This piece is the first in a series of articles on the “The Traffic Racket.” The series will look into the shocking evidence of a smuggling and trafficking network facilitated by human rights activists working with refugee agencies, state governments and officials, NGOs and international bodies to smuggle Eritreans, particularly children, from Eritrea. Exploited Eritrean migrants often show up on European shores with few observers understanding that the growing tide of trans-Mediterranean migrants is the result of a larger trafficking racket. Part one looks into the role of Eritrean “activists.”
Tragedy on the Mediterranean
Sunday, April 19 witnessed the deadliest migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean since World War II. More than 850 migrants from multiple countries were pronounced dead the next day after their boat capsized during a voyage from Libya to Italy.
In less than forty-eight hours following the tragedy, before the proverbial dust had settled, the majority of migrants were said to be Eritrean. According to Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Catania, Sicily, “there were Syrians, about 150 Eritreans, Somalians.”
Observers found it somewhat odd that, of the 20 different nationalities aboard the ill-fated vessel, only the number of Eritreans were tallied and definitive. This did not appear to be a one-time exception or anomaly, either.
Only a couple hours after Cami’s statement, an updated UNHCR statement by Adrian Edwards, declared that “among those on board were some 350 Eritreans, as well as people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.”
Again, no definitive casualty figures for any groups other than Eritreans. Thus, how was the official number established? How were the bodies identified and confirmed to be Eritrean? Why were numbers not established for other groups?
With a number in hand, Eritrea immediately came to the fore of the horrific international tragedy. Journalists wasted no time in turning to the nation’s domestic politics and human rights situation. From the ensuing barrage of sensational headlines, it was clear that the plight of Eritrean migrants would be singled out and politicized.
Just a few of these headlines, for instance, highlight this reality: Eritrea: Africa’s land of exodus (Stefanie Duckstein, Deutsche Welle); Crushing repression of Eritrea’s citizens is driving them into migrant boats (Dan Connell, The Guardian); and Escaping Eritrea: ‘If I die at sea, it’s not a problem – at least I won’t be tortured’ (Mark Anderson, The Guardian).
Unlike the reporting on other ‘first nations’ that regularly produce Europe-bound asylum seekers and migrants, reporting on Eritrea mainly centered around alleged domestic repression rather than conflict and poverty, which have historically been the leading causes of flight by asylum seekers and migrants worldwide, respectively.
“If you look at the numbers last year,” explained Volker Turk, the director of international protection at UNCHR, “over 50 percent of the people who crossed the Mediterranean were people in need of international protection. Mostly Syrians, Eritreans, some Somalis.”
Tim Lister from CNN, however, noted the exceptionalism of the Eritrean migrants. According to Lister, “Eritreans want to escape repression or military service; Somalis flee Al-Shabaab and clan warfare; Syrians have given up hope of returning home.”
Again, Matina Stevis of the Wall Street Journal echoed, “The continued Syrian war is pushing ever more refugees out to Europe, where they seek asylum and safety. Sub-Saharan Africans are fleeing their homelands because of either conflict or deep poverty. Eritreans, the second-top nationality of migrants reaching Europe last year, are leaving in hordes because their country enforces mandatory conscription in the army, does not pay them and does not allow them to return to work.”
While Business Insider’s Editor Armin Rosen explained that “Eritrea has a population of around 6.3 million and accounted for 20% of the total [asylum seekers in Europe]”, Dan Connell, writing for the Guardian, explained that “Eritreans are second only to Syrians in the number of boat arrivals, though the country is a fraction of Syria’s size and there’s no live civil war there.”
Most reporting on Eritrea was more or less the same and the emerging post-tragedy narrative on Eritrean migrants suggested that they, unlike all other migrants groups (with the exception of Gambians), were fleeing their homeland due to government repression rather conflict and poverty.
Absent from this narrative, unfortunately, were any voices of dissent or more nuanced analyses for a more contextualized understanding of Eritrean migration.
Naturally, the question thus emerges: Upon what evidence do the aforementioned journalists base their claims about the domestic situation in Eritrea?
One cannot help but notice the glaring fact that none of the authors have either visited Eritrea to field their reports or based their writing on entities that report from Eritrea such that claims behind the domestic situation can be substantiated firsthand. In fact, many of the entities cited—and some of the author themselves—have already demonstrated compromised credibility and bias vis-a-vis Eritrea.
Take for instance, Connell from The Guardian. In a May 2013 speech in Washington, D.C., later posted on YouTube, he instructed a group of Eritreans to campaign around migration and human trafficking to help bring about the ulterior motive of regime change and topple Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki:
What’s going to generate the most response from a wider public that is not familiar with Eritrea? And what would weaken Isaias’ ability to govern? I don’t think you can organize a campaign for regime change but you can organize campaigns that can make regime change more possible…I would certainly suggest an end to unlimited conscription into national service partly because it’s so easy to tie that together with so many other issues: the refugee issue, the trafficking issue, and so on. And partly because the pressure on Isaias would weaken his ability to govern.
…A campaign should be simple direct and uncomplicated. Other obvious issues that can be in some way linked, focusing our attention on the trafficking issue and always linking it to the source of the refugee flows. This trafficking issue is a consequence of the situation inside Eritrea. No other issue is likely to generate attention and support from the American public. Calls for increased financial and technical support for refugees in the support and for far better security in the camps are also simple issues to link them to this. Pressure on the US, Canadian, European and Israeli asylum seekers is another one that comes directly out of this.
Despite his obvious bias and plans to opportunistically exploit the plight of Eritrean migrants for political ends, Connell’s latest piece was published in The Guardian, making recommendations to the European Union to restrict development—not military—aid to Eritrea worth hundreds of millions of euros.
He warned that “if EU and individual states jump too rashly and simply throw money at Eritrea, they risk entrenching the very practices that lie behind much of the exodus, while doing precious little to stem it.”
Such a claim seems hard to substantiate and understand when Eritrea is the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa thus far that is on track to meet all of health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) despite having the lowest health expenditures in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Christine Umutoni of the United Nations Development Program and head of all humanitarian operations in Eritrea, told the BBC last month that there was a lack of corruption in Eritrea and that “we’ve seen value for money and accountability. You know, you invest a little and you get a lot.” If Umutoni is indeed correct, restricting developmental aid to Eritrea seems to make little sense.
However, Michela Wrong, like Connell and the majority chorus of American and European journalists, disagrees, writing in another post-tragedy article that any support for developmental programs in Eritrea will not make the situation in Eritrea better. According to Wrong, “Man cannot live by MDGs alone.”
Although Wrong’s claim about the limited scope of MDGs is certainly true, it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that suggest Eritrea has used developmental fund effectively. It should also be noted that when Eritrean President Isaias was asked about Eritrea’s success with the MDGs, he stated, “It’s true we might have met global standards when it comes to malaria and other diseases, but that should not put us at ease. It would be wrong to compare your excellence with others’ mediocrity. You need to have your own standards.”
Citing ‘Eritrean Activists’
Duckstein’s aforementioned piece in Deutsche Welle, also cited a dubious source, this time an Eritrean. Duckstein interviewed and quoted Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest from the Vatican’s Ethiopian College living in Rome, who has been implicated in facilitating and abetting trans-Mediterranean human smuggling following 2012 investigations by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
According to PACE’s report, Lives Lost in the Mediterranean: Who is Responsible?, Mussie allegedly served as a smuggling intermediary between the ‘captains’ of Italy-bound vessels and the Italian Coast Guard. Without his call, the migrants rescue was unlikely:
The “captain” had the phone, but nobody knew where he had got it from or who had added Father Zerai’s number to it. In a short conversation Father Zerai was informed that they were having problems…The Priest informed them that he would contact the Italian authorities to request assistance. Father Zerai subsequently contacted the Italian Coast Guard…
…However, in the meantime, the “captain” had thrown the compass and the satellite phone overboard when he thought the helicopter was going to rescue them. He explained that he did not want to be arrested for possession of the telephone and the compass. He feared that these items would be used as evidence of his involvement in a smuggling network….
If the captain is afraid of being implicated in smuggling, then how about Mussie Zerai, the man on the other side of the phone? What makes the coast guard willing to pick up the call from Mussie but not the captains themselves? Why does Mussie have this special monopoly?
The actions of the smugglers are in line with the modus operandi, whereby the smugglers deliberately sink the boats, triggering a rescue mission from the National Guard, and satellite phones are thrown overboard to hide one’s involvement.
The UNODC report Smuggling of Migrants by Sea states, “Where vessels are unseaworthy and not intended for reuse, there is no risk to the smuggler in assigning an unskilled person, possibly even a migrant, to captain and navigate the boats. Fishing vessels used to transport migrants generally end up at the bottom of the sea and were never intended for use in more than one journey.” The report continues:
Upon interception by authorities, mobile phones, GPS and any other equipment allowed on board to navigate the sea journey will be thrown overboard. Before doing so, smugglers or others on board or on land may call the coast guard with a satellite mobile phone, telling authorities to rescue persons on board boats. A frequently reported modus operandi put in place upon interception is for smugglers or migrants to force a rescue by sinking or scuttling boats. Rubber dinghies for instance may be punctured so authorities are forced to assume responsibility for persons in the water. Wooden vessels may be set alight to ensure that authorities assist persons on board, sometimes motivated by the perception that intercepted vessels will be turned back otherwise.
The fact that wooden vessels are set alight is critical to understand. The October 2013 migrant shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, which led to the widely publicized and politicized death of 366 migrants—almost entirely Eritrean—was said to have been triggered by the Tunisian captain Khaled Bensalam, who lit a fuel-doused rag on fire and set the vessel ablaze.
The lighting of the rag was likely deliberate as it is in line with the smuggling modus operandi. Bensalam was the subject of much public outcry, leading to his swift apprehension by the authorities.
Like Bensalam, multiple smugglers and traffickers were taken into custody following the latest mass casualty shipwreck. Instead of an ‘accidental’ fire this time around, the captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, another Tunisian, was said to be “drunk and smoking hashish.” He allegedly rammed into another ship 3 times, suggesting that his actions were deliberate as well.
Traffickers higher up in the food chain, like Ethiopian national Ermias Ghermay, pocketed £72 million in profits in the last two years and is believed to be the mastermind behind both the October 2013 and current shipwreck, had his phone wiretapped and was under pursuit by the Italian authorities.
Thus, note the differing approaches in dealing with the alleged smugglers: while the captain was taken into custody and the higher-level traffickers have become fugitives, Mussie Zerai was seen as a human rights activist, an esteemed man of the cloth, and, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Pope Francis—ostensibly, for ‘helping‘ migrants.
Mattathias Schwartz of the New Yorker even goes as far as comparing him to Haile Selassie: “Behind him, in a glass case, was an Ethiopian Bible, its cover adorned with a gold cross. In front of it was a laminated printout: ‘The gift of H.I.M.; Haile Selassie I; The last emperor of Ethiopia.’…Though Zerai lacks Selassie’s imperial pretensions, he, too, is on the receiving end of a great deal of hope projected by a great number of desperate people.”
Beyond the eulogizing, do Mussie’s action’s not warrant an investigation, at the least?
Like Duckstein’s piece, which quotes Mussie, Anderson’s is also notable for citing two other Eritrean potential smugglers and dubious characters: Meron Estefanos and Elsa Chyrum. Robyn Dixon’s recent post-tragedy article for the LA Times goes into a little more detail about the former’s alleged role in smuggling operations.
Dixon tells us that “When desperate Eritrean migrants go to sea, they keep [Meron’s] phone number with them, in case things go wrong. When their relatives go missing at sea, she’s the one family members call.”
Like Mussie, Meron seems to serve as a liaison between the smugglers and rescuers. She often bears in hand a list of the smuggled Eritrean travelers, frequently tweeting from the scene of the tragedy, arriving before humanitarians and UNHCR officers, and giving quotes to the media.
Tweeting to a BBC Field Producer from the ground following the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, she wrote, “I have been passing names to UNHCR Italy and lampadusa center so that they can check for us. Will take days to get name list.” Two days later, she tweeted the list.
Regarding Elsa Chyrum, the director of her Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRC-E), Anderson explained that she “hopes the deaths of at least 800 people…will compel European leaders to rethink their approach to Eritrea when they hold an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday.”
“She is fiercely critical of the EU’s recent decision to try to halt the exodus of Eritreans by sending development aid to the country, arguing that the money will stay in the hands of the political elite,” Anderson wrote. Again, it beggars belief how ending developmental aid can help the people of Eritrea.
In 2011, a HRC-E press release called for expanding sanctions on Eritrea as “forced conscription and endless military service have caused a mass exodus of the youth from the nation.” This position is very much in line with Dan Connell’s ‘national service equals human trafficking’ narrative. In fact, both Connell and Elsa have gone on speaking tours together under the title “Eritrean Refugees Risk Death to Escape Tyranny.”
According to the ‘Eritrean opposition’ website Asmarino.com, Elsa Chyrum apparently played a strong role in getting Sheila Keetharuth, a former colleague from Amnesty International (AI), appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea.
AI employees like Keetharuth are hardly trusted by Eritreans since AI has been seen as hostile to the state of Eritrea, which was perhaps made most obvious in a leaked confidential memo from AI headquarters in 2011 that instructed its employees in the field to “bring about change [in Eritrea] as has happened in other African and Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.”
Notably, the memo goes on to state that AI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have “received a reasonable grant from the US State Department” and should “work with the oppressed Eritrean people” as a “combined force of human rights defenders.”
Thus, these are the facts behind the oft-cited Mussie, Meron, and Elsa. The three regime-change hopefuls cum human rights activists represent a motley crew, frequently interviewed and quoted by the American and European media ad nuaseum, in search of the official Eritrean perspective.
When a tragedy strikes, they’re first on the scene. With prepared sound bites and a ‘death list’ in hand, they express their sorrow, shed tears, and immediately proceed to call for action against the Eritrean government.
As Meron recently tweeted, in reference to the alleged ‘350 Eritreans’ that died at sea, “no one is [talking] about the pain but their identity. When ever an Eritrean dies I blame the Eritrean government for it.” Such a position is hardly impartial, let alone, rational. Taking the moral high ground should not absolve one of presenting the hard facts as it only constitutes a veiled ad hominem fallacy.
When Eritreans other than the activist trio themselves give statements to the press and work with private and state entities to facilitate humanitarian operations at the scene of shipwrecks, they complain of interference by other Eritreans, suggestive of attempts to box-out other Eritreans from their current reigning monopoly on the humanitarian affairs of fellow compatriot-migrants.
For instance, Mussie told the AFP that other Eritreans on the ground in Lampedusa following the October 2013 shipwreck were “actually there to collect names, sensitive information. [They] are also there to spread disinformation, to defend the regime, to claim these people have fled their country for economic reasons.” Similar attempts to brand other Eritrean voices as ‘government agents’ have served to render them virtually non-existent in the press.
Despite the Nobel peace prize nominations and willful neglect by journalists, the actions of these “activists” over the last several years have brought to light the makings of what appears to be a multibillion dollar smuggling racket that likely involves not only long-entrenched criminals but also human rights ‘activists,’ non-governmental organizations, UNHCR, state agencies and state officials across multiple nations.
Their opportunistic use of smuggling for personal gain in the form of political gain and exploitation of migrants, potentially makes them traffickers in a broader human trafficking network—or, the traffic racket.
Part two of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” will look closer into this Eritrean trafficking racket to address the following questions: Who are the major players behind the racket and who is supporting these activists and journalists? What are the current policy changes in the EU regarding trans-Mediterranean migration? What can be expected moving forward regarding Eritrean migration?