Protest by the Eritrean diaspora highlights the repression at home and dividing lines abroad

eritrean festivalThe ties that bind diaspora Eritreans to their homeland are resilient, even among the second and third generation who lack the direct connection of their parents to their ancestral homeland. However, these feelings of solidarity with the country sit alongside increasing estrangement from the extreme dictatorship of President of Isaias Afeworki.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Eritrea’s diaspora communities organized festivals in support of the fight for self-determination. They were cultural, political events and a way to connect with each other and fundraise to support the struggle. Festivals became rituals in various European cities, especially Bologna.

Despite misgivings about internal repression and purging by the then Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) leadership, the cause of independence became a defining one for Eritreans and had a unifying effect. After the battle was won, that began to change.

After independence, the EPLF morphed into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). With the new name reality came a shift in its relationship with the diaspora. The government dashed the hopes of Eritreans and began devising creative ways of extracting resources and loyalty from communities abroad. It has created a two per cent diaspora tax and remittances have become a lifeline for the regime.

Most diaspora members have relatives still in the country they want to visit, and others want to be buried in Eritrea when they die. The government has weaponized access to the country to ensure that external dissent is kept under control. The dictatorship has used festivals to promote ideological configuration with the PFDJ, raise funds and to co-opt the Orthodox Church. Pro PFDJ festivals are often co-ordinated by embassies and loyalists to create positive publicity and enforce loyalty. In 2013, Canada did expel a PFDJ diplomat who was involved in the two per cent tax.

Recently, refugees from the Eritrean regime have begun to organize and protest the dictatorship in various Western cities and capitals targeting these festivals. The diaspora has become acutely polarized since mid-2022 with significant escalation during the summer of 2023. The protests are increasing awareness internationally, and helping some regime “supporters” overcome fear and realize that they are not serving themselves or Eritrea with their actions. There are nevertheless regime supporters who are hard-core either due to the worship of the dictator Isaias Afeworki or because they benefit as cronies. The irony is that even these supporters prefer to live as refugees than live in Eritrea under Afeworki.

The war in Tigray and Eritrea’s role in it have created a new dynamics and dividing lines amongst the diaspora. The differences in perception of the government, the divide between those born and raised in the diaspora and the newer arrivals who braved the Sahara and the Mediterranean to escape the repression are becoming increasingly apparent. Much of the fighting by Eritreans in Tigray has been done by those in the SAWA (enslavement under the guise of national service). These are often young men and women who are forcibly drafted. Once they are deployed, families are kept in the dark about their whereabouts.

The divide is splitting families apart. One young protester of the PFDJ festival at Earlscourt Park on Aug. 5 in Toronto, Yafet Mehari says that the paternal side of his family identify with PFDJ while his maternal side is anti-government. The wife and daughter of the famous Swedish Eritrean political prisoner and journalist Dawit Isaak and one brother are with the protesters while his other brother is in the PFDJ camp.

The government labels the protesting diaspora as terrorists, portraying them as traitors, Tigreans, or as instruments of foreign agents.

Nevertheless, the youth are having unprecedented impact with its campaign of protests. It remains to be seen if this might help internal resistance to emerge. Government control in Eritrea is very tight with no room for even mild criticism. Rare protests are quashed without mercy.

The Eritreans protesting are traumatized survivors either of war, or the perilous trek across the Sahara, the Mediterranean, or torture in Sinai. It is important that foreign governments like Israel understand the impossible situation of these diaspora Eritreans and support the struggle against the dictatorship or at least not become unwitting accomplices in repression.

Yohannes Woldemariam is a U.S.-based, Eritrean-born political science professor who writes about the Horn of Africa. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.