Informality and Informalization among Eritrean Refugees: Why Migration Does Not Provide a Lesson in Democracy

Informality and Informalization among Eritrean Refugees: Why Migration Does Not Provide a Lesson in Democracy

Magnus Treiber
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9675-4.ch008
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Transnational migration has important implications on the respective country of departure and its political dynamics. This article addresses informal practices and processes of informalization during migration from dictatorially ruled Eritrea in North-East-Africa. On the base of dense ethnography among refugees and migrants in neighboring Ethiopia the article discusses migration's cultural and social effects and sheds a light on the potential role of migrants in Eritrea's expected political transition. It will be argued that refugees and migrants are unable to fully liberate themselves from Eritrea's authoritarian political culture while seeking prosperity, democracy and human rights elsewhere. Instead they blunder into informal practices such as deceit, exploitation and denial of solidarity, which inevitably backfire on social and political life.
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Migration from Eritrea

Eritrea, a small African country at the shores of the Red Sea, reached formal independence only in 1993, after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had finally won a war of 30 years against neighboring Ethiopia. Eritrea has a total population of roughly six million people, plus a global Diaspora abroad that may make up another million people at best. This Diaspora originates from emigration during the 1980s and again after 2002. In the 1990s, however, Eritrea was widely considered a promising example for Africa’s progress towards development, peace and democracy. Such hopes did not come true. During the last decade the country has become internationally known for its harsh and brutal dictatorship.

Since its fall-back into undisguised dictatorship in September 2001, Eritrea has experienced enduring political and economic crises. The historic struggle for national unity – considered to be still and always under threat – has become a political cult of Eritrea’s guerilla-government under President Isaias Afewerki and justified to mute and persecute all critique and opposition. In this sense literally everything in Eritrea has become political – including the country’s coercive and practically open-ended national-service in administration or the military. This national service does not allow following individual life projects, but subjects its members for long years (women up to their mid-twenties, men up to their forties) to inadequate symbolic pay and the arbitrariness of mistrustful superiors. Certainly, Eritrea’s record of human rights violations is extraordinary – even measured by the rather low standard of comparable Third World countries. Refugees are indeed Eritrea’s main export good. Desertions from national service as well as emigration have become mass phenomena, despite draconic punishment and a shoot-to-kill-policy at the country’s borders (Hirt, & Mohammad 2013, Kibreab 2009, Hepner 2009, Treiber 2007, Treiber 2005). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently lists almost 306.000 people in its statistical category “total population of concern” and tens of thousands of refugees in both of Eritrea’s neighboring countries, Ethiopia and Sudan.1 From here refugees seek formal and informal ways into a better world that guarantees the rule of law and human rights as well as the opportunity to build up a more promising existence. Northern America and Europe are imagined to be the most attractive goals Eritrean refugees aspire to reach. Continuous catastrophes near Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean Sea, where many Eritreans have perished, show again and again which risks refugees take to make these dreams come true (Treiber 2013a).2

In order to develop an anthropological understanding of these risks and hopes, the subsequently emerging culture of migration and its potential consequences for a political future of the country, theoretical concepts such as informality and existence will be discussed.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Refugee: The category ‘refugee’ is first of all a legal label, referring to respective national law as well as to the international Geneva Convention of 1951, which forms the UNHCR’s working base. Refugees formally underlie international protection and care. From a refugee’s perspective, however, this rather ambivalent status also implies decreed passivity, indefinite waiting, administrative categorization and paternalistic control – as it has been shown by Liisa Malkki, Barbara Harrell-Bond or Michel Agier. In the case of Eritreans the international refugee status may lead to resettlement to a third country, but informal alternatives may occasionally seem more promising. On the other hand it is the formal refugee status (on the base of nationality) that morally legitimizes even informal onward-journeys and asylum-claims.

Unprivileged Migration: Migration seeks to bridge both a temporal and spatial gap, seeking for future establishment elsewhere. If migration is not privileged by lawful procedures, economic promises, comfort and social respect, but faces political and social exclusion and criminal exploitation, its underlying life project becomes an existential risk. Unprivileged migration here is a dangerous travel for one’s own sake to a better, but not a welcoming world.

Existentialism: Inspired by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre the anthropologist Michael Jackson tried to make key concepts of philosophical existentialism useful for anthropological research and theory. These focus on subjectivity and subjective experience of the outside world, on life’s processual character and its therefore inevitable gap between now and then.

Transnational Milieu: Transnationalism – as developed by Nina Glick-Schiller, Peggy Levitt and others – is not limited to the complex mutual ties between diasporas and their places of origins. The concept is also useful to describe processual migrations through different stages and stations of a specific migration and its temporal as well as spatial dimensions and interconnections. A respective milieu – that proves similar life situations, shared experiences and internal communication – consists of a local level, where people meet temporarily in cities or refugee camps and an eventually global level which connects migrants in different stations and stages on the base of electronic communication.

Informality: According to Keith Hart’s informal/formal dialectic, informality emerges in the encounter with formality. In unprivileged migration informal practices encompass bribe and corruption, false and forged documents, illegal immigration and the like. Besides these criminal offences less clear-cut practices, such as circumvention of formal rules, evasion, manipulation and mistrust, have become characteristic for the transnational migratory milieu of Eritreans. Informality and the process of informalization therefore also describe an ambivalent culture of migration.

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