekers to Europe

Eritreans have been among the top nationalities arriving at Mediterranean shores in the last few years. In 2014 they were second largest group of arrivals in Italy, after Syrians, with over 34,000 individuals, and in 2015 they were the most represented nationality (over 39,000) among migrants and refugees travelling the so-called Central Mediterranean route. These asylum seekers usually undertake their journeys overland from Eritrea through Ethiopia and Sudan to Libya. From there they embark on makeshift vessels to reach Italy which represents a transit point to their preferred final destinations, usually located in Northern Europe.

Against this significant flow of the past, in the first quarter of 2016 UNHCR statistics show that Eritreans are no longer one of the most represented nationalities among sea arrivals in Italy. While only 615 Eritreans arrived in Italy between January and March, migrants coming from West Africa—in particular Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast and Mali — continued to arrive in Italy. Eritreans are no longer in the top 10 nationalities of Mediterranean Sea arrivals, with Somalis, Sudanese and Moroccans complementing the top 10, in addition to migrants from the West African countries listed above. This is due to an absolute decrease in the number of Eritreans arriving to the Italian shores compared to previous months in 2015, while flows of particularly West Africans have remained more constant. This article aims to analyse the determinants of this trend, while providing an overview of the recent developments surrounding the situation of Eritreans in their homeland as well as in their main countries of asylum in Africa.

Operations against smugglers along the Central and Eastern Migration Route

One factor leading to the decrease in Eritrean arrivals lies in the operations tackling networks of smugglers along the Central Mediterranean migration route. A report by Sahan, released last February, documents that two major operations by Italian authorities have resulted in the arrests of several smugglers active in Europe and in Libya, most of whom were Eritrean nationals. The operations also identified some of the most prominent smugglers in Libya, one Eritrean and one Ethiopian. According to the Sahan report, Sudanese and Ethiopian police are also tackling smugglers in their respective countries. This is confirmed by Eritrean refugees in Italy:

“Most temsari (facilitators of unauthorised border-crossings) in Libya and in Italy have been caught… even Jeremiah, the powerful temsari, in Libya has disappeared… we have had many police controls in our squats in Rome… now it is hard to cross to Europe…”– Girmay, Eritrean refugee in Rome (April, 2016)

As instances such as this one suggest, the “war on migrant smugglers” promised by the EU has actually been implemented and the recent reduction in Eritrean arrivals in Italy may have  been due to these tighter controls. Since many Eritrean migrants and refugees rely on Eritrean smugglers, a disruption of Eritrean smugglers in particular could affect the number of Eritreans making the crossing from Libya to Europe.

Seasonal trends

Another reason for the current decline in the number of Eritrean asylum seekers arriving in Europe is related to the seasonal trend of their asylum flows. Comparing the monthly arrivals of the first quarter of 2016 with the  numbers in early 2015, it is noticeable that Eritrean arrivals were similarly low. Due to the hardships in crossing the sea in winter, most Eritrean refugees remain in camps or urban centres in Ethiopia or Sudan waiting for the right time to begin their journeys to Italy. This seems to be a deep-rooted specificity of the Eritrean migration corridor as other nationalities continued to make the crossing in the winter months. Moreover, since spring is approaching, many Eritreans are starting to move north towards the Mediterranean shores.

“Four of my close friends have just left to Khartoum only a few days ago. Nothing has changed. People are moving onwards as Ethiopia offers no future to us”. – Tewodoros, Eritrean refugee in Addis Ababa (April, 2016)

A humanitarian worker supervising assistance to refugees in Tigray (Ethiopia) confirmed that the camps “receive refugees every day—around 150— and every day around the same number of refugees are leaving from there”. If these figures are correct, it means that 4,000 Eritreans are arriving in Ethiopia every month, and a similar number is engaging in onward movement from Ethiopia. Furthermore, it is estimated at least another thousand cross into Sudan every month. The total number of Eritreans exiting the country would be then around 5,000 a month which is in line with previous estimates. Considering that it has been calculated that around 80% of those who reach the camps move onwards (i.e. 48,000 per year), and that not all of those who leave the camps move on to Europe, this number roughly corresponds to the number of arrivals in Italy in 2015 (39,000). Thus, if these reports from the field are realistic, the recent drop of Eritrean arrivals to Europe is only a temporary pause in the continuous mobility of Eritrean refugees and migrants in search of protection and better prospects.

Limited local integration and safety concerns in first countries of asylum (Sudan, Ethiopia)

In 2010, Ethiopian authorities have implemented a policy allowing a number of Eritrean refugees, who can prove to have legally resident sponsors in Ethiopia, to live outside camps. In the same period, Eritrean refugees who passed an entry exam were also allowed to enrol into Ethiopian universities. Although some recent journalistic accounts have put forward the idea that the “out-of-camp” policy has reduced secondary movements, this claim is not supported by any independent research. There is currently no evidence that onward movements from Ethiopia have diminished. Moreover, although this policy is an important alternative to encampment, it only provides a temporary solution to refugees’ problems as local integration within the country remains hindered by several legal limitations. Ethiopia still keeps reservations to the application of 1951 Refugee  Convention, especially concerning refugees’ right to work and to move freely within the country. As long as there are no durable prospects for local integration in Ethiopia, secondary movements will likely persist.

In Sudan, the safety of Eritrean refugees has often been under threat. As national legislation does not allow refugees to live outside camps, those in Khartoum and other urban centres fear the frequent mass police roundups and arbitrary arrests. Within such a legal context, there are limited possibilities for protection of a mostly hidden urban refugee population.

“Last month, the police raided a house in my neighbourhood. They took dozens of Eritreans to a court where they were ordered to pay 3,000 Sudanese Pounds [around USD 450]. Those who didn’t pay right away were jailed till their fine was paid. In an attempt to help two of those jailed minors I went to UNHCR, but I came back home empty handed.” – Yohannes, Eritrean refugee in Khartoum (April, 2016)

Although there is no proof of a systematic deterioration of refugees’ safety, the ongoing economic and political crisis in Sudan may well enhance the risk of xenophobia and arbitrary violence against refugees.

The situation back home

While bad weather and the fight against smugglers may have slowed down arrivals to Europe, the flow of people fleeing from Eritrea remains high as the economic situation in the country continuously worsens. Reports from inside the country relay a deterioration of the population’s living conditions.

To reduce inflation and counter the currency black market, the Eritrean government has issued a new currency. As the issuance of new notes rendered the old ones valueless, the population had no other option than depositing their cash savings in national banks. Following this measure, the government announced that monthly bank withdrawals cannot surpass 20,000 Nakfa (the local currency; approximately USD 1,300 according to the government regulated exchange rate of 1 Dollar:20 Nakfa). However, according to some sources the real value of the local currency would be 50 Nakfa for 1 Dollar. Although this measure has led to a contraction of the currency black market, it has decreased the purchasing power of most of the population, making basic products less accessible. Moreover, the withdrawal limit forms an obstacle for the agents on the black market that used to manage most of remittance flows from the diaspora.

”What can a hawala (financial operator) do with only 20,000 Nakfa a month? For sure it is not enough to change the money of all those in the diaspora who want to send money home!”– Istefanos, Eritrean refugee in Italy (April, 2016)

Despite the success in tackling the supremacy of the currency black market, this measure has widened the gap between the real value of the currency on the international market and its formal one as it is established by the government. Thus, while import products have become inaccessible for most Eritreans, remittances have lost at least half of their value in the local economy. Although it is still possible to transfer money through formal channels, these remittances are likely to become increasingly insufficient to sustain local livelihoods. Judging from the anecdotal evidence available, Eritreans in the diaspora are now looking for new strategies to support their families from afar.

“Now nobody can send money home”—— “people here are sending food and clothes…pasta, oil, canned tomatoes and tuna…you can rent a cargo…but it’s very expensive!” – Girmay, Eritrean refugee in Rome (April, 2016)

Considering that remittances in 2005 were calculated to account for a third of the GDP and for a significant portion of households’ economy, their decrease would hugely affect the everyday life of most Eritreans. The long-term effects of these economic developments, however, are still to be seen.


Despite the decrease of Eritrean arrivals in the first quarter of 2016, there are no grounds to predict that this is a long-term trend and that the number of asylum seekers from Eritrea will be smaller this year – all the more so, as living conditions in Eritrea seem to be further deteriorating. The decrease is more likely to be a temporary pause, related to the disruption of smuggling networks and seasonal trends. Onward movements from Ethiopia and Sudan through Libya with the aim of reaching Europe are still ongoing and can be expected to catch up again with better weather conditions on the Mediterranean Sea, as long-term prospects for local integration in first countries of asylum are still very limited. Taking into account the still existing push factors, including the wish to escape from potentially indefinite national service in Eritrea (as also highlighted by the results of RMMS’ 4Mi programme, it remains to be seen whether the anti-smuggling operations that aim to prevent the flow of Eritreans towards Europe will have an actual impact.

Pseudonyms have been used for refugees to protect their identity.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.