A fortunate few of the Eritrean refugees manage to arrive in Western Europe or North America. They may arrive as official “refugees” — as designated and then referred to welcoming countries around the world by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — although most countries accept no Eritreans at all, and those who do accept Eritreans place a limit on the numbers who may come. Individuals who come as refugees are entitled to and usually need to receive certain social services from the governments of the countries of refuge. The United States, for example, has accepted between 1300 and 2600 Eritrean refugees per year since 2010. It provides them with social services through a network of over 200 non-profit refugee agencies around the country, many of them religiously affiliated. But overcoming language barriers, finding housing and work in troubled economies, and otherwise learning to live within a strange and highly modern environment are challenges that most refugees face and that the refugee agencies alone are unable to fully resolve.
Some desperate Eritreans seek to avoid the indefinite, dismal existence that refugee camp life offers in Ethiopia or Sudan, preferring instead – or from the camps – to hazard a journey into Western or other countries without permission. Those who forego the camps may not have an opportunity to be officially designated as “refugees” by UNHCR. Rather, they may escape directly from Eritrea by purporting to be regime loyalists, obtaining exit visas for the conduct of personal or professional missions abroad, and then defecting to the country to which they have travelled. Or from Ethiopia or Sudan they may steal into another country in contravention of that country’s immigration laws, such as somehow managing to get smuggled to Mexico and then crossing the border into the United States, or (far more commonly) taking a smuggler’s ferry from Libya across the Mediterranean to one of Italy’s southerly islands. Those who pursue the Mediterranean crossing are often beaten, tortured, robbed, extorted for money, enslaved or raped by the smugglers as they move through Sudan and Libya toward Europe.
Whether defecting or stealing in, they often apply for “asylum” – protection and durable legal status – from the government of the country to which they have fled, on grounds of having a “well-founded fear” of harm or persecution for political or social reasons, as defined by international law. An asylum seeker can benefit greatly by receiving private legal assistance in pursuing his or her plea for safety with the government of the country of refuge. But private legal resources are not readily available to most refugees. And if they lose their asylum claims, they can be deported to Eritrea to face torture or death. In the United States, several hundred Eritreans seek asylum every year, many of them after being apprehended upon crossing the border from Mexico. Most of those prevail in their asylum claims; but some — commonly because they lack legal representation and/or because their cases are heard by judges generally indisposed to granting asylum — lose their cases and are slated for deportation. The America Team’s guidance in support of Eritreans’ asylum claims in the United States appears Here.
Many refugees leaving Eritrea and its neighboring states seek (sometimes circuitously) to end up in the West – where the economies, however troubled, hold out hope for some form of employment, and where asylum procedures are well established. Other Eritrean refugees, however, find themselves in Eastern Europe or countries across the Middle East, where they often are not welcome, not protected by international law, not given an opportunity to seek asylum, sometimes imprisoned, and sometimes returned (or threatened with return) to Eritrea. These individuals live in acute discomfort and fear.
The Eritrean government considers its worldwide expatriates – even refugees and asylum seekers who have fled the country – to continue to owe civic obligations to the Eritrean state. Secret Eritrean governmental agents pervade many countries of refuge, including in North America and Western Europe. There they have pressed the expatriates to obtain new government I.D. cards for which the expatriates must disclose extensive personal information; they have sought to control local Eritrean Orthodox churches; and they have intimidated the expatriates into paying an annual two percent income tax to the Eritrean regime, under threat of imposing crushing fines and imprisonment on their families back home. Several Western governments have outlawed the intimidation and the tax collection, but the practice continues.