Elsa Chyrum’s Speech at the Ohio University African Student Union 2014 Heroine Lecture on April 13, 2014

elsa_speechMy name is Elsa Chyrum, and I am an Eritrean human rights activist, and a Director of
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, a London based NGO which advocates for the rights of all Eritreans.

I would like first to congratulate the African Studies Programme at the Ohio University on their 50th anniversary and its achievements.  I would also like to thank the Ohio University’s African Student Union for inviting me, and hosting me during my stay in Athens. I thank all those who worked hard to make yesterday’s event successful.

In regard to my award, I am both honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award. It is special, not only because I received it on the 11th birthday of my precious daughter. It is particularly special because for me, it is an indication that we, as a society, are increasingly recognising the need to address the appalling suffering of the Eritrean people, and other people from around the world, primarily at the hands of their government, but also in countries where they run for refuge. It reaffirms my faith and endless hope in humanity; and tells me that those true heroes and heroines who are languishing in numerous dungeons or suffering intolerable mental, emotional or physical torture have not been forgotten.

I was born and brought up in Ethiopia. I was forced to leave Ethiopia during the communist regime, and a few years before the independence of Eritrea, I  became refugee in the United Kingdom. I studied accountancy, and after two years of working in accounts, I moved on to work for the British Refugee Council, and also worked for many similar organizations that provide support and advice to newly arrived refugees for 18 years.

Parallel to working full time, I was also involved in many community-based activities.

My human rights activism started in 1998, when 70,000 or more Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were inhumanly and unjustly deported from Ethiopia because of the border war between the two countries. Families were separated, and the deportees lost everything they had owned, and overnight, they became destitute. I was fully engaged in raising awareness of the plight of the deportees.

elsa_awardThe situation in Eritrea was not promising either. After 30 years of bitter war and bloodshed to free Eritrea from Ethiopian occupation, the country finally became ‘liberated’ in 1991, but instead of an end to the human rights abuses, this proved to be the beginning of a sinister and ruthless oppression from within.  It was soon after the tragic border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia flared up in May of 1998 that the nation took a turn for the worse. The war was the “national security” excuse the government used to extend its authoritarian grip on the people. The Eritrean drafted constitution was put on hold. The national election scheduled for 2001 was permanently ‘postponed’ and the National Assembly in effect nullified.

The Eritrean president closed the only University in the country (Asmara University) in 2006. What future do young people have in a country without an institution of higher learning?

Eritrea is a country where no human right is respected, be it the choice of religion, the right to a fair trial, the right to vote in free elections, the right to leave town looking for food and work, the right to lead a free civilian life without the threat of sexually molestation, ruthless torture, and even death for daring to express anything other than a blind subservience to a government that causes the starvation of its own people and forces their underfed adults to dig for gold, and helpless children to join the army while depriving them of an education. It is for those reasons that I decided to spend most of my time and energy working to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of Eritreans since 2001.

These reasons are the exact reasons that force many Africans like myself to leave the home land to migrate in search of safety, freedom, opportunities and to lead a better life.

I am here today in front of you to talk about the issue of African migration, its attraction and pitfalls.

African Migration, its Attractions and Pitfalls

Migration, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is a movement of people either within a state or across an international border. It is a population movement, encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes; it includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification1.

Throughout history all countries have experienced domestic and inter-regional migration of their populations. Similarly, migration has a long history and tradition in Africa. In fact, Africa has for long been portrayed as a continent of people on the move2. It has experienced large population movements within its borders and beyond for thousands of years. And such movements of people were driven by various factors at various times. Some were voluntary and temporary while others were forced and permanent. The contemporary demographic landscape of Africa is therefore an outcome of such a long and continuous domestic and cross-regional movement of its people.

In the pre-colonial era, population movements in Africa were associated largely with the then prevailing socio-political and ecological conditions, namely to escape from raiding parities, natural disasters and droughts, in search of new fertile farm lands and pastures etc. Those early tribal movements were comparatively unstructured and mostly occurred in groups; some were temporary while others permanent and the migrants were rather demographically undifferentiated3.

And during the European colonial era most population movements were rather internal and caused by aggressive economic policies pursued by the European colonizers. Villagers were forcefully relocated or moved out of their native lands to give way to agricultural plantations and mineral deposits by the colonizers.

A commonly known historical international mass migration of Africans was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where 9 – 12 million people were forcibly shipped to the New World from 15th to the 19th centuries to work in newly established labour intensive plantations4.  And the Trans-Sahara Slave trade, which took place from 1500 to 1900, is also believed to have shipped out some 17 million Africans to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Causes of migration in Africa

Migration in Africa, like in any other societies in the other part of the world, is a reflection of interplay of the so-called ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors of migration. The ‘push’ factors of migration are conditions that drive people to leave their homes; they are forceful and relate to the country from which a person migrates. On the other hand, the ‘pull’ factors are the favourable conditions in the developed countries that attract people towards them. They are the opposite of the ‘push’ factors. Although the role and extent of the of impact of such ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors on African migrants varies depending on the economic, social, political and environmental conditions of each country that they migrate from, both factors are however to blame for the unprecedented scale of the exodus of young out of the continent at present times.

According to a joint report on global migration released by the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) secretariat, there are about 30 million African migrants spread all over the world6. And out of these 30 million, 18.6 million are currently living in OECD countries7 and the rest live in the Middle East and other parts of the world.    

Pull Factors

A sizeable proportion of Africa’s internal and international migrations are caused by external ‘pull’ factors. Young men and women, threatened by unemployment and lack of perspectives in their home countries, have been forced to try their luck in other foreign countries. And strong economies in Western Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East, which provide better employment opportunities, higher wages and safe working conditions, better health care and education, safe and secure living environments, political and religious freedoms, have been dream destinations that attract hundreds of thousands of skilled and unskilled African migrants each year.

Due to its despairing economic and political position, Africa has, over the last few decades, been losing a large number of its most productive work force to the developed world and the trend of migration is still continuing at an alarming rate.

elsa_award_2Migration of highly trained manpower has been one of the most pressing challenges that Africa as a whole is facing today. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the continent has already lost one third of its human capital and is continuing to lose its skilled personnel at an increasing rate, with an estimated 20,000 doctors, university lecturers, engineers and other professionals leaving the continent annually since 1990s. It is believed that there are currently over 300,000 highly qualified Africans in the Diaspora, 30,000 of which have PHDs8. According to a UN and OECD joint reports, the number of tertiary educated migrants originating from Africa and living in the western countries was 2.9 million in 2010/11. And the number of tertiary educated African migrants who arrived in the western countries in the past five years only was 450,000. The immigration rate of the highly educated Africans to the western countries, which was 10.8% in 2010/11, was the highest emigration rate of highly educated persons in the world9.

And the cause of such alarming migration of such highly skilled manpower from Africa is partly due to the pulling factors in the developed countries. They are simply attracted by the lure of highly paid jobs, better working and living environments, social, political and academic freedoms etc. And these highly skilled professionals, unlike their unskilled compatriots, are more likely to migrate through normal legal channels and are thus spared from the stigma of being called ‘illegal migrants’. Illegal immigration refers to the migration of people across national borders, or the residence of foreign nationals in a country, in a way that violates the immigration laws of the destination country.

‘Push’ Factors

Crises related ‘push’ factors are the main cause of international migration in Africa today. Most countries in African have since their independence in 1960s, been marred by recurrent economic crises and social strife. The economic performance of most countries in the continent has been extremely poor, especially when prices for their main exports such as coffee, cocoa, and minerals were dropped in 1970s. From 1974 to the mid 1990s, the average economic growth in Africa was negative; reaching down to negative 1.5 percent in 1990/9410. As a result, millions of Africans have become poor and are living under abject poverty. Today, it is not surprising that out of the 49 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the world, 34 are African nations11.

The failing economies which have caused mass unemployment and extreme poverty, have indeed subjected most of African youth in a state of hopelessness and confusion. The unbearable socio-economic situations have put young Africans on cross roads, to either stay home and suffer more or move somewhere else at any cost and try their luck there. Because of this reality, it is not surprising that many young Africans are leaving their home countries in their hundreds of thousands every year.

Apart from the deteriorating economies, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have also been plagued by wars, civil and violent ethnic conflicts and social unrest for most of the last four or so decades.  At least 28 Sub-Saharan African states have been at war or civil conflicts since 1980s, and in 1996 alone, at least 14 of the 53 African countries were afflicted by armed conflicts12.

In the recent past, for example, countries including Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Congo, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and South Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe have all been involved in devastating internal and cross border wars and conflicts. Consequently, millions of people were killed; tens of millions of others were internally displaced, while millions of others fled to other countries to seek refuge and protection.

In the same way, the violent and ceaseless civil and ethnic conflicts raging in countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, DRC and Darfur region in Sudan at present have displaced millions of people in the continent and it has in turn become a source of continuous forced international migration. Furthermore, the military coups, political and religious persecutions gross human rights violations, arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions, intolerance of political dissent, lack of academic freedoms, pandemic political corruption and nepotism that have been rife in most African countriesfor decades now is another important factor of involuntary and forced migration of Africans.

Most African migrants with overseas destinations live in Europe. According to 2005 estimates of the international Organization on Migration (IOM), there were about 4.6m recorded Africans in the EU14. And as of 2007, there were an estimated 1,023,000 African-born residents in the U.S15.

Above, I have been describing the push and pull factors that drive the African non-refugees and refugees’ flow to the West. Let me focus on Eritrea both to highlight those factors and to point out that it is not necessarily the case that the push factors remain the same across the continent. While the pull factors that are driving tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe remains the same, namely a better life economically, socially and politically, the push factor remains unique to Eritrea: the totalitarian regime in Eritrea has created an extremely toxic environment for the youth.

After the 1998, border war with Ethiopia, the regime has used the “defense” pretext to put the entire population, in general, and the youth, in particular, under maximal military mobilization. Over 400,000 youths have been drafted since 1994. The National Service is officially 18 months, but many of those who joined national service in 1994 are still doing it, 20 years later,  (through no choice of their own).

The national service was primarily conceived to control the youth. First, the entire youth population has been driven out of the towns and cities of the country to make the urban environment safe for the regime. And, second, they are cordoned off in training and military camps away from power centers. And, what is more, so that no dissent would ever take place in these cordoned off areas, the entire recruits are made to toil in the regime-owned “developmental projects”. For this slave-like toil, they are paid $10 per month only, and they are forced to work up to 16 hours per day.

The magnitude of this problem could be grasped by looking at the numbers involved in the national service, and the years they are required to serve.

In a tiny nation with a population of just 4 million, the Eritrean standing army consists of about 300,000, with hundreds of thousands more serving as reserve and militia. Given the small population, this demand for maximal mobilization cannot be sustained without extending the years of military service that the recruited undergo. This is exacerbated by the fact hundreds of thousands of youth have left the country for good, either by deserting the army or by evading recruitment. That means that those who are trapped in the indefinite national service have to make up for this loss in extended years of service. As a result, even though when the national service was initially conceived the limit was one and half years, currently serving ten years or more has become the norm.

Thus, you can see that is this unique totalitarian environment that is driving the youth out of Eritrea in their hundreds of thousands – that is, unique not only to the world, but also to Africa. The only other nation in the world that uses this kind of maximal mobilization to control its population is North Korea. But unlike Eritrea, North Korea has been successful in sealing off the borders of the nation. In Eritrea though, the totalitarian climate from within, coupled with the inefficiency of the regime in sealing off the borders, has resulted in mass exodus.

Pitfalls of African Migrants

Either pushed by the conditions in their home countries or attracted by the lure of better opportunities in the Western countries, most of the thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers, who try to make their journeys to reach there, do so by taking ultimate risks with their lives and incur huge financial costs. Their quest for safety and imagined better life in most cases subjects them to a great deal of risks and vulnerabilities as most of them have to do it in a death defying circumstances.

Most of the migrants who travel from Sub-Saharan Africa – mainly from Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa have to take on very dangerous journeys across the vast Sahara desert to reach the North African countries and then take another similarly hazardous  journey to cross the Mediterranean Sea so that they can reach their destinations in Southern Europe.

Over the years, thousands of African migrants have died in the harsh Sahara deserts, where the mortality rate caused by harsh travelling conditions there is estimated be as high as 12%16, and also from dangerous sea journeys as well as the hands of criminal human traffickers and smugglers. According to a UNITED for Inter-cultural Action records, the number of migrants who died while trying to reach European  borders from  1 January 1993 to November 2013 was 17,30617. And the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that at least 2,400 migrants died in 2013 only in the regions which keep data of dead migrants.

Another substantial risk that African migrants and asylum seekers and especially those from East Africa, are facing nowadays is caused by ruthless and barbaric human traffickers and smugglers operating in Sudan and Egypt. The thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who embarked their journey to Libya or Israel have been subjected to gruesome and unspeakable abuses at the hands of some barbaric and inhumane Sudanese and Bedouin traffickers both in Sudan and the Sinai region of Egypt. Most of the estimated 70,000 African migrants and asylum seekers who entered Israel since 200618, had reached there through the Sudanese and Egyptian human traffickers and each and every one of them have somehow suffered at the hands of these savage traffickers.

Sudanese traffickers kidnap Eritreans refugees from the refugee camps in Eastern Sudan and Northern Ethiopia, and after torturing and extorting money from them, they then  sell them to Bedouin traffickers in Egypt. The Bedouin traffickers on their part keep these victims as hostages in the so-called ‘torture houses’ in the Sinai Desert for months to extort ransoms of up to $40,000 from the families or relatives of their victims. While in captivity, the destitute victims have their legs and hands chained, cruelly beaten and hung upside down, burnt with hot iron bars and cigarettes, savagely raped and others their organs harvested and killed19.

It is estimated that, in the last six years alone, some 8,000 Eritreans have lost their lives in the Sinai Desert and thousands more are maimed, physically and mentally scarred for life. Thousands more are also believed to have died in the Sahara Desert while crossing from Sudan to Libya.

Apart from the dangers posed in crossing the Sahara and the human traffickers, another risk that African migrants have to deal with before they can get to their final destination is crossing of the vast and dangerous Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of Africans have perished in the sea while trying to pursue their dreams of reaching their destinations is Western Europe.

On the 3rd of October 2013, a boat carrying African asylum seekers capsized off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and 366 Eritreans and three somalians lives were lost.  This tragic incident was just a highlight of many more reported and unreported tragic accidents that have occurred in the Mediterranean Sea in the last few years. Fortress Europe, a blog that records migrant deaths reported that more than 6,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, have died in the Sicilian Channel since 199420.  Dreams for a better life and survival of countless young African migrants and asylum seekers have tragically ended in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.

To witness such tragedies happening every single day right at the 21st century is very sad indeed for Africa in particular and for the international community at large. Although migration as an international phenomenon will continue to exist wherever and whenever the causal ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors are prevalent, the international community has the duty to help in mitigating the root causes of forced migration out of African.

And only when practical measures are taken to address the current socio-political crises in the continent, can the miseries and the suffering of African migrants be mitigated.

Let us hope for a brighter future for Africa.

Thank you


[1] IOM, Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law Series No. 25, 2011

[2] de Bruijn et al.,2001

[3] Adepoju, 1979

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade

[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1523100.stm

[6] http://www.universityworldnews.com

[7] World Migration in Figures © OECD-UNDESA October 2013

[8] http://www.aracorporation.org/files/factsandfigures.pdf

[9] http://www.oecd.org/els/mig/World-Migration-in-Figures.pdf

[10] http://www.prb.org/pdf07/62.4immigration.pdf]

[11] http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ldc2013_en.pdf

[12] http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/30/098.html

[13] David H Shinn, African Migration and the Brain Drain, June 2008

[14]D Kohnert, African Migration to Europe: Obscured Responsibilities and Common Misconceptions

[15] M Medeiros Kent. 2007. “Immigration & America’s Black Population.” Population Bulletin 62 (4)A

[16] Alfredo Bini, January 2010. En route to Europe: the perilous journey of African migrants across the Sahara Desert.

[17]  http://weblog.iom.int/blog/2013/12/20/behind-numbers


[19] http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/egypt0214_ForUpload_1_0.pdf