“For now, we are still circling”: Stories of Displacement from Eritrea

By: Dr. Georgia Cole

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Monday 27th January started in typical fashion for a day of data collection in Kampala, Uganda. I was there to interview Eritreans who had travelled to Uganda from the Gulf States, where they had spent anywhere between a few months and several decades working in cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah and Dubai. The aim was to identify, through their histories of migration, what role these oil-rich states played in global networks of refuge and protection.

Around 10am, I met my research assistant at Chicken Tonight for our first interview of the day. Having been severely reprimanded by a waitress the day before for doing a 2-hour interview there off the back of purchasing only four bottles of water, we ordered chips and coke for breakfast. Two young Eritrean women arrived for our interview, and we began to slowly reconstruct an account of why their parents had left Eritrea, what it had been like growing up in Saudi Arabia, and what had changed in the last few years such that thousands of Eritreans were leaving their lives in the Gulf and heading to Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Their story reinforced the many others we had already heard about the shifting situation within Saudi Arabia. In their efforts to boost employment of Saudi nationals, to diversify the economy away from oil, and to quell discontent amongst unemployed youth, authorities in Saudi have instigated several measures to push foreign workers out. Most crippling for these expatriate families was the introduction of a monthly tax for all foreign dependents and workers living within the country, which must be paid for parents and children alike. In the year it was introduced, 2016, the tax was 100 Riyal per dependent per month; in the second year it doubled to 200 Riyal, and, if families lasted until the third year, it increased again to 300 Riyal. For a family of six, that equated to £310 a month of additional payments. With many people already struggling to hold down employment given several other policies to get Saudis into jobs and foreigners out of them, this proved unaffordable. Many Eritreans were forced or chose to leave before they became trapped in Saudi Arabia with mounting levels of debt.  

Unable to return to Eritrea permanently, the two women we were interviewing had, like many others, come to Uganda. It is a country that Eritreans can enter visa-free and where the government leaves this population relatively undisturbed. But life in Uganda has its own problems, not least high unemployment. For most of the Eritreans that we spoke to within the country, Uganda constituted a waypoint on a journey with the final destination unknown.

After rounding up the interviews for the day, I headed home on a bodaboda (a motorbike taxi) to begin transcribing my almost illegible interview notes. Fieldwork is always a reminder that it is not only undergraduates who are losing the ability to write with pen and paper. Back at the hostel, I checked my phone and unusually saw a string of messages and a missed call from a young Eritrean guy that I had played football with in the U.K. for years. “It’s been a long time without talking and seeing each other. Call me if you have free time.” We exchanged a few messages. He asked if I could book the football pitch that coming weekend for the sizable group of unaccompanied Eritreans in his town, something I used to do a few times a month but which I had struggled to do regularly since moving to Cambridge. I drop him another line, in part to apologise for the sessions having slipped.

He very quickly started to explain that things were not going well for many of his Eritrean friends, despite most of them having had their refugee status or indefinite leave to remain approved. Frustrated at their lack of English, and now left largely to their own devices as they have started to turn 18, many of them, he said, were slipping into bad habits and dangerous crowds. One of the guys we had played football with for years had apparently been sent to prison in September. Shocked, I asked what had happened, and he revealed it was a charge of murder. The young man had been sentenced to twenty years for stabbing someone who had robbed him of the crack cocaine and heroin that he was dealing around the city centre.

From my hostel bed in Kampala, I googled what had happened. Sure enough, there was our friend, in numerous articles, dressed in a grey hoodie, staring blankly at the camera.

What felt most painful about seeing that photo was the knowledge that it would not tell a thousand words. For many readers, I imagined it could be summed up in just a few: another young, violent, black African man who we welcomed in as a refugee and who showed his gratitude by spreading violence on our streets. What it could never tell is everything that he and the other boys went through to get out of Eritrea – a country where at aged 17 they would have been enrolled in indefinite national service, and where basic human rights are summarily ignored by the one ruling party – and into the U.K., experiencing ordeals that have scarred them inside and out.

During our pitch-side conversations, aspects of this trauma would sneak through. On one particularly summery morning, I asked whether the guys might like to try a sport on the river, since they’d pass by boats every time they came into town. “You know, Georgia,” one guy replied, “the water is a bit hard for us after passing through the Mediterranean.” On another occasion, I was teasing a guy for having bulked up to the point where the other guys would surrender the ball to him rather than risk a collision. He wanted to become a personal trainer, he said, but he also hadn’t been able to sleep for months. The gym was the only place nearby that was open 24/7.

I also remember the time I had to take one boy aside during a match to tell him he was on his final strike and had to find a way to control his anger on the pitch. He apologised but said that he too was frustrated; he’d been a great footballer in Eritrea, but two years of moving through Sudan and Libya, and sustaining injuries from accidents, electrocutions and beatings along the way, had led him to lose his talents. As my friend said on the phone that Monday evening, the deep damage and PTSD caused by their journeys from Eritrea continue to haunt them.

Despite these boys’ situations playing out 6,000 miles from the individuals I was interviewing in Kampala, their stories are symptoms of the same fate. Eritrea is no longer a politically or economically viable home for large numbers of its citizens, causing them to escape across the borders in search of a place where they might find security and protection. A decade ago, many started going to Israel. Israel responded by building a wall to keep them out. Others went to South Sudan or the Gulf States, hoping to find jobs. Conflict in the former, and new rules to deter foreigners in the latter, have now reduced the opportunities there. Sudan and Ethiopia remain options, though many Eritreans see Sudan as unsafe following deals between the governments in Sudan, Eritrea and the European Union to reduce their ‘irregular migration’. For those who make it to Europe, the future is not necessarily brighter. Hostile policies, including a lack of support for services that would assist with integration, make the path for newly arrived asylum-seekers, and particularly those who come on the brink of adulthood, particularly challenging.

As one of the Eritrean women we interviewed in Kampala put it, “Where do you want us to go? We are just like the birds who circle around until they find a place where they can build their nest to stay.” Even for the families who had managed to build lives in Saudi Arabia, their security was easily dismantled by a government that quickly transformed them from essential workers to unwanted foreigners. And for the Eritrean boys whose flight had brought them to the U.K, the trauma of their journeys will continue to intrude, shaking their new homes in unanticipated and violent ways. For those we were interviewing in Uganda, however, newly displaced from their temporary homes in the Gulf, the woman concluded by saying that “for now, we are just circling.”

Georgia Cole is a Research Fellow at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her research in Uganda, Eritrea and the UK explores migration dynamics and diplomacy between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf States. It seeks to establish what role cities such as Riyadh and Dubai have played, and continue to play, in global systems of displacement and humanitarianism. She will soon (May 2020) be joining the University of Edinburgh to continue this work as a Chancellor’s Fellow. 

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