US citizens advised to stay out of Eritrea

Last week, (November 29th) the U.S. Department of State reissued its warnings to U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Eritrea, strongly recommending any U.S. citizens defer all travel to Eritrea. This latest comprehensive warning is an update of the Travel Warning for Eritrea issued in April, providing “additional information on security incidents, including attacks near the border with Ethiopia, and to remind U.S. citizens of ongoing security concerns in Eritrea.” It makes depressing and discouraging reading.

The warning itemises the possible problems US citizens (or Eritrean-US dual citizens) could face. The Eritrean government continues to restrict the travel of all foreign nationals. It demands any visitors, and residents including U.S. diplomats, apply ten days in advance for permission to travel outside the city limits of Asmara. Permission is rarely granted. The U.S. Embassy is therefore extremely limited in its ability to provide emergency consular assistance outside Asmara. It is not usually informed by the authorities if U.S. citizens, whether they are dual nationals or not, have been arrested or detained. In any case, the Embassy is rarely allowed consular access whatever the reason for the arrest. The warning also notes that a number of Eritrean-U.S. dual citizens have been arrested at various times and held without apparent cause. Indeed, detainees are often held for extended periods without charge or trial and conditions are harsh: “those incarcerated may be held in very small quarters without access to restrooms, bedding, food, or clean water.”

The warning cautions U.S. citizens to carry appropriate documentation with them at all times as those without evidence of their identity and military status might be taken into custody at any time: “U.S. citizens are advised to exercise caution around armed persons.” It also adds that although there have been no specific incidents of violence against U.S. citizens, the government controlled media frequently broadcasts anti-U.S. rhetoric, and this has become much louder since UN Security Council sanctions were strengthened a year ago.

U.S. citizens are strongly advised not to travel near the
Eritrean-Ethiopian border or in the Southern Red Sea region. The warning notes the presence of large numbers of Eritrean and Ethiopian troops along the border and itemises a number of incidents, including the killing of five tourists and the kidnapping of four others inside Ethiopia in January. The attack was carried out by a group trained and based in Eritrea. Two months later Ethiopian troops carried a carefully calculated and proportional response, destroying three training camps inside Eritrea. A year earlier, the warning notes, there had been bomb attacks on vehicles inside Ethiopia. In the south, the statement says Eritrean forces may have withdrawn from the territory Eritrean claims from Djibouti, but tensions along the border remain high, not least because Eritrea still refuses to admit it attacked Djibouti or even to acknowledge that it is holding some prisoners.

The State Department warns people not to sail near the Eritrean coast, visit Eritrean ports or even travel through Eritrean waters. It points out that islands along the coast may be used for military training. The Eritrean government doesn’t issue visas to people arriving by sea. Fuel and provisions are often unavailable in the port of Massawa, or in other ports. They are often scarce in Asmara as well. The statement gives examples of Yemeni, US and British ships whose sailors were detained and adds that “there are reports of additional vessels carrying nationals from other countries being detained for several months. In nearly all cases, the Eritrean government has neither given a reason for detention nor granted consular access.” The statement also points out that the port of Assab is closed to private vessels and adds that incidents of piracy were reported off Assab last year.

The State Department statement lists a number of other possible difficulties and dangers. These include landmines and unexploded ordnance, described as “serious problem throughout the country.” Many of these date back to earlier conflicts but some have been more recently laid by opposition groups. Crime in Asmara has increased as a result of deteriorating economic conditions and there are persistent shortages of food, water, and fuel as well as rapid price inflation. The warning notes that “the combination of forced, open-ended, low-paying, national service for many Eritreans and severe
unemployment” has led to a growth in criminal activity in peoples’ efforts to support their families. It also points out that
telecommunication options are limited; international cell phones do not work on Eritrean networks, and local cell service is tightly controlled by the Eritrean government as well as difficult to obtain. Internet cafés are rare and hours are limited, and internet service is limited and slow.

The State Department warning also points out that U.S. citizens choosing to travel to Eritrea despite all this must obtain an Eritrean visa in advance. Those arriving without a visa are generally refused admission and returned on the next flight to their point of origin, but in some cases they may be jailed for several months after arriving without a visa. Eritrean-U.S. dual citizens who enter Eritrea with an Eritrean ID card may face other difficulties, including problems in obtaining the necessary permission to exit the country legally. In fact, in numerous cases, dual Eritrean-U.S. citizens have been prevented from leaving, again without any reasons given.

* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – Dec. 7, 2012 issue, titled “US citizens advised to stay out of Eritrea”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

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