For five years, media outlets have covered the millions of Syrian refugees on their exodus from their war-torn country, but few have covered the Eritrean migrant crisis.
Each month, an estimated that 5,000 citizens, mostly young children and teenagers, vote with their feet and leave the small state in the Horn of Africa bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Many of these emigrants end up in neighboring Ethiopia or Sudan. Others dangerously trek north through Sudan and Libya or through Egypt and Israel in hopes of crossing the Mediterranean sea to reach a safer destination in Europe.
The United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said there are more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan and Ethiopia. More than 34,000 have arrived by boat in Italy alone, making them the second largest group to do so after Syrian refugees.
For many Western leaders, the rate of emigration from a state currently at peace and with a small population of 6 million is staggering.
For years, Eritrean citizens have fled from Isaias Afewerki, president of Eritrea’s only political party: The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.
The PFDJ has been branded as one of the most secretive and oppressive governments in the world, competing with North Korea for the number-one spot.
Afewerki has been in power since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after a brutal 30-year conflict.
The party has since implemented indefinite conscripted military service for any man or woman under the age of 50 and violated human rights and freedoms on numerous occasions.
The intent behind the forced service was to create regimented, work-hardened generations and to generate national pride. However, in the eyes of many of the citizens, it is nothing more than slavery.
Additionally, the party keeps a tight grip on freedom of speech. Currently, with all former domestic media outlets banned, citizens rely on the state-sponsored news outlets.
Many journalists now writing for the state are in fear of backlash from those above.
In a 2001 crackdown of opposition media, state security officials arrested and imprisoned 12 journalists, many of which have either died or still remain detained.
A UN commision of inquiry said Afewerki should be charged with crimes against humanity for his party’s “systematic, widespread” human rights abuses that include extrajudicial executions, torture, forced labor and the imprisonment of more than 400,000 people.
Luckily for the Eritrean people, hope is on the horizon. The Arab Spring movement generated grassroot opposition movements inside the country, one being the Freedom Friday Movement.
The movement, composed of many former Eritrean citizens living in Europe or the U.S., runs an underground newspaper, circulates leaflets asking citizens to abandon the streets in protest and puts up posters asking “Where is your brother?”, an allusion to Genesis 4:9.
They have also called on Western leaders and media outlets to listen and extend a hand to the Eritrean people. Whether they do so or not remains to be seen.
Jacob Knutson is a sophomore journalism and political science major from Rapid City, S.D.