By Sara Mengistab
On March 23, 2021 Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane G. Meskel announced Eritrea would reopen schools for K to 10. This announcement came just weeks after LetEriKidsLearn and EriSat announced the March 1 rollout of their educational television program series. Schools, businesses, and some forms of public transportation have now been open in Eritrea for more than three (3) weeks and according to Eritreas Ministry of Health, surprisingly, COVID-19 cases seem to be maintaining lower new case levels than in the month of March prior to the reopening. This is concerning as Eritrea has yet to secure any vaccines.
Eritrea made the decision to forego the free COVAX vaccine rollout in February along with a handful of other African nations. This now makes it twice that Eritrea has rejected free lifesaving COVID-19 resources. Eritrea, who ranks 180/189 in the 2020 Human Development Index, was the first and only African country to reject both Jack Mas PPE distributions in March of 2020 and now the COVAX rollout in the first quarter of 2021. At the moment Eritrea has not secured any vaccines.
As of April 20, the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs lists Eritrea as a Level Four: Do Not Travel status siting: issues with Eritreas medical infrastructure and COVID-19 risks. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also suggests avoiding all travel to Eritrea stating theres an Unknown level of COVID-19 in Eritrea. The CDCs recommendation suggests that Eritrea has not fully complied with CDCs reporting requirements. They specifically say, If a destination does not provide data, their Travel Health Notice (THN) level is designated as unknown and travelers are advised to follow THN Level 4 recommendations. Level 4 is Very High.
On April 16 the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea announced commercial travel was scheduled to resume starting April 22. Meanwhile, travel between neighboring cities inside of Eritrea is still restricted. Concerns continue to grow as Eritreas reopening of commercial travel, schools, and businesses all come without an announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine rollout plan. Families are confused as international travel is open but residents from neighboring cities are restricted from travelling to other cities within Eritrea.
Keep in mind Eritrea’s Dankalia region where the Afar people have lost rights to fish in their own waters after Eritrea closed seaports to fishermen, as well as restricting all movement in and out of the region. According to reports, Eritrean and UAE forces have emptied medical facilities in the region, intercepted dozens of camels coming into the region, and blocked other forms of support coming into the region. This has left us to believe that Eritrea is strategically committing a genocide on the Afar people who, by simply existing, pose a threat to the governments mining and port leasing goals in the Dankalia region. The region is rich in many natural resources.
Eritreans and the U.S.s B1-B2 Visas
One of the most common ways Eritrean American families have been able to provide proper medical care to family members inside of Eritrea is by bringing them to the U.S. on B1-B2 visas. B2 visas specifically allow for our family members to travel for tourism, vacation (holiday), visit with friends or relatives, medical treatment, etc. and help our families reconnect with one another. However, in January 2020, under the guise of national security, the Trump Administration extended an unconstitutional ban on several countries (Eritrea included), which prevented Eritreans from travelling into America with B1-B2 visas.
But countries with B-1 and B-2 visa overstay rates of over 10% including Djibouti, Eritrea, Chad and Burundi accounted for only 11.95% of total visa overstays in fiscal year 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security data. The travel ban ignores the vast majority of visa overstays by focusing on countries’ overstay rates, rather than the number of visa overstays per country.
“By focusing on these rates, they are focusing on poor African countries,” Anastasia Tonello, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said. “These people have a hard time getting visas in the first place. They’re not going to even make a dent in the problem.”
The travel ban itself, as well as other travel restrictions against foreign countries (pre-COVID), were heavily criticized. Many officials called out Trump’s actions against immigration and asylum as politically charged strategies aimed to sway more moderate voters in his favor. Trump was not alone in his actions, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented travel restrictions in unison: closing borders to asylum-seekers, and pushing people back into harms way; and making life so intolerable in immigration detention facilities, that asylum-seekers would think twice before requesting protection in the United States.
Effects of Trump’s Deportations
In May of 2019, ABC News published an article addressing the growing issue of the then 936 Eritreans in the U.S. who had been ordered deported, including 147 convicted criminals. A large number of those convictions were the crime of seeking asylum. In 2018, Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion, a 34-year-old Eritrean whose asylum claim was rejected, was found dead in a shower area at a detention holding area during a layover at Cairos international airport en route to East Africa. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said his death was an “apparent suicide.”
Zeresenays friend Tesfom Debesai told ABC News, He explained to the U.S. government, if he gets deported, the Eritrean government will imprison him and torture him, all that kind of stuff. If he went back to this country, something was going to happen to him.
The US Embassy in Eritrea has yet to make any updates on their site regarding the lifting of restrictions under Bidens new plans. Though Biden has promised, written executive orders, and made several announcements, we have still not seen a change in travel restrictions for Eritreans. On May 3, ABC News reported Biden would increase the annual refugee cap from Trumps 15,000 up to 62,500. Biden later admitted that we would not achieve 62,500 admissions this year, blaming Trump and the previous administration. Hard to believe the Biden Administration cant reach their goal when the Washington Office on Latin America is reporting more than 100,000 asylees currently at the US-Mexico border.
You can use our Find Your Reps tool to get into contact with your local, county, state and federal representatives. Let them know you are a concerned constituent requesting immediate action be taken on Eritreas current travel ban. Explain Eritreas current COVID-19 situation and the importance of B1-B2 visas to families in and outside of Eritrea.