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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 109 (Suppl.), April 2009





Eritrea in Figures

Population: 5  million

Pop. growth rate: 3%

GDP per capita: US$977

Pop. below poverty line: 53%

Life expectancy: 54.3 years

Infant mortality: 50:1,000

HIV prevalence: 2.4%

Access to clean water: 60%

Literacy rate for population over 15: 62.5%

Internally Displaced People: 70,000 (by end-2005)

Capital: Asmara

Languages: English, Arabic, Tigrinya

Ethnic Groups: Afar, Rashaida, Bilen, kunama, Nara, Saho, Tigré, Tigrigna
Religions: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholic, Protestant, traditional religions

Geography: Dominated by extension of Ethiopian north-south highlands with jagged mountains, descending in the east to a coastal desert plain, in the northwest to mountainous terrain and in the southwest to flat to rolling plains

Border countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti

Agriculture products: sorghum, maize, wheat, barley, teff (form of grain), millet, beans, chickpeas

The Catholic Church in Eritrea

The Catholics in Eritrea are only 5% of the total population: i.e. 250,000. There are three eparchies (Oriental rite dioceses). The Catholic Churches in Eritrea and Ethiopia are under the same Episcopal Conference.

There are not refugees in Eritrea, except very few Somali (Assab) and Southern Sudanese (Haycota). The Catholic Church (The parish priest of Haycota) is involved in the socio-pastoral care of the Southern Sudanese. So there is no “National Commission for refugees, migrants and seafarers”, but there are priests taking care of the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. In different part of the world there are priests ministering to the Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholics in diaspora. The Catholic Church in Eritrea is involved in many social activities (education, healthcare, IDP’s and refugees’ cases etc...) if and when the state allows, because there are almost no independent civil society organisations or NGOs, only government-affiliated ones. In August 2004 the Catholic Bishops of Eritrea issued a pastoral letter: “Living on the Hope” to the Eritreans living abroad and to the all people of good will.  


Before independence in 1993, Eritrea has been part of a federation with Ethiopia since 1952 until it was formally annexed as a province by Ethiopia in 1962.

The annexation led to the formation of armed struggle movements (ELF & EPLF), in favour of independence for Eritrea, culminating in the taking of Asmara, Eritrea's capital, in May 1991, by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) after a series of military defeats.

Eritrea attained independence in 1993 but remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average annual per capita income of US$180.
Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia were stable until May 1998 when a border conflict escalated into a full-scale war, resulting in the death of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides.

The 1998-2000 border conflict and the ensuing stalemate over border demarcation have hampered Eritrea's socio-economic development as significant human and economic resources are being diverted to military activities.
Eritrea is still grappling with the immediate needs of reconstruction, and restoring social services.

Most of the internally displaced people have returned to their homes but are still facing extreme socio-economic insecurity, while 70,000 live in camps. The 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia displaced more than one million farmers and had a severe impact on the country's infrastructure.

Peace and security

Conflict and displacement have characterised the Eritrean social and political landscape for 40 years, with the country experiencing the longest continuous war in Africa from 1960 to the 1990s, and in 1998-2000.
The 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia claimed the lives of at least 60,000 Eritrean combatants.

After independence, Eritrea went to war with Yemen in 1995 over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea, which were eventually awarded to Yemen.
From 1998, a two-year border conflict emerged over the disputed Badme area between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The casualties have been estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000 people.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea war ended in 2000 with the signing of a cessation of hostilities accord in Algiers. The deal included the deployment of a United Nations peace-keeping force - the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea in a 25km-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) running the length of the border.

The two countries also agreed to form an independent boundary commission, comprising five lawyers appointed by both countries, whose decision on the demarcation of the disputed border would be final and binding.
The commission's ruling, in April 2002, awarded the border town of Badme, the source of the conflict, to Eritrea - a decision that Ethiopia said in November 2004 it would accept 'in principle'.

However, progress on demarcation has stalled, with the security situation dominated by residual tension between the two countries.

Frustrated at the lack of progress in resolving the dispute, Eritrea banned UNMEE flights over its territory in October 2005, forcing peacekeepers to scale back operations by more than half, and expelled the peacekeeping mission's foreign personnel and some relief agencies. 


The 30-year war in Eritrea, before independence, generated more than 130,000 refugees in Sudan, Ethiopia, and an additional 500,000 Eritreans in diaspora to the Middle East, North America, Europe and Australia.
After the border conflict with Ethiopia, especially in these 4-5 last years, at least one in four Eritreans left the country due to war-related factors, and the open-ended national military service. Many of them are young in their 20s in risky escapes across the sea or desert.

The 1998-2000 war led to the flight of almost 90,000 Eritrean refugees to Sudan, the internal displacement of more than one million and the expulsion of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean ancestry and the departure to Ethiopia of tens of thousands of 'Ethiopians' who had resided in Eritrea for generations.

As of January 2006, at least 50,000 internally displaced persons, 70 percent women and children, were living in refugee-like situations, unable to return to their villages inside the TSZ.

Today there are about 350,000 refugees in different countries. The Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees use these countries as transits to go in North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. The estimated number of Eritrean refugees  per country is as follows:

  • Sudan (Kharthoum, Kassala, Gadaref) = 250,000
  • Ethiopia (Shimelba) = 30,000
  • Kenya (Kakuma, Daadab, Nairobi) = 10,000
  • Uganda (Kampala) = 4,000
  • Lybia (refugees’ camps) = 1,700
  • Malta (refugees’ camp) = 500

All these refugees are asylum seekers in Canada, USA, Australia, or in other European countries. There are about 2,000 Eritreans and many more Ethiopians settled in Israel. In South Africa the estimated number of Eritreans is 4,000  

Democracy and governance

After the EPLF had taken Asmara from Ethiopia in 1991, the UN supervised a referendum in April 1993 in which 99.8 percent of Eritreans voted in favour of independence.

President Isaias Afewerki, leader of the EPLF, who had ruled before independence, became president. In February 1994, the EPLF reformed as a political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

Eritrea's first post-independence elections, scheduled for 1998 or 1997, were postponed indefinitely following the outbreak of hostilities with Ethiopia, consequently being rescheduled for December 2001.

However, during 2001 the likelihood of elections taking place diminished with President Afewerki assuming an increasingly authoritarian position.

 Eritrea remains a one-party state where only the PFDJ is legal. The government has also failed to implement the 1997 constitution, drafted by a constitutional assembly and ratified by referendum that respects civil and political rights including guaranteeing multiparty politics.

There has also been an increased clampdown on faith groups not willing to take part in the national conscription or carry arms, draft-evaders and army deserters due to the open-ended national army conscription; developments precipitated by the border war with Ethiopia and the great political and economic stresses this is causing.

National service of 18 months - six months of military service and 12 of development and military-related service - is obligatory for 28-40 year-olds. However, conscription has become open-ended and many who reported for service during the 1998-2000 border war still find themselves in the military.

In its quest to ensure effective defence of the country, the government has become increasingly less tolerant of conflicting views and more intrusive in individual and communal affairs.

Eritrea has also taken measures that have seriously and negatively affected the human rights of its citizens including the indefinite detention of PFDJ dissidents for criticising the non-implementation of the constitution and concentration of power in the office of the president, journalists, and others deemed threats to national security.

Eritrea has remained under de-facto emergency conditions for eight years accompanied by higher expenditure on defence.


Fr. Amanuel Mesgun, OFMCap.

Capuchin Friars

Bogani Road 20, Langata

P.O. Box 24882

Nairobi, KENYA



Sr. Hiwet Kiflemariam

Ursuline sisters

Ngong Road

P.O. Box 21497

Niarobi, KENYA