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15 July 2020
Mr António Guterres
405 East 42nd Street
NY, 10017, USA
Dear Secretary General,
An Appeal to the UN to prevent imminent starvation and a humanitarian crisis in Eritrea
For the last 20 years, following the 1998-2000 unnecessary and senseless border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that left more than 100,000 people dead, the Eritrean people have lived in a state of “no-war and no-peace”. The closure of the border between the two countries hindered economic and trade cooperation that has hugely affected the Eritrean economy. The peace agreement between the two countries which you witnessed in Jeddah in September 2018, has proved illusory. The apparent reconciliation has provided few benefits for the people of Eritrea, with the border closed once more and no movements to end the appalling human rights abuses that so scar our nation.
The Eritrean government’s erratic relations with the Sudan and Djibouti has encouraged an illegal/ contraband trade between the three nations rather than a proper and legitimate trade that benefits their respective people. Furthermore, the Yemeni conflict has had a huge and adverse impact on the Southern Red Sea Zone locals and the fishermen who depend on regional markets for their livelihood. Consequently, our people continue to live in a dire economic climate that has worsened with the outbreak of COVID-19.
The regime’s futile military and diplomatic adventures has deprived the people of Eritrea of basic economic and trade opportunities. The regime’s economic (monopolistic) policies have denied the people economic interactions with neighbouring countries and has brought both private investments and free trade to a standstill. The economy is in a state of meltdown and living conditions of the Eritrean people is now even worse than it was during the Ethiopian occupation. As a result of these disastrous policies:
- The Eritrean people live in abject poverty that is man-made and deliberately imposed on them by the government for its own political ends. The domestic economic policies that impede development and food security and the open-ended national service has immobilised the most productive members of our society. As the UN has documented on many occasions the appalling impact of the Eritrean government’s policy of indefinite, mandatory national service. Many young adults have been conscripted to work in slave-like conditions for decades. These conscripts are unable to support themselves or their families, and have in effect become destitute; and
- In a society of largely farmers and pastoralists, the youth are the backbone of economic activity. The absence of the youth from their farms because they are trapped in national service has left many families exposed to hunger, starvation and sadly even death.
Ordinary men and women are deprived of a normal life in their own country. Deprived of basic human rights and trapped in destitution by inept economic and political policies, has driven a huge exodus from the country. Eritrea has, over the last decade, consistently produced some of the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, exceeding those countries that are trapped in civil wars, such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Eritrea’s self-imposed international isolation and its refusal to co-operate with many international agencies and NGO’s has exacerbated the plight of the Eritrean people with the outbreak of COVID-19. The government reports that COVID-19 spread in the country is low and no life have yet been lost as a result of the pandemic. This complacent view is challenged by the findings of the Surgo Foundation, which suggests that Eritrea is – and we quote: “the fifth most vulnerable country in East Africa”. It ranks among the top 10 most vulnerable countries for household crowding and sanitation, health systems strength, and population over 65. Eritrea has limited health capacity, with only 12 hospital beds per 10,000 people, and 6.3 health care workers (doctors, nurses, midwives) per 10,000 people – making public health and social distancing measures critical.”
The government continues to impose a lockdown on the population, while rejecting international medical aid. The regime is not using the opportunity provided by the low infection rates to implement precautionary measures to curb the spread of the virus in the event of a major outbreak. The many thousands trapped in the country’s notorious prisons have no chance of avoiding the virus, should it take hold in any of the jails. These risks are also faced by conscripts drafted into the military training programme.
Despite these risks the government is using the COVID-19 to make life even more difficult for the people, and the deliberate and prolonged lockdown has already led to economic hardship and starvation. Unless the international community intervenes, many innocent lives will be lost.
The government inaction poses three major risks for the Eritrean people:
- Lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and awareness of COVID-19. This could potentially lead to a major outbreak of the virus in the country that the government is ill equipped and unwilling to control;
- Lack of basic necessities such as drinking water and electricity. Let alone to wash their hands frequently in line with WHO recommendations, the people of Eritrea do not have sufficient drinking water. Electricity, often intermittent, is a luxury many of our fellow citizens cannot access or afford;
- Acute shortage of food. Local markets are unable to provide basic food supplies. Even people with money (and there are not many of them in Eritrea) are unable to buy the necessities for their daily living. People are in a desperate plight, whether they have money or not, with the government blatantly uninterested in their plight.
The ruling party, which is responsible for wrecking the economy, also has no health service plans to deal with COVID-19 major outbreak. Effective and treasured medical facilities run by the Catholic church have been seized by the government, despite protests from the local populations that they served.
The government is incapable and unwilling to meet the emerging health crisis and the consequent economic difficulties, hence our people are exposed to starvation and death. To make matters worse, the government has refused to accept PPE aid and it has failed to appeal for food aid from the international community. This failure to appeal to the international community demonstrates the government’s intention to starve the Eritrean people into submission. The government is using hunger as a weapon to prolong its relentless dictatorship over the people of Eritrea.
Unless the international community acts urgently, we fear that the combination of starvation and COVID-19 will produce a death toll on an appalling scale. Our people have nowhere to turn to but to the nation states that you represent. It is critical that the United Nations intervenes to stop the deliberate starvation and death of the Eritrean people.
To this end, we request the UN to urgently take the following steps:
- send a Special Envoy to thoroughly investigate the economic crisis and the threat of man-made starvation in Eritrea;
- make the findings of the Envoy’s investigation public;
- allocate emergency aid to Eritrea and urgently affirm its readiness to help the people of Eritrea in their hour of need;
- secure full access to seaports and airports to deliver food aid directly to the people; and
- lead and coordinate efforts by the international community to put pressure on the Eritrean government to cooperate with an international food aid distribution programme.
We, the undersigned, representing Eritrean civic associations, movements, concerned Eritrean citizens in diaspora and international friends of Eritrea demand that the UN looks into and addresses the plight of the Eritrean people as a matter of urgency.
We look forward to receiving your response.
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