Eritrea – bordering on the Red Sea – is a land of extremes. The searing heat of its deserts and the harness of the mountains are softened by abundant valleys and a green, fertile plateau. Much the same can be said of its politics. Fierce and stubborn in their 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia that ended in May 1991, the Eritrean people briefly held the promise of a model state, with an open democracy and real hopes of prosperity.
Yet today Eritrea is among the most repressive states in Africa. Thousands of its youth, desperate to escape interminable conscription, flee the country, running the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean or being sold to people-traffickers in the Sinai.
These tragic facts are never far from the minds of the Eritrean diaspora, some 17,000 of whom have made England and Wales their home, according to the most recent census. In a flat in central London, two bouncy little girls play on the family couch. Their elder sister, keen to get on with her homework, shoos them off to bed.
For their mother, Feruz Werede, it’s the end of a long day at work. With the supper cleared away, her campaigning begins. Feruz collates a lengthy report to be sent to British politicians. She’s campaigning against a tax imposed on the diaspora by the Eritrean government. “If you don’t pay the tax – 2 per cent of all your income, in addition to the tax you already pay to the British government – you can do nothing for your family back home,” she explains.
The tax is collected from the moment any Eritrean starts working. Even students must pay £50 a year. For many in this immigrant community, this means scraping together their meagre savings, or borrowing from friends. “Even if you want to send clothes home, you have to be ‘cleared’ by the Eritrean embassy,” says Feruz. “Want to register your child or get a passport? It’s just the same!”
The tax was outlawed by the UN Security Council and her campaign, launched last month, is beginning to pay dividends. In reply to a question from Lord Dubs – Alf Dubs – the government minister, Lord Dolar Popat replied that Britain had condemned the tax and called on the Eritrean ambassador in October last year to cease using illicit means to collect it. Answering Lady Dianne Hayter, the Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Warsi explained that Eritreans were “urged” to report “any use of coercion or other illicit means” of collecting the tax to the police.
But why does Feruz spend her few spare hours fighting the government of a country she no longer lives in? She was born “in the field,” as Eritreans say. Her parents were fighters during Eritrea’s long war of independence. She grew up in the liberated zone that was under rebel control. “My parents together gave 40 years of their life to the struggle and achieved the impossible. They – and so many other Eritreans – who fought for independence did not do so for tyranny, dictatorship and one man rule,” she says angily. “This was not our dream!”
Feruz is not alone. Across London, Selam Kidane has been running another, remarkable campaign. “Freedom Friday,” as it has been called, has been using phone-banks to get through to Eritreans back home. A group of Eritreans in the diaspora, armed with nothing more than phone cards, began dialling numbers at random to convince their compatriots that they were not alone in opposing the regime.
“Freedom Friday” then hit on the idea of using the technology developed by telemarketing – robocalls. These uses a computerised autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message. Not wonderful but better than the isolation that has descended over a country that has absolutely no independent media.
Today the campaign has found means of smuggling posters and pamphlets back home. Local people paste them up whenever the regime is not looking.
In Sweden another Eritrean mother, Meron Estefanos, is probably the best-known of these feisty campaigners. She is a presenter with the Swedish-based Radio Erena, an opposition station broadcasting into Eritrea. It was while broadcasting back home that she was contacted by Eritreans attempting to find refuge in Israel. Travelling through Sudan and then into Egypt and the Sinai, they were easy pickings for people-smugglers.
Meron’s experience began with her family. In 2012, she received a phone call from her cousin, who had been kidnapped and taken into Sinai. Her captors were demanding $37,000 for her release and they didn’t just use threats. Their tactic was to put their victims on the phone to their relatives while they were being tortured.
“If you’re listening to your cousin being gang-raped or burnt – the cries, the begging… you just want to end those phone calls,” said Meron. “So I collected the money [from friends and relatives] and borrowed some.” Her cousin finally ended up in an Ethiopian refugee camp, severely burnt and deeply traumatised.
Her cousin’s plight spurred Meron to action. She has been campaigning on the issue ever since, with increasing success. She teamed up with Professor Mirjam van Reisen, a foreign policy adviser to the European Commission. Together they produced a major report on the issue: “Human Trafficking in the Sinai”. The campaign has been a considerable embarrassment to the Eritrean authorities, who like to portray the country as being fully behind President Isaias Afeworki.
Together these women have begun to dent the Eritrean regime’s sense of invulnerability. A year ago there were disturbances that shook the regime to its core, with an armoured column seizing the television station. The coup was poorly planned and failed. But the president’s prestige was badly eroded, making the activities of dissidents like Feruz, Selam and Meron increasingly important.