Eritrea and the UK

The Battle of Keren was a decisive moment for the UK and Eritrea in the Second World War, marking a turning point in the war against Italy and the beginning of the UK’s occupation of Eritrea.  The successful storming of the apparently impenetrable Italian position on high on the ridge at Keren comes to mind when contemplating the plight of many Eritreans currently languishing in the refugee camp at Calais.  The crossing to the UK may be less dangerous, but the feat must seem equally impossible.

The UK government is taking a hard-line approach to Europe’s refugee crisis – and it’s a politically intractable problem: how to balance the moral case which calls for the assistance of those in need, with the reality that immigration is a hot potato in British politics and the Conservative party cannot afford to lose votes to rivals such as UKIP.

European Commission figures show that of the 185,000 people who applied for asylum for the first time across the EU in the first three months of this year, only a very small proportion applied in the UK. Most of those lodging applications in Britain were from Pakistan, followed by Eritrea and Syria.[i] New government figures show that net migration to the UK is at record levels, and Ipsos Mori’s August issues index poll reported the highest ever level of concern about immigration – 50% of respondents gave immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. Ipsos Mori attributed this rise in concern to blanket media reports of the “migrant crisis”, creating a climate of fear, rather than a reflection of the number of migrants in the country, which have not changed significantly for many years.[ii]

However, statistics released last month showed that only a third of Eritreans that applied for asylum in the UK in the second quarter of 2015 were granted it, compared with nearly two-thirds in the previous quarter.  The reason for this sudden drop is that the government redefined the rules for Eritreans after Isaias Afwerki’s government insisted that escapees can return home if they sign an apology and pay a penalty.  The government also stated that the national service programme would be capped at four years.[iii] Considerable scepticism surrounds these promises, although the Eritrean government may actually be feeling under some pressure from this unprecedented publicity.

It is easy to criticise those against giving asylum to refugees, but for those working in menial, low paid jobs, new entrants to the market (both for jobs and housing) are a threat in a way that they just aren’t for middle class commentators who call for mercy.  Greater investment needs to be made in putting the case for assisting refugees, many of whom have a greater connection to the UK than many British people realise.  The UK’s occupation of Eritrea after the Second World War was a footnote in English history that many are totally unaware of.  The UK was a benign dictator in comparison to the Italians, yes, but we still looted most of the equipment at the port of Massawa, carrying off most of the industrial facilities as war booty when the country was clearly in need of support.  British indifference to the Ethiopian annexation and the subsequent war of independence was unsurprising.  But we can’t always deal with the world on our own terms.

[i] 6 charts and a map that show where Europe’s refugees are coming from – and the perilous journeys they are taking: Record numbers of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty are entering the EU, Lizzie Dearden, The Independent, 2 September 2015,

[ii] Migration figures: what do the numbers really mean? Although immigration causes concern among half the public, it is a key ingredient in economic success and draws in highly skilled workers, Alan Travis, The Guardian, 28  August  2015,

[iii][iii] Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea – but UK bureaucrats won’t accept its citizens are refugees, Ian Birrell, The Independent, 30 August 2015,–but-uk-bureaucrats-wont-accept-its-citizens-are-refugees-10478885.html


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