Over the course of 2016, the world has been captivated by the refugee crisis in Syria, as a full-blown civil war has driven over four million men, women, and children to flee the country. The influx of refugees into European countries such as Germany, Greece, and France, and the subsequent controversy has ignited a fierce debate that struggles to balance humanitarianism and national security. For all the headlines that the Syrian refugee crisis has made, an even more impending crisis is rapidly taking shape in Eritrea—with potentially massive consequences in years to come.
A country of six million and the second-newest state on the African continent, Eritrea has been embroiled in instability since its independence in 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Labor Front broke away from Ethiopia after a roughly 30-year insurgency. The autocratic regime of strongman Isaias Afwerki—bolstered by restrictions on free speech as well as the kidnapping, torture, and execution of dissidents—has resulted in over a quarter million Eritrean refugees fleeing the chaos. A United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry in 2014 revealed that the majority of refugees left to avoid military service, which often included torture, forced labor, and slavery-like conditions. These ongoing issues have resulted in extremely high emigration rates. Five thousand Eritreans leave the country every month, mainly to nearby Ethiopia and Sudan; but more recently, and in ever-increasing numbers, they are fleeing to Italy and Germany.
Eritrea’s rapid population growth will only lead to heightened rates of emigration. This will place additional strain on the social systems of European nations such as Italy, which is already grappling with the burdens of having one of the oldest populations in the world.While the Eritrean refugee crisis is a global challenge rivaling that of Syria, there are also plausible policies to mitigate its impact. One of the primary solutions for stemming the exodus of migrants is to reduce the incentive to leave Eritrea in the first place. With human rights abuses in both the national service and the entire country being the major reason for emigration, the United Nations can and should place a series of renewed sanctions and arms embargoes on the Eritrean government until the ruling body implements a series of reform policies to improve the lives of everyday Eritreans.
If possible, free and fair elections should be encouraged by political advisors and observers. European nations that have accepted significant numbers of Eritrean refugees, such as Germany which has accepted roughly 11,000 refugees, should work quickly to integrate these refugees into the population via language and cultural education programs, lest migrants become radicalized in an environment lacking of opportunities. For there to even be a chance of these expenses being paid back, integration must happen rapidly and target younger migrants who will more easily learn a new language and become highly skilled laborers.
This problem is not going away anytime soon. Policy makers and heads of state have the choice of whether or not it becomes theirs as well. Quick, decisive action to end the suffering is not only personally beneficial but a moral imperative. The world has a chance to choose what side of history it will fall on—we should choose wisely.