Refugees from Eritrea, a young state riven with conflict and divided by faith

Catherine Philp
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It is a testament to the troubled history of Eritrea that no one seems sure exactly how many of its people have left to start new lives elsewhere.

Somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 of them came to Britain, fleeing first the long war of independence from Ethiopia, then the 1998-2000 border war with its former overlord, and now the twin evils of political and religious repression.

Even after independence in 1993, arriving Eritrean refugees were often listed simply as “Ethiopian”. When Eritrea finally won its own listing, it quickly sprinted up the Home Office’s chart of top asylum-seeking nationalities. A total of 2,195 Eritreans applied for asylum in Britain last year, a number exceeded only by asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Iran. The vast majority who come to Britain stay in London, where they have formed close-knit communities, centred around their places of worship. The four million-strong population of Eritrea is split almost evenly between Christians, the natives of the highlands, and Muslim coastal dwellers. Arsema was a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the largest and oldest Christian Church in the country and one of the oldest in the world.

Recent religious repression has meant Eritrea is wrongly portrayed as a Muslim state that persecutes Christians. In reality, it is the Orthodox Church’s antipathy towards new evangelical groups that has inspired much of the persecution. When the Government introduced legislation in 2002, forcing all religious organisations to register, it seized the opportunity to shut down the growing number of Pentecostal churches, citing such groups as a threat to national security, along with extremist Islamist groups. Mass arrests have taken place at weddings, services and Bible-study meetings, and thousands are in jail for their political beliefs. At least four evangelical Christians have been tortured to death.

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Had Arsema stayed in Eritrea, her education would have ended abruptly when she turned 18 and became eligible for compulsory military service. No one between the ages of 18 and 40, even mothers, is exempt. Eritrea’s army is proportionally the largest in the world, with a quarter of its population under arms or on active reserve.

Nearly 1,000 men and women flee the threat of service every month, over the borders with Sudan or Ethiopia. The border dispute with Ethiopia is still unresolved and tensions flare regularly, meaning that the people of Eritrea live with the constant threat of more war.

With its Government now weighing in to a proxy war in Somalia, backing the Islamic militants that Ethiopia is fighting, thousands more Eritreans soon may have to flee too.


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