Eritrea Special Country Report — January 2010

I. Historical Background and Sociopolitical Situation

Early history

The oldest written reference to the territory now known as Eritrea is the chronicled expedition launched to Punt by the ancient Egyptians in the 25th century B.C. The geographical location of Punt is described as roughly corresponding to the southwest coast of the Red Sea. The name Eritrea comes from the ancient Greek name ? ρ υ θ ρ α í α, meaning the “Red Land.” The earliest evidence of agriculture, urban settlement and trade in Eritrea dates to 3500 B.C. In the highlands, especially in Asmara’s suburbs, scores of ancient sites have been documented, most dating between 800 and 350 B.C. Between the 8th and 5th centuries B.C., a kingdom known as D’mt was supposedly established in what is today Eritrea and the Tigray province of Ethiopia.

After D’mt’s decline around the 5th century B.C., the state of Aksum arose in Tigray, the highlands of Eritrea, its western lowlands, the Sahel mountainous provinces and the costal line area. It grew during the 4th century B.C. and came into prominence during the 1st century A.D., converting to Christianity in the 4th century A.D. In the 7th century, with the advent of Islam across the Red Sea in Arabia and Arab invasion, Aksum’s trade and power on the Red Sea began to decline and the empire gradually diminished and was overtaken by smaller rival kingdoms.

During the medieval period, contemporary with and following the gradual disintegration of the Aksumite empire, the root culture for Christian Eritreans and Ethiopians and a common patrimony of both, several states as well as tribal and clan lands emerged in Eritrea. Between the 8th and 13th centuries, northern and northwestern Eritrea had largely come under the domination of the Beja, a Cushitic people from northeastern Sudan. The Beja brought Islam to large parts of Eritrea and connected the region to the greater Islamic world. Nonetheless, Christians of the Aksumite era continued to inhabit Eritrea and retained their religion. The southeastern parts of Eritrea, inhabited by the independent Afar since ancient times, came to form part of the Islamic Adal Sultanate in the early 13th century. Parts of the southwestern lowlands of Eritrea were under the dominion of the then Christian/Animist Funj Sultanate of Sinnar. In the main highland area and adjacent coastline of what were previously Muslim, Beja ruled areas, a Christian kingdom called Midir Bahr emerged in the 15th century.

An invading force of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, under Suleiman I, conquered Massawa in 1557 from the Christians, building what is now considered the “old town” of Massawa on Batsi island. They also conquered the towns of Hergigo and Debarwa before being repulsed to the coast by 1578. The Ottomans remained in control of the important ports of Massawa and Hergigo and their environs, and maintained their dominion over the coastal areas for nearly 300 years, absorbing the coastal areas of the disintegrated Adal Sultanate in the 16th century. The Funj Sultanate of Sinnar converted to Islam in the 16th century, but maintained independent control of the southwestern areas of Eritrea until absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.

Colonialism and the struggle for independence

Italian colonization began with the purchase of the locality of Assab by a Genovese shipping company called “Rubattino” from the Afar Sultan of Obock, a vassal of the Ottomans, in 1869—the same year as the opening of the Suez Canal. With the approval of the Italian parliament and King Umberto I of Italy, the government of Italy bought the Rubattino’s holdings and expanded its possessions northward along the Red Sea coast toward and beyond Massawa, encroaching on and quickly expelling previous “Egyptian” possessions, but meeting stiffer resistance in the Eritrean highlands from the invading army of the Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia.

Italy declared Eritrea a territory of Italy on 1 January 1890. The Kingdom of Italy ruled Eritrea from 1890 to 1941. Approximately 100,000 Italian colonists settled during the 1930’s in the Colonia Primigenia (as Eritrea was called by the Italians), mainly in Asmara. In 1936 it became a province of Italian East Africa, along with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, part of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Empire. Eritrea enjoyed considerable industrialization and the development of modern infrastructure during Italian rule, such as roads and a railway. Italy remained the colonial power in Eritrea until the beginnings of World War II. When it was defeated by Allied forces in 1941, Eritrea came under British administration. In the peace treaty of February 1947, Italy surrendered all her colonies, including Eritrea.

Britain continued to administer the territory under a United Nations mandate until December 1950, when the United Nations, after a lengthy inquiry regarding the status of Eritrea but without any form of consultation with its people, decided to federate it with Ethiopia. Increasing unrest and resistance in Eritrea against the federation with Ethiopia eventually led to a decision by the Ethiopian government in 1962 to dissolve the federation, shut down Eritrea’s parliament and annex Eritrea as the 14th province of Ethiopia. An Eritrean independence movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed and began what became a 31-year long war against successive Ethiopian governments. The ELF initially was a conservative grass-roots movement dominated by Muslim lowlanders with backing from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt as part of a policy of expanding Arab nationalist political influence in the region. Internal divisions within the ELF based on religion, ideology, ethnicity, clan and, sometimes, personalities, led to the weakening and fractioning of the ELF, from which sprung the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

The EPLF professed Marxism and egalitarian values devoid of gender, religion or ethnic bias. Its leadership was educated in China and it came to be supported by a growing Eritrean diaspora. Bitter fighting broke out between the ELF and EPLF during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s for dominance over Eritrea. The ELF suffered when Ethiopia’s emperor was deposed and replaced by the Derg, a Marxist military junta with backing from the Soviet Union and other communist countries, who continued the Ethiopian policy of repressing Eritrean “separatists.” The numbers of the EPLF swelled in the 1980’s. By 1990 and early 1991, virtually all Eritrean territory had been liberated by the EPLF except for the capital. In 1991, the Ethiopian army finally capitulated and Eritrean rebels entered Asmara and began to govern Eritrea on 24 May 1991. The new Ethiopian government, consisting of a coalition of Ethiopian resistance and separatist movements allied with Eritrea’s rebels, conceded to Eritrea’s demands to have a United Nations-supervised referendum in Eritrea, which ended in April 1993 with an overwhelming vote by Eritreans for independence. Independence was declared on 24 May 1993.


Eritrea is ruled by a transitional government. Following the successful referendum on independence in 1993, a National Assembly, composed entirely of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)—the renamed EPLF—was established as a transitional legislature. A constitutional commission was also established to draft a constitution, Isaias Afworki was elected president by the transitional legislature on 8 June 1993, and the constitution was adopted on 23 May 1997; it has not been implemented, however, pending parliamentary and presidential elections. Parliamentary elections were scheduled in December 2001, but were postponed indefinitely. Currently the sole legal party is the PFDJ.

Faced with limited economic resources and a country shattered by decades of war, the transitional government embarked on a reconstruction and defense effort, later called the Warsai Yikalo program, based on the labor of national servicemen and women. It is still ongoing. Male and female students are inducted into national service to complete their last year of high school and are assigned a combination of duties ranging from military service to construction projects, health care, teaching and further training/education as well as agricultural work to improve the country’s food security.

The border war

A two-and-a-half-year border war with Ethiopia erupted in 1998 and ended under UN auspices in December 2000. Eritrea hosted a UN peacekeeping operation that monitored a 25 km-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) on the border with Ethiopia. Eritrea’s denial of fuel to the mission caused the UN to withdraw the mission and terminate its mandate on 31 July 2008. An international commission, organized to resolve the border dispute, posted its findings in 2002. However, both parties have been unable to agree on implementing the decision. On 30 November 2007, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission demarcated the border by coordinates and dissolved itself, leaving Ethiopia still occupying several tracts of disputed territory, including the town of Badme. Eritrea accepted the EEBC’s “virtual demarcation” decision and called on Ethiopia to remove its troops from the TSZ, which it considers Eritrean territory. Ethiopia has not accepted the virtual demarcation decision.

Geography and demographics

Eritrea is a country of 121,320 sq km in the Horn of Africa bordering the Red Sea between Djibouti and Sudan. It is dominated by the extension of the Ethiopian north-south trending highlands, descending on the east to a coastal desert plain, on the northwest to hilly terrain and on the southwest to flat-to-rolling plains. Although the desert strip along the Red Sea coast is hot and dry, the central highlands are cooler and wetter with up to 61 cm of rainfall annually, normally heaviest June to September; the western hills and lowlands are semiarid. There are frequent droughts and only 4.78% of the land is arable.

Most of Eritrea’s people (estimated range from 3.8 to 5.6 million) are subsistence farmers; about 20% of the population is urban; median age is approximately 18.4 years. The majority ethnic group (50%) is the Tigrinya; Tigre and Kunama account for 40%; Afar, 4%; Saho, 3%; and others, 3%, including Beni-Amer, Bilen, Hedareb, Nara, and Rashaida. Approximately one-half the population is Christian (Orthodox, 46%; Ge’ez Catholic, 3%; Protestant, animist and other, 1%) and one-half, Sunni Muslim. Since May 2002, the government of Eritrea has officially recognized the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, Catholicism, and the Evangelical Lutheran church; all other faiths and denominations are required to undergo a registration process.


Since independence from Ethiopia in1993, Eritrea has faced the economic problems of a small, desperately poor country, accentuated by the recent implementation of restrictive economic policies. Like many African nations, its economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture, with 80% of the population involved in farming and herding. The Eritrean-Ethiopian war, 1998-2000, severely hurt Eritrea’s economy. Despite the fighting, Eritrea developed its transportation infrastructure: asphalting new roads, improving its ports, and repairing war-damaged roads and bridges. Since the war’s conclusion, the government has maintained a hold on the economy, expanding the use of the military and party-owned businesses to complete the country’s development agenda. The government strictly controls the use of foreign currency by limiting access and availability. Few private enterprises remain in Eritrea. Eritrea’s economy depends heavily on remittances of members of the diaspora. Erratic rainfall and delayed demobilization of agriculturists from the military continue to interfere with agricultural production, and Eritrea’s recent harvests have been unable to meet the food needs of the country. Eritrea’s economic future depends upon its ability to master social problems such as illiteracy, unemployment, and low skill development, and more importantly, on the government’s willingness to support a true market economy.

II. The Church in Eritrea

Christianity in Eritrea

The history of Eritrean Christianity begins with the conversion of the Aksumite empire to Christianity in the early half of the fourth century through the work of a Syrian, St. Frumentius (also known as Abba Salama). Consecrated a bishop by the patriarch of Alexandria, he became the first metropolitan of the church in the empire and Aksum became an ecclesiastical province of the Alexandrian patriarchate. In the sixth century, missionary monks, known traditionally as the Nine Saints, arrived in the region from the Byzantine Empire and established monastic life in various parts of Tigray and Eritrea. Following the rise of Islam, Aksum lost its coastal and maritime possessions and its political center shifted southwards towards today’s central Ethiopia. For centuries, until the presence of an Ethiopian delegation at the 1441 Council of Florence, the church of the region had no contact with the West, nor any formal separation. After the 15th century, it was established that the Coptic patriarchate of Egypt had authority over the church, but the monastic clergy remained under the indigenous abbot of the monastery of Dabra Libanos.

In the 16th century, Portugal sent an army to help Ethiopian emperor defeat the Muslim emir of Harar. In 1557, a Portuguese bishop accompanied by five Jesuit missionaries arrived in the country to minister to the Portuguese; they were forbidden to proselytize among Ethiopians. However by 1614, the emperor was persuaded to conclude a union with the Catholic Church and to sanction the use of the Latin rite. He declared Catholicism the state religion in 1622, and the following year the pope appointed another Portuguese Jesuit as patriarch of the church, who began to Latinize it. The local churches, especially the monasteries, raised objections, mainly in regard to the replacement of the ancient Ge’ez liturgy by the Latin, the emperor was overthrown, and his successor renewed the traditional ties with the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria in 1632. Subsequently, the Jesuits were expelled from the empire, and the country was closed to Catholic missionary activity for 200 years.

From ancient times, all bishops in the empire were Egyptian Copts. After Eritrea was made an Italian colony, the colonial authorities tried unsuccessfully to detach the Eritrean Orthodox community from the Ethiopian metropolitanate; however, the Orthodox church remained under the patriarch of Alexandria until the 20th century. In 1929, four native bishops were ordained to assist the Coptic metropolitan. An agreement was reached in 1948 that, upon the death of the Coptic incumbent, there would be a native metropolitan. In 1951, the first native metropolitan was elected and the autonomy of the church was established; in 1959 he was confirmed as patriarch. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained the state religion of Eritrea until the Italian colonization and of Ethiopia until the 1974 Marxist revolution.

The modern Catholic presence in Eritrea dates to the 19th century, with the appointment of Justin de Jacobis, C.M., as Apostolic Prefect of Ethiopia in 1839 and his apostolic activity in Eritrea, Tigray, and Amharic regions of Ethiopia. He was an advocate of enculturation, use of the Ge’ez rite, and the formation of a native clergy. In 1846, two apostolic vicariates, the Sudan and Galla, were created from the prefecture, and in 1847 the prefecture was converted into the apostolic vicariate of Abyssinia. With the creation of the Italian colony in Eritrea, the northern part of the apostolic vicariate of Abyssinia, a new prefecture apostolic was established in 1895 for the Latins. Catholic missionary activity expanded in Eritrea under Italian control and in Ethiopia during the Italian occupation (1935-1941). In 1937, an apostolic delegation was erected in Addis Ababa with then nine missions, three vicariates, and four prefectures; it became a metropolitan see in 1961 with two suffragans, Adigrat and Asmara. Following Eritrean independence, the Latin-rite apostolic vicariate was dissolved and the eparchies of Keren and Barentu were created from the territory of the eparchy of Asmara.

Until Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, it was a diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. After independence, an autocephalous Orthodox church was created with the ordination of a patriarch and four bishops by the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. The first patriarch, Abune Philippos, died in 2002; the second, Abune Yacob, one year later. In 2005, the Eritrean government intervened in the church’s affairs by limiting the powers of Abune Antonios, the third patriarch, and designating the lay synodal secretary, Yoftah Dimetros, to oversee the church. Some speculate that Abune Antonios was advocating so much change in the church that he was alienating more conservative elements of the clergy, especially the debteras. In any case, the synod charged Abune Antonios with heresy and removed him from office, electing Abune Dioskoros as the new patriarch. Although Abune Antonios remains under house arrest, he is still recognized as the legitimate patriarch by the Catholic and other Orthodox churches.

The Ge’ez Catholic Church

Besides the challenges of growth and maturation normal to the situation of Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s Catholic church, the political tensions between the two nation states have seriously affected the interrelationships of the churches and their personnel. The church in both countries has been affected by the deportation of foreign nationals from each and by an intense spirit of nationalism, often on the part of the priests and religious themselves. Although the Holy See has encouraged communication and collaboration among the hierarchs and other ordinaries in both countries and constituted, on 8 December 2001, the Statuti dell’Assamblea dei Gerarchi Cattolici d’Etiopia ed Eritrea, the political impasse makes it impossible for the assembly to meet in plenary session in either country.

Further, it the three Ge’ez Catholic eparchs of Eritrea are reluctant to meet in plenary session with the three Ge’ez Catholic eparchs, five Latin apostolic vicars, and two Latin apostolic prefects of Ethiopia. There is little commonality to bind all these in a plenary, especially because of differences of rite and nationality. Because of the peculiar territorial division of responsibility for Ethiopia between the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the ordinaries of Ethiopia are challenged to find appropriate methods and mechanisms of pastoral planning and collaboration. Presently they meet from time to time as the “Council of Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia.”

Although the three eparchies in Ethiopia and the three eparchies in Eritrea constitute the Ge’ez Catholic Church, they rarely, if ever, meet as a council of hierarchs and barely function as a metropolitan church, even though they should be in the process of maturation to a major archiepiscopal church. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia has a canonical head in the person of the metropolitan archeparchy of Addis Abba, but the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Eritrea, constituted by three eparchial bishops of equal status, lacks such. Presently, they meet as a “Council of Eparchs” with a mutually agreed-upon president, but such an institution is non-canonical and often paralyzes the decision-making process. Additionally, the apostolic nuncio to Eritrea does not live in the country, nor is there a nunciature there.

A possible solution under study to resolve the issue of the lack of designated leadership for the Ge’ez Catholic Church in Eritrea is the creation of a separate Ge’ez Catholic metropolitan see in Eritrea with its own metropolitan synod. Such a metropolitan see could be autonomous or remain subordinated to the metropolitan see of Addis Ababa, if it were to be created a major archbishopric.

Catholic major seminary formation

After the creation of two more Ge’ez Catholic eparchies in Eritrea in 1995, Holy Saviour Major Seminary of the eparchy of Asmara became an inter-eparchial major seminary. Originally the same building hosted both residential facilities for eparchial seminarians and the Asmara Theological Institute, the philosophy-theology faculty, for the training of both eparchial and religious seminarians. Following the suppression of the Latin apostolic vicariate, the institute, needing more classroom and library space, moved to one of the buildings of the former vicariate. The institute has a well-established full-time faculty with an affiliation with the Pontifical Urbanian University in Rome. It began as a cooperation in the teaching of philosophy and theology between Cistercians and Vincentians, which was later extended to the “Diocesan Seminary” and the Capuchin Friars. This cooperation gradually became more formal resulting in the present institute with its own statutes.

According to the statutes, the ownership of the institute belongs to “the Eparchy of Asmara, the Cistercians, the Capuchins and the Vincentians” and it is governed by a Major Superiors’ Board whose members were identified as “(a) The Bishop of Asmara, (b) Major Superiors of the Member Bodies mentioned above, and (c) others who have been granted equal status.” Before 1995, the church of Eritrea consisted of the one eparchy of Asmara and the Latin apostolic vicariate committed to the Franciscan Capuchins. The one eparch in Asmara was identified as the person responsible for the “Diocesan Seminary.” With the “Diocesan Seminary” having been converted into an inter-eparchial seminary under the responsibility of three eparchs, the relationship between the seminary and the institute, especially membership on the governing board and the rights and obligations of such members was not clear.

For several years, while the seminarians of the eparchy of Asmara continued to study at the Asmara Theological Institute, the seminarians of the eparchies of Keren and Barentu received their philosophical-theological formation at Holy Saviour from a small, non-residential, part-time faculty drawn from the clergy of the two eparchies. Finally, in 2007, the outstanding issues were successfully resolved, and presently all the eparchial seminarians reside together at Holy Savior and travel to the old Latin vicariate where they are taught by the faculty of the Asmara Catholic Theological Institute.

III. Aid agencies, programs and needs

The Eritrean Catholic Secretariat

In the mid 1980’s, in response to the severe drought and the humanitarian needs arising from the war for independence, the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat was formed. The creation of a humanitarian and charitable organization by the local Catholic church was strongly urged by European national Caritas organizations and other donor agencies so that large-scale assistance to and through the church in Eritrea would be funneled through an appropriate partner organization. The Eritrean Catholic Secretariat worked very closely with the government of Eritrea. At its peak, it employed a large and experienced staff, utilized some one hundred trucks, drilling rigs and other vehicles, and operated several large warehouses for the provision of food rations to a large proportion of the population. However, in 1995, due to new government regulations concerning the relations between the government and religious institutions, the activities of the secretariat were suspended.

In 1998, at the invitation of the government, the Eritrean Catholic church formed the Catholic Church Emergency Committee to help address the needs arising from the border war and resultant displacement of large segments of the population. In response to an appeal for help to Caritas Internationalis by the eparchs, an emergency response team was sent to Eritrea in May 2000. The Catholic Church Emergency Committee and the emergency response team worked together to produce a program to provide emergency relief to internally displaced people living in camps. In 2000, in view of the more relaxed attitude of the Eritrean government towards the Catholic church and NGOs, the Eritrean bishops decided to reestablish the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat. A national office was reopened under a new secretary general, complimented by secretariats in each of the three eparchies. A Caritas Internationalis solidarity team was placed in Asmara to work with and strengthen the national and eparchial secretariats, to work with the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat to develop and manage the response to those affected by drought and war, and to help the secretariats prepare their strategic plans and development programs.

In August 2001, after the conclusion of the activities of the Caritas Internationalis solidarity team, the Eritrean bishops invited seven national Caritas representatives to form an advisory team for the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat to help with different aspects of planning, program and institutional development, fund-raising and advocacy. CAFOD was requested and agreed to act as the intermediary agency. Presently, under the auspices of the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat, the Catholic Church in Eritrea runs 29 stationary clinics and health centers and two mobile clinics throughout the country, many of which are in remote areas.

CNEWA Eritrea

CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) is a specialized agency of the Holy See for the support of the churches and institutions under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. As such, it has a unique role of collaboration with the congregation, Eastern churches and other Catholic donor agencies and places its offices and staff at the service of them all. CNEWA’s initial presence in Eritrea and Ethiopia was initiated by the congregation with the establishment of a program to assist needy children in church childcare institutions and schools. CNEWA also assisted the congregation with funds to support minor and major seminary formation, the formation of religious sisters, and particular projects of a pastoral or humanitarian nature.

By 1986, the growth of the program in the region warranted the establishment of a full-service office in Addis Ababa under the leadership of a regional director for Ethiopia and Eritrea. After the independence of Eritrea, it became increasingly awkward for the funding of activities in Eritrea to be administered directly from Addis Ababa. In 2000, in response to the request and recommendations of the local church in Eritrea, an auxiliary administrative office was started in Asmara, but remained under the supervision of the regional director in Addis Ababa. However, the strained relationship between the two countries made this arrangement increasingly difficult, so in 2003 the CNEWA office in Eritrea was separated from the office in Ethiopia and placed under the leadership of a regional director for Eritrea.

It presently provides subsidies to many of the church childcare and educational institutions, especially through scholarship assistance to individual students; coordinates assistance for minor and major seminary formation on behalf of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; regularly provides grants for a wide variety of pastoral, humanitarian and ecumenical projects; and serves the congregation and other donor agencies in project and program assessment, grant proposal development and administration, and orientation and familiarization program development, as requested.

Ma’adi/Solidarity program

Since the second half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church has been working toward the development of Eritrea with printing presses, schools, clinics, women’s promotion, agricultural projects and the like. By the end of the Italian colonial period, the social institutions of the church constituted a wide-spread network in the country. In 1982, the Marxist government of Ethiopia nationalized all private and many church institutions; however, during the famine of 1984, the church was invited to work in emergency programs. With the de facto independence of Eritrea in 1991, the church began to wholeheartedly participate in the reconstruction of the country. New schools, technical and agricultural institutes, clinics and community hospitals were built and development programs were initiated. Many religious congregations moved out of the towns and established themselves in rural areas. However, it soon became evident that the maintenance of these institutions required more financial resources than could be raised locally.

In 1995, pressed by mounting costs, the Eritrean church approached the Italian Bishops’ Conference for assistance. For the next ten years, the conference met most of the running costs of the social institutions of the Catholic Church in Eritrea. Underlying the assistance program was the expectation that the Eritrean Catholic Church would gradually achieve a significant degree of self-sufficiency, but this proved to be an illusory goal. Although the Eritrean economy grew at a robust pace immediately after independence, by 1996 it began to decline. Recurrent conflicts with neighboring nations and chronic droughts brought the economy to a halt. Accordingly, when the original Italian Bishops’ Conference plan came to an end in 2002, the bishops, conscious of the dire straits of the Eritrean Catholic Church, agreed to continue with partial-funding of the program until 2005.

In 2004, the Council of Eparchs and the Conference of Major Religious Superiors collaborated in developing an ambitious fund-raising plan for the continued support of the church’s social service institutions, originally with the title, “Solidarity with Eritrea,” later modified to Ma’adi/Solidarity. Its original goal was to raise enough money to assure the continuance for two more years of the church’s 24 health stations and 6 community hospitals serving 127,482 patients a year, as well as the 52 pre-primary, 43 primary, 9 junior high, 3 secondary, and 2 technical schools serving 22,466 students. Meanwhile, efforts were to be made to develop a foundation and an endowment to ensure continued support into the future.

Eritrean refugees

Because of the sociopolitical situation of their county, many Eritrean young people are leaving. Since official permissions are required to leave legally and are almost impossible to obtain, the two main routes are across the border to Ethiopia or Sudan. Those who cross to Ethiopia are often met with hostility from people whom they have fought, especially when they leave the refugee camps, where they are detained, for shopping or a simple walk. Equally, although detention camps are supposed to be free from political pressure, this is not the case in Ethiopia. Forces opposed to the government of Eritrea have easy access to exert psychological and physical pressures to recruit followers.

Refugees crossing the border into Sudan do not feel secure in the detention camps there, since they are not far from the Eritrean border; very often they are kidnapped and brought back to Eritrea. To avoid harassment, and in hope of going to Italy or other points in Western Europe, many head for Libya. Their journey starts in Khartoum and involves crossing wilderness and lethal desert areas, taking roughly from two weeks to one month. There is a flourishing trade and business assisting them; cost of transportation varies between $800 and $1,200 per person. However, in the course of the journey additional fees are easily extorted. Accidents en route are inevitable. Some people fall from vehicles traveling at high speed; the unfortunate are left behind to die, whether from accidents, hunger or exhaustion.

On arrival at the Libyan border and then Tripoli, Eritreans live in terror. They fear being caught in streets, shops and buses, or being rounded up from houses in which they take shelter, and then being put in prison. Boys are beaten and sometimes tortured; girls are raped. Females in detention are especially vulnerable. Eritreans cannot claim intervention from their embassy since they are runaways. Human rights abuses are reported also by people who come with legal work contracts.

In June 2008, Caritas Libya estimated that 1,300 Eritreans were in detention camps in Libya, in addition to even greater numbers in the general population. Most of the Eritrean migrants are educated, although from rural backgrounds, and were in national service in Eritrea, the majority for the past 14 years since the declaration of national service. Almost all these migrants are undocumented and unemployed, depending totally on outside support. Their greatest needs are for security for their lives while in detention camps, not to be deported, and adequate medical care. They request speedy processing by UNHCR of their applications for resettlement and temporary UNHCR IDs to prevent arbitrary arrest.

Long-term solutions to the problems of Eritrean refugees depend on achieving a peace settlement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, involving the demarcation of the border, and persuading the Eritrean government to reconsider its policy of unlimited national service.

Malnutrition and food insecurity

In November 2008, the Eritrean Catholic bishops alerted the Caritas network to the serious humanitarian situation in Eritrea. They described a country reeling from the aftermath of a bloody border war, internal displacements, recurring drought and serious national political and economic issues that have undermined family coping mechanisms, making them highly vulnerable to food shortages. The current year’s failed harvest, drought and rocketing prices of food and consumer goods mean that the population will be stricken by hunger. Some areas of the country had total crop failure; others harvested only enough food for three months. The severe lack of rain in both rainy seasons also meant that many people do not have access to clean drinking water and herders suffer from the lack of pasture for grazing their livestock.

That same month, the national Eritrean Catholic Secretariat presented a proposal for a supplementary feeding program for the period March – October 2009 to Caritas Internationalis and select national Caritas organizations. The proposal called for providing 35,000 targeted beneficiaries in vulnerable groups, especially women and children, with a supplementary food ration, through church clinics, health centers and village distribution sites in badly affected parts of Eritrea in the total amount of approximately 3.7 million dollars. Disappointingly, there has been hardly any response to the appeal to date.

In July 2009, in meetings in Asmara with Abune Menghesteab Tesfamariam, Eparch of Asmara, and Abune Kidane Yebio, Eparch of Keren, the bishops proposed a more modest and alternate way of assisting those closest to starvation. Utilizing the church network of eparchies and parishes, they were confident that immediate cash assistance could be conveyed to at least 1,000 families enabling each to buy a three-month supply of grain. Of course, the more funds available, the more families can be helped.

(The above report quotes liberally from The World Factbook of the CIA; Wikipedia; The Catholic Encyclopedia; New Catholic Encyclopedia; The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey; a private paper, “The Catholic Church in Eritrea”; a letter of 18 October 2008 of Abba Woldemariam Zereyohannes, C.M., to Cardinal Raffaele Martino; a report on “Eritrean People in Libya” of 20 June 2008 of Fr. Allan José L. Arcebuche, O.F.M.; a memorandum of 10 November 2008 of the Catholic bishops of Eritrea to Caritas colleagues re humanitarian alert; a “Project Proposal for Supplementary Feeding Programme, March-October 2009” of November 2008 of the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat; ONE magazine and electronic and print publications and documents of CNEWA.)

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