Four days after Italian authorities bungled a memorial service for the mostly Eritrean refugee victims of the October 3 Lampedusa shipwreck, hundreds of Eritreans staged a symbolic funeral before Italy’s parliament in remembrance of their compatriots and in protest of Monday’s service, which excluded shipwreck survivors.
Friday’s demonstration coincides with U.N. allegations of widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea. Namely a “shoot-to-kill policy” to stop fleeing Eritreans, extrajudicial killings, torture, and lack of freedom of expression, religion, assembly, and movement. Ruled with a firm grip by president Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea hasn’t held national elections since gaining independence in 1993. The U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in the east African nation, Sheila Keetharuth, cited Eritrea’s compulsory and indefinite military service, which applies to all Eritreans between the ages of 18 and 50, as a main factor driving citizens, including many children, to flee.
Despite denials from Afewerki’s administration, the consequences of Eritrea’s restrictive, highly militarized society are evident. Several hundred thousand Eritreans have fled the country in the last decade; 40,000 of those sought refuge in Israel, where they have received a less than enthusiastic welcome. According to the U.N., approximately 3,000 Eritreans flee to neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia every month. And despite the dangers of sea voyages, often undertaken in overcrowded, precarious vessels, 7,500 migrants from Eritrea – a country supposedly at peace – made the journey to Italy this year, mirroring the number of refugees making the same trip from war-torn Syria.
The exodus has Europe grappling to strike the right note over illegal migration, as fatal migrant shipwrecks and Roma controversies in Greece, Ireland, and France made headlines this month. Human rights groups have accused the E.U. of using recent migrant deaths as a pretext to tighten border controls. Despite plaintive requests from southern European countries, including Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta, that the European bloc share the demographic burden – refugees are required to apply for asylum in the first E.U. country they enter – or at least the financial one, an E.U summit on Friday failed to yield a concrete solution. Instead, the debate over a harmonized European migration policy was largely eclipsed by new revelations about the extent of U.S. spying.
Now, the bloc is set to revisit the migration question at a June 2014 summit. Not that the influx will wait. Experts predict that as Eritrea’s instability continues, and the war in Syria intensifies, the refugee flow in Europe will only accelerate. On Friday, as E.U. policy makers in Brussels discussed migrant deaths and NSA spying, Italian naval forces rescued some 700 migrants near the island of Lampedusa.