Key mixed migration characteristics

In terms of mixed migration Eritrea is predominantly a country of origin. Its role in the region as a transit or destination country is negligible.  However, Eritrea does host a small population of refugees, the majority being Somalis. Mixed migration cases predominantly include forced and economic migrants who leave the country in significant numbers going south into Ethiopia or west into Sudan as their first country of flight. Because they can register as refugees, many Eritreans caught in mixed migration become asylum-seekers once they have left their country, even if they frequently use the refugee camps as springboards for secondary, onward movement. 

The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report  2012 lists Eritrea as a source country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and to a lesser extent sex trafficking, nationally and transnationally. 

Most recent statistics 

Refugees and people in refugee like situations inside Eritrea have remained relatively unchanged in recent years, except for a small decrease of some 2% between 2007 to 2012. As of January 2014, there were 3,175 refugees and asylum seekers in Eritrea . By contrast UNHCR report an 11.5% increase in the number of Eritrean refugees outside the country in the same period. However, the most striking exodus of Eritreans are those found in the flow of mixed migrants entering Sudan and northern Ethiopia. Most seek to register as forced migrants (asylum seekers and refugees) because they are assured of a positive reception at refugee camps in both countries. To give a sense of scale to the issue,  313,375 Eritreans are registered as refugees or in refugee like situations globally. Camps in eastern Sudan near Kassala hold approximately 80,000 Eritreans while a further 81,000 Eritreans are in UNHCR camps in Ethiopia. In 2013 an estimated 400 to 700 Eritreans were reportedly leaving Eritrean territory each month. Reportedly, the regime treats those who leave the country harshly, if caught on departure or upon return.

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Eritrea 

The majority of refugees in Eritrea are hosted in camps, the biggest being Umkulu, located near the port of Massawa.  The current number of asylum seekers being approximately 6 as of January 2014 according to UNHCR. The Government of Eritrea does not accept asylum claims from Ethiopian asylum-seekers but UNHCR has recognized some 70-80 Ethiopians as mandate refugees.

UNHCR statistics as of January 2014[1];

Total refugee population hosted in Eritrea = 3,175 of which;






Total Asylum Seekers in Eritrea =6

Total Eritrean refugee population worldwide   =   313,375

Total Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide = 20,366

Main drivers and motivation for migration 

Most Eritreans flee to evade compulsory national service; reportedly an oppressive and unlimited service. They leave the country illegally, without obtaining the required exit permit/visa which is difficult to obtain from authorities. The unlimited national service also leads to various abuses including forced labour as the conscripts are made to work on construction sites, as farm labour for the benefit of the higher ranking army and government officials, receiving no extra compensation save their national service allowance.  

Conditions in Eritrea are reportedly harsh; it is a closed society and a highly securitized state by an authoritarian government. The total country population according to UNDP statistics was 5, 415,300 in 2011. As one of the poorest countries in the world, endemic poverty and lack of livelihood, apart from the lack of political freedom, are also main drivers for mixed migration. The poverty level index (UNDP 2012) is assessed to as having Human Development Indicators value 0.349; ranking Eritrea as 177 out of 187 countries (UNDP; 2012 Report Human Development Statistical Tables

As a country of mixed migration origin

Eritrea today is predominantly a source of migrants who flee from national service and seeking better livelihood opportunities, as compared to the 1990s when they fled in large numbers due to the war of independence. 

As a country of mixed migration destination 

Apart from the registered refugees in Eritrea (approximately3,175 at the end of January 2014) there is no indication that mixed migrants target Eritrea as a country of destination.

As a country of mixed migration transit

There is no evidence that Eritrea is used by mixed migration flows as a transit country. Given its geographical location, the political regime pertaining and the options of other countries in the region this is not surprising and is unlikely to change.

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

Most Eritreans cross the border with Sudan or Ethiopia by foot and in a clandestine manner as punishment for ‘illegal’ departure from Eritrea is severe. Despite the country’s proximity to Yemen and Saudi Arabia the coastline is well guarded by the authorities preventing significant movement across the Red Sea. Nevertheless, given the desperation of some Eritreans to leave their country it may be assumed that some fishing boats or other small private craft manage to cross. There are no monitoring systems in Saudi Arabia or northern Yemen to track this movement at present.

Eritreans either use Sudan as a country of destination or move on to Libya through the ‘western route’ while some choose to go south often transiting through  Kenya or using it as a port of destination. There have been reports of some migrating to Yemen and onwards. 

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Eritrea

The significant outflow of Eritreans into Ethiopia and Sudan - estimated at some 400 to 600 a month according to UNHCR - continues to present challenges. In 2011, the Sudanese forcefully deported a number of Eritreans who had not yet been given the chance to apply for asylum and who were found transiting Sudan without documentation. More recently in 2012, Jordan threatened to deport some 9 Eritreans to Yemen who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR in the past. There have been reports between 2009 and as recently as December 2013 of criminal gangs from the Bedouin tribes in eastern Sudan who kidnapped Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees for ransom. During captivity these individuals were subjected to torture and other forms of cruel and degrading treatment. Other reports indicate that this is also happening in Egypt's Sinai peninsula to Eritrean migrants who were trying to make their way to the Israeli border. Reports of organ theft have surrounded the later incidents. In recognizing the ‘persecution’ rather than ‘prosecution’ upon return having fled with no exit permit and evading draft, UNHCR has tended to adopt a policy of no returns for such individuals since 2008/9 encouraging governments to do the same. There have also been several reported cases of kidnappings and extortion of Eritreans in the Sinai.

Institutional framework

Eritrea does not have well-established institutional structures with regard to immigration. The following agencies in Eritrea are involved in migration and refugee affairs:

The Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare handles returnee issues and oversees the government’s trafficking portfolio.84

The Office of Refugee Affairs is responsible for refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people.

National Legislation

Eritrea is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.

It is also not a party to the Palermo Protocols. However, Eritrea recently signed the OAU 1969 Convention.

National legislation (asylum): Eritrea’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status.

National legislation (smuggling, trafficking and forced labour): The Eritrean Transitional Criminal Code includes laws against trafficking in women and young persons for sexual exploitation, as well as laws prohibiting slavery. Laws forbidding forced labor are also contained in the national constitution. However, the latter has been suspended and there have been no known cases where these have been used to prosecute those involved in human trafficking.

[1] UNHCR Eritrea fact sheet Dec 2013/Jan 2014 Data extracted: 18/02/2014.  

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