Gloucester City Hall
Refugees, Migrants and Gated Nations: The Eritrean Experience
As refugees and migrants pour into Europe and North America at record rates, the responses range from building razor-wire fences to block their paths to welcoming them in and offering them sanctuary. Cape Ann Forum chair Dan Connell will talk about the dangerous desert and sea routes taken by Eritreans, one of the largest groups reaching Europe.
“Thousands risk their lives every month to escape a suffocating dictatorship, only to face the possibility of kidnapping and torture by human traffickers, anonymous deaths in the Sahara or crossing the Mediterranean, and more,” says Connell. “Then comes the disheartening effort to get asylum from countries calling them ‘economic migrants’ or infiltrators’ and locking them out.”
Over the past 14 months, Connell has interviewed hundreds of refugees on five continents, from Africa, Europe and the Middle East to Ecuador, Panama and Mexico. “The first thing you notice in the camps is the large number of young men and women,” he says. “Eritrea, a country of barely 5 million, is losing an entire generation who say all they want is freedom.”
Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war, but its president, a former army commander, refused to accept a new constitution or hold national elections. When he was challenged, he arrested his critics and shut down the press. Today, Eritrea competes with North Korea and Turkmenistan for last place on most assessments of human rights and has become one of the largest producers of asylum-seekers in the world.
Connell, an East Gloucester resident who founded the Cape Ann Forum in 2001, is a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Center and a retired lecturer in journalism and African studies at Simmons College. He has written about Eritrea for nearly 40 years, covering its independence war and the transition to statehood for numerous print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Europe before he was ousted for criticizing the regime’s human rights abuses in 2002.
He is also the founder and former director of the Boston-based humanitarian agency Grassroots International and a contributing editor for the Washington-based quarterly journal Middle East Report. Among his books are Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (1997), Rethinking Revolution: New Strategies for Democracy & Social Justice (2002) and Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners (2005). He is now working on a book on the refugee crisis.
“The ultimate solution to this crisis is obviously changing the situation at the source, but there are many things that can be done within Africa to protect those who flee and offer them alternatives to these high-risk journeys, from better security in the camps to opportunities for education, training and jobs,” says Connell, who adds that sharp drops in funding for such programs this year is part of what pushes the refugees to keep moving.