Updated: May 2015

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 prolonged national service obligation, coupled with poor economic conditions, continues to fuel illegal migration, especially of the young.  According to estimates from UNHCR as of November 2014, an average of 5,000 Eritreans refugees, including unaccompanied minors, flee the country every month in search of a better life. The true migration figure is likely to be much higher, as many migrants do not register. The UN has been investigating human rights in Eritrea, but its Special Rapporteur has been denied entry. In a 2014 report, the Special Rapporteur stated that the refugee exodus was being fuelled by alleged abuses including extrajudicial executions, torture and forced military conscription that can last decades.


Most recent statistics 

Refugees and people in refugee like situations inside Eritrea have remained relatively unchanged in recent years, except for a small decrease by approximately 2% between 2007 and 2014. As of April 2015, there were 2,947 refugees and asylum seekers in Eritrea.  

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. Within the Horn of Africa region, Ethiopia and Sudan hosted approximately more than 216,000 registered Eritrean refugees as of April 2015 and UNHCR estimates that 313,375 Eritreans were registered as refugees or in refugee like situations globally. However it is known that many of these have practiced secondary movement since registration.

A trend that has been observed is that despite seeking asylum or refuge in neighbouring countries, growing numbers of the predominantly young refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan have become frustrated with the shortage of services and absence of self-reliance opportunities in these countries. Deprived of any prospects for a better future and feeling that they have nothing to lose, many fall prey to smugglers and put themselves in danger by trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe through North Africa (Egypt or Libya) on overcrowded and unsafe boats. In its March 2015 Asylum Trends report, UNHCR noted that Eritrea was one of the five top source countries of asylum seekers in 2014 amongst a group of 44 industrialised countries. The report further notes that after Syria, Eritrea was the second largest source country of individuals arriving in Europe by sea via Italy.

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Eritrea 

Although Eritrea does not have asylum or refugee laws, it does in practice offer protection to some individuals from neighbouring countries, predominantly Somali refugees. The majority (96%) of the refugees are from Somalia, followed by 4%or 143 non-Somali (mainly Sudanese, South Sudanese and Ethiopian) refugees. The Somalis are recognized by the Eritrean government on a prima facie basis and have been in Eritrea since the early 1990’s. The Somali population, 2,804 as of April 2015, resides in UmKulu Camp near the port city of Massawa in the northern Red Sea Region. The remaining 143 non-Somali refugees are no longer officially recognized as refugees by the State but are considered as refugees under the UNHCR mandate and protection, and mainly reside in urban and semi-urban areas.

UNHCR statistics as of April 2015;

Total refugee population hosted in Eritrea = 2,947, with Somalis making up the majority:

Country of Origin

Number of registered refugees





Total Asylum Seekers in Eritrea = 3

Total Eritrean refugee population worldwide   =   321,144

Total Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide = 33,330

Source: UNHCR

Main drivers and motivation for migration 

Eritrean independence, established in 1993, was expected to allow Eritrean refugees and exiles from the war years to return home. However since the early 2000s, Eritreans started to leave the country in large numbers to escape the poor economic conditions. Obligatory national service is also a major driver for emigration and illegal migration with many Eritreans reportedly leaving to evade it. They leave the country irregularly, without obtaining the required exit permit/visa which is difficult to obtain from authorities.

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 World Bank statistics was 6,333,135in 2014. 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 ranks Eritrea as 182 out of 187 countries (UNDP; 2014 Report Human Development Statistical Tables). 

Under the Proclamation of National Service (No. 82/1995), persons aged 18 to 50 years must perform national service. For persons aged 18 to 40 years, this consists of six months of military training and 12 months of service in a government-run work unit, including the Eritrean Defense Forces, for a total of 18 months; persons over 40 are considered to be on reserve status if they have performed active duty service. Allegedly, the national service whose duration was originally 18 months has become open-ended. Critics have said that the Eritrean government’s justification of this open-ended status is Ethiopia’s alleged refusal to be bound by the Algiers peace agreement, arguing that in view of this perceived intransigence, war may break out at any time (with Ethiopia) and hence Eritrea cannot take the risk of demobilising its conscripts. The unlimited national service also allegedly leads to various abuses including forced labour as the conscripts are reportedly 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. 

According to a 2014 Freedom House report, freedom of movement in and out of Eritrea is extremely restricted and Eritreans under the age of 50 are rarely given permission to go abroad. Freedom of movement, both inside and outside the country, is tightly controlled. Reportedly, Eritreans under the age of 50 are rarely given permission to go abroad, and those who try to travel without the correct documents face imprisonment. The authorities reportedly adopt a shoot-on-sight policy toward people found in locations deemed off-limits, such as mining facilities and areas close to the border. Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers who are repatriated from other countries are also detained. These strict penalties however seemingly fail to deter the thousands of migrants/refugees leaving the country each year.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea reported[1] that the mass exodus is also fuelled by alleged abuses including extrajudicial executions, torture and forced open-ended military conscription.  In recognizing the ‘persecution’ rather than ‘prosecution’ practice allegedly implemented by the Eritrean government towards returnees who left without an exit permit, UNHCR has tended to adopt a no-returns policy for such individuals since 2008/9 encouraging governments to do the same.

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 early1990s when they fled in large numbers during the Ethiopia/Eritrean conflict. The rate at which Eritreans are leaving has been rising with each successive year. UNHCR reported that during the first ten months of 2014, the number of asylum-seekers in Europe from Eritrea nearly tripled compared to previous years.  However, relatively few Eritreans reach Europe, with most remaining in the Horn of Africa or North Africa region. Of the estimated 3,072 migrant fatalities in the Mediterranean that occurred 2014, approximately 20% are estimated to be from the Horn of Africa and most of these Eritrean.

In the Horn of Africa region, Sudan is the largest host country for Eritrean migrants/refugees hosting over 120,000 refugees as of January 2015. The majority of the refugees are in refugee camps in the arid eastern part of the country (Gaderef and Kassala), with smaller numbers in the capital Khartoum. Ethiopia is the second largest country of asylum with 106,859 Eritrean refugees, including 1,591 unaccompanied children at the end of October. They mostly live in four refugee camps in Tigray region and two in Afar region in north-eastern Ethiopia. These countries have also experienced a dramatic increase in arrivals, including large numbers of unaccompanied children.   Despite these high numbers, the reality is that from both Ethiopian and Sudanese camps Eritreans practice secondary migration and the actual number of residents in each country is much lower.

Eritreans have long been one of the largest groups of asylum seekers in Europe originating from the Horn of Africa, with 34,329 recorded arrivals in 2014, and one of the highest recognition rates (76%). A large number of Eritreans seek asylum beyond the neighbouring countries with Europe, North America being popular. Most of the Eritreans arriving in Europe travelled, initially, via Ethiopia and Sudan through to the North African coast –with Libya being a popular transit point. There are substantial numbers of Eritreans in Libya. While no solid figures are available, given the continuing boat departures from Libya (already numbering in the thousands of migrants in 2014 and 2015 of which many are Eritreans), an RMMS study estimated that there are thousands of Eritreans in Libya – waiting to cross to Europe. From Libya, large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean, a journey facilitated by people smugglers. In 2014, Eritreans were the second largest group to arrive in Italy by boat, after Syrians. Frontex reports show that that 22% of the people that arrived by boat in Europe in 2014 were Eritrean.

Prior to 2012, Israel was a major country of destination for Eritrean migrants. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of Eritreans crossing the border from Sinai to Israel increased significantly from 1,348 to 17,175 and it was estimated that between 2006 and 2012 close to 40,000 Eritreans arrived in Israel, passing through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Stringent Israeli immigration measures put in place in 2012 and finalised in 2013, including the construction of a 240km fence along the Sinai (Egypt)-Israeli border and the construction of a migrant detention centre in the Negev desert, reduced this number to almost zero.

As a country of mixed migration destination 

Apart from the registered refugees in Eritrea (approximately 3,175 as of April 2015) 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. Within the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia is the desired destination through the Eastern route. The history of Eritrean immigration trends in Saudi Arabia has been described as “indirect asylum policies” where immigration was used as de facto ‘refugeeism[2]or a sort of indirect asylum policy. Although not afforded explicit asylum rights, the Saudi government welcomed Eritrean migrants. The remittances from the Kingdom became a crucial support to Eritrean “freedom fighters during the long Eritrean war of independence (1961- 1991).[3] In 2007, it was estimated there were more 100,000 Eritreans in Saudi Arabia[4]. The current number of Eritreans in Saudi Arabia and the number of Eritreans attempting to enter the Kingdom is currently unknown.

Eritreans also either use Sudan as a country of destination or move on to Libya through the ‘western route’ while some choose to go south, with South Africa as the intended destination, often transiting through  Kenya or using it as a port of destination. Few Eritreans are thought to make this journey, preferring in the past to go north into Israel and now west into Libya for Europe.

The ultimate goal of many Eritreans going towards North Africa is reaching Europe. Consequently, there has been a steady increase in the number of Eritrean asylum-seekers in Europe, reaching unprecedented levels in 2014.A UNHCR 2015 report noted that Eritrea was one of the five top source countries of asylum seekers in 2014 amongst a group of 44 industrialised countries. The figure was at its highest with 48,400 new asylum applications registered during the year, thereby more than doubling compared to 2013 (22,300 claims).  Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France and Germany are among the main final destination countries for Eritrean asylum seekers. Countries such as the UK, Switzerland and parts of Scandinavia report that Eritreans currently form the largest caseload of irregular migrants trying to enter their countries. The high acceptance rate of Eritreans by European countries has been the acceptance of national conscription as a criterion for acceptance. This may be changing as Denmark (in 2014) and recently the UK (2015) changed their asylum policy for Eritreans by stating that conscription alone was not enough to be accepted as a refugee.

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Eritrea

The significant outflow of Eritreans into Ethiopia and Sudan, and onwards to Europe via North Africa continues to present challenges. Most Eritreans leave irregularly without obtaining the required exit permit/visa as freedom of movement in and out of Eritrea is extremely restricted and Eritreans under the age of 50 are rarely given permission to go abroad[5]

Those who do travel without the correct documentation – passports and exit visas – face imprisonment. Consequently many Eritreans who wish to leave have to resort to using smugglers. Irregular migrants are at risk of abuse at the hands of smugglers and human traffickers and kidnapping, torture and the trafficking of body parts are among some the allegations of abuse that have been made by victims. The UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has also suggested that senior members of the regime – particularly military commanders – directly control the trafficking and movement of migrants (as well as arms) from Eritrea, some of whom are sold to smugglers / traffickers outside the country.[6] A Tilburg University study further reported that the Eritrean Border Surveillance Unit is involved in the smuggling of migrants across the border.[7] Reportedly, people are driven out of Eritrea hidden under covers in pickup trucks of the Eritrean Border Surveillance Unit so that they can avoid checkpoints.

Once they leave Eritrea into neighbouring countries, the Eritrean migrants/refugees still face risks. Those who move on, either through Djibouti and Yemen towards Saudi Arabia, or via the more popular westward route, face kidnapping, extortion and abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers[8]. As was documented in a RMMS report, Eritreans move between the camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. They also leave the camps and the region to travel on to Libya in the hope of reaching Europe. But many suffer months of detention and brutality before they are sea-borne. Human Rights Watch reported that at eight of the nine government-run detention centres it visited in Libya in April 2014 inmates complained of being locked in shipping containers, beatings with weapons, rotten food and punishments including whippings and being hung from trees.[9] In most cases detained migrants have to pay their guards before being free to continue their journey. Eritreans are amongst the largest national groups of migrants in Tripoli that use smugglers and buy places on boats to Europe from Libya. 

Eritrea is ranked Tier 3 in the US Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report and is described as a source country for individuals subjected to labour and sexual exploitation. The Government of Eritrea has provided no information on any efforts that it has taken to combat trafficking. The fact that it limits NGOs and international organisations from operating (see below) means protection for victims cannot be monitored or provided. The US Department of State reports state that Eritreans are victims of forced labour (primarily domestic servitude) in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Other countries where they face similar fates include Sudan, Egypt, Israel and Djibouti. Smaller numbers of Eritrean women and girls are also subjected to sex trafficking in the Gulf countries. 


This section is paraphrased from the RMMS Study 8: Behind Bars: Detention of Migrants in and from the East and Horn of Africa.[10]

As Eritrea is not a transit or destination country in mixed migration flows in the region, immigration detention in Eritrea itself is not a particular issue. Nevertheless, the act of leaving Eritrea may lead to imprisonment of Eritrean migrants. Eritreans who are caught fleeing from Eritrea to Sudan can be punished by imprisonment of three years while those caught trying to flee to Ethiopia may be reportedly sentenced to death[11]It has been reported by the UN Special Rapporteur that many Eritreans are arrested at the border while attempting to cross into neighbouring countries. They are often arrested at night and taken to secret detention places, without family members knowing of their whereabouts or being able to visit them.[12] Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers who are repatriated from other countries are reportedly also detained in Eritrea, as they are considered traitors.[13]

According to the 2014 report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, unsuccessful asylum seekers and other returnees, including national service evaders and deserters, face torture, detention and disappearance in Eritrea.[14] It is further reported that military service escapees, as well as perceived offenders, are frequently sent to one of numerous prisons as punishment. Wi’a prison camp, situated on the Red Sea coast, south of Massawa, is a notoriously harsh one. According to a 2013 Human Rights Report “Punishment amounting to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as detention in inhumane conditions appears to be the norm, even for trivial cases. National service conscripts in detention are also used for hard labour.”[15] Other reasons for detention – and related to emigration for Eritreans -include trumped up charges of plotting to leave the country or helping others to flee; failing to pay a fine when a family member has fled the country; or being held in lieu of a parent or family member having left the country[16].

According to a 2014 US Department of State Human Rights report, there were no reports of detention of foreign nationals in Eritrea in 2014. However, in cases where foreign consular officials questioned government authorities about missing nationals from previous years, authorities denied their ability to obtain information. Allegedly, there are Ethiopian and Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrean prisons. Although it is known that prison conditions in Eritrea are harsh and life threatening, Eritrea – a closed and highly securitised state under an authoritarian government - does not permit independent monitoring by domestic nor international observers. External monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are denied access to prisons or detention centres.[17]

Responses by Authorities

According to Freedom House, members of both the Eritrean military and government are allegedly complicit in smuggling[18]Given the restrictions on Eritreans leaving the country, it seems that smuggled migrants currently face higher risks of prosecution by the government than the smugglers themselves, who allegedly include high-placed state officials. In a Freedom House report, senior military officials were accused of profiting by providing illicit services to Eritreans wishing to flee the country[19].

The Government of Eritrea clamped down on NGOs in 2005 and in the following years closed all international NGO offices. There are few civil society organisations in Eritrea and their capacity is limited, apart from those with official affiliations with the government. The government also placed restrictions on UN operations in the country: for example, by requiring UN organisations to obtain permission for travel outside the capital. It also denies visits to prisoners and provides limited cooperation to UNHCR to deliver protection and assistance. In short, due to government policy, non-state actors play a very limited role in Eritrea. UNHCR reports that the Government of Eritrea decided to resume development cooperation with UN agencies in 2013 and beyond. In particular, in January 2013 the UN RC/Humanitarian Coordinator and the Government of Eritrea signed the ‘Strategic Cooperation Partnership Framework (SCPF 2013-2016) which acknowledges the importance of mainstreaming refugees into national decision making.

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.

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

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office states that Eritreans continue to face restrictions both on movement inside the country and on holding a passport and foreign travel.

National Legislation

In 2012, Eritrea signed the 1969 OAU Convention on the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, but has not yet ratified it. It has also not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. National legislation (asylum): Eritrea’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Eritrea does not yet have a comprehensive and cohesive domestic legislation framework to regulate refugee matters in Eritrea. State owned refugee status determination and asylum procedures are also not yet in place. Access to asylum and protection of the State of Eritrea for non-Somali asylum seekers is also currently not open in practice In April 2014, UNHCR submitted a zero draft Procedural Framework on Refugee Status Determination and Asylum System in Eritrea for review and consideration by the authorities in addressing existing gaps in the asylum process in Eritrea. An initial consultative workshop around these issues and general refugee protection was conducted in September 2014. Similar and expanded forums are planned for the future with the aim of strengthening existing knowledge base on refugee matters, as well as the possibility of instituting a defined structure for dealing with refugee matters in a coordinated and procedural manner.

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] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, 13 May 2014. Available at http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=201 Accessed on 2nd May 2015

[2]  Thiollet, H. (2007). Refugees and Migrants from Eritrea to the Arab World: The Cases of Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia 1991-2007. Paper Prepared for the Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa The Forced Migration & Refugee Studies Program. Cairo:The American University.

[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Freedom in the World 2014. Country Report Eritrea. Washington DC: Freedom House


[6] United Nations Security Council. (2012). Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2002 (2011). S/2012/545. New York: United Nations Security Council.


[7] van Reisen, (2013)


[8] See RMMS (2013). “Migrant Smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Yemen: the political economy and protection risks” and RMMS (June 2014).


[9] Human Rights Watch. June 22nd 2014. Libya: Whipped, Beaten, and Hung from Trees Detained Migrants, Asylum Seekers Describe Torture, Other Abuse in Detention www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/22/libya-whipped-beaten-and-hung-trees


[10] RMMS. (2015). Behind Bars: The detention of migrants in and from the East & Horn of Africa.  Nairobi: Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat,   p.50-53


[11] Ibid.


[12] UN OHCHR. (2014). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth. A/HRC/26/45. New York: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


[13] Amnesty International. (2012a). Sudan must end forced returns of asylum seekers to Eritrea. Public Statement, AFR 54/039/2012. Available: http:// www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR54/039/2012/en/7d51d7af-4028-45c0-9631-bf0816e57b2a/afr540392012en.html.


[14] UN, OHCHR (2014), p.6


[15] Human Rights Watch. (2014a). “I wanted to Lie Down and Die”. Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt. New York: Human Rights Watch


[16] RMMS. Behind bars: the detention of migrants in and from the East & Horn of Africa, February 2015.


[17] Freedom in the World 2014. Country Report Eritrea. Washington DC: Freedom House


[18] Freedom House, 2014


[19] Freedom House, 2014


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