The isolated African state of Eritrea has long held the unflattering reputation for being the “North Korea of Africa.” This nickname reflects the closed nature of the country, the opacity of what goes on within its borders, and the level of authoritarian control exercised by the government. Occasionally, a foreign news outlet will pick up a new story about Eritrea, based off of a development that reaches the international community’s attention, or through information that comes to light thanks to refugees or exiles. Lately, however, the frequency of such stories has seemed to increase, prompting some to wonder whether the traditionally cloistered country is becoming more open.
One piece of evidence that suggests a more open Eritrea was the acceptance of an aid shipment from the United Nations -- the first of its kind in more than 10 years. This particular shipment came from the U.N. World Food Programme through the Massawa Port in order to reach South Sudan. Reuters, citing a Western diplomat in Eritrea, reports that the usage of the port is a sign that Eritrea is softening its borders, and there is hope that this strategically situated port can aid the movement of goods between the Middle East and Africa.
Another development was the recent naming of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The “Modernist City of Africa” is notable for its Art Deco and Futurist architecture, its cafe culture, and its Italian colonial heritage. Some interpret the Eritrean government’s willingness to engage with UNESCO as a sign that it might be more open to visitors, and that the government may even be trying to attract tourists. Unsurprisingly, due to its isolation, Eritrea has had one of the lowest rates of tourism of any country in the world (potentially as few as 1,000 in 2015, although estimates vary). Yet the government involved itself in promoting Asmara’s UNESCO bid, likely in an effort to change the image of the capital city and heighten Eritrea’s status on the world stage.
Despite these signs that Eritrea may be testing the waters of international engagement, there is only so much that any outsider could know about the workings of this small, closely guarded country. The hope is that looser restrictions, more open borders, and invigorated efforts to attract tourism will allow more journalists to access the country, which will in turn bring more knowledge about the political and social realities on the ground -- and perhaps more political and economic engagement. This process will likely take a long time, however, and remains distant at present.
There exists among the international community a great deal of confusion about Eritrea. Information from the government cannot be trusted as accurate, and it is rare to find voices from the inside that are willing to share their experiences due to tight state controls, restrictions on freedoms, and very legitimate fears of reprisal. Common themes regarding Eritrea get played over and over again whenever the country is mentioned in the international press: the hope of promising Eritrean athletes who use sport to reach the outside world; the stunning architectural remains left behind by Italian colonization; terrible human rights violations; and the curiosity sparked by the very lack of information we have about Eritrea. Recent additions to the narrative, such as the naming of Asmara as a UNESCO site, only add to the mystique.
In the meantime, human-rights violations in Eritrea remain of urgent concern. Eritrean citizens face open-ended military conscription and forced labor, and the country has been repeatedly censured by the Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Due to the difficulties associated with gaining information from inside Eritrea, relatively little reporting has been done on these issues, and even less action taken to address them.
The Eritrean government certainly has reason to be reluctant about opening up to the international community and exposing the magnitude of its failure to govern humanely. Increased transparency in Eritrea, however minute, is a positive development. There is optimism that with added open borders, more trade, and increased information sharing, the international community could gain access to more Eritrean voices. Increased interaction could lead to better understanding of the political, economic, and social dynamics present in the country, which is critical for crafting more effective policy.