Long-standing tensions in the Eritrean diaspora in Canada and across the globe appear to have hit a breaking point recently, with violence sparking at several Eritrean-themed festivals between festival-goers and Eritrean protestors who say the events provide support and funds to a repressive regime.
The most recent clash between opposing Eritrean groups in Canada occurred Saturday in a northeast Calgary neighbourhood, with video footage showing men carrying long sticks and bats. Police reported some minor injuries.
The situation follows similar incidents that occurred at festivals in Toronto and Edmonton in August. Conflict has broken out during Eritrean festivals and events in other countries as well, including in Sweden and Germany. This Saturday, hundreds of Eritrean government supporters and opponents clashed violently in Tel Aviv, Israel, leading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for Eritrean migrants involved to be deported.
The festivals at the centre of many of the clashes bill themselves as cultural events, but protestors say they are organized by supporters of the Eritrean government and serve as propaganda machines to control the Eritrean diaspora in Canada and raise money for the state.
Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after nearly three decades of guerilla fighting. Isaias Afwerki, who led the independence movement, has been in power since 1991, but officially became president and head of state thirty years ago.
The country, sometimes called the ‘North Korea of Africa’, has held no elections since then, and has no independent media. The regime has faced severe criticism for human rights abuses and oppressive practices such as indefinite military conscription and arbitrary detention.
But why are tensions boiling over in the Eritrean community in Canada and across the globe now?
REACHING A BREAKING POINT
The controversy surrounding these yearly Eritrean festivals held in the diaspora is far from new – according to Awet Weldemichael, a historian and professor at Queen’s University, Eritreans who fled the country to escape persecution and suffering have long been calling for these festivals to be cancelled due to their alleged political ties.
“The Eritrean ruling party holds festivals every summer around the world wherever Eritreans are,” Weldemichael told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Wednesday, adding that it’s a “known fact” among the community that the festivals are linked to the government.
The Eritrean government has defended festivals held in the diaspora and expressed condemnation for those who have fled the country and spoken out against Eritrea, accusing them of being part of a Western plot to destabilize Eritrea.
“Complicity in attempts to disrupt decades-old Eritrean festivals using foreign thugs reflects abject failure of asylum scum,” Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel wrote in a message posted on social media on Aug. 4. He would later claim that “scum” was a typo, and that it was intended to be “asylum scam”.
He added in the Aug. 4 post that this “dysfunctional policy” only created more “solidarity of Diaspora with their homeland; &, loyalty to their government.”
There are around 31,000 Eritrean-born immigrants in Canada, according to the 2021 census, and more than 16,000 are recent immigrants who came between 2016 and 2021.
Festival-goers and organizers maintain that the festivals held in Canada and elsewhere are not political events, but simply chances for Eritrean immigrants to celebrate their culture and their history.
“This is something where we are gathering as Eritreans, it has nothing to do with our political identity,” Rora Asgodom, a long-time attendee of the Toronto festival, told CTV News Toronto in August.
“We share different views but these people believe that anything that shows we are patriotic to our country or proud of where we come from means that we support that.”
Some of the festivals have been occurring in the diaspora since before Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia, but their role has shifted over time as the regime’s influence grew stronger, Weldemichael said.
“They lost their pre-independence era significance and took on a different role, especially when the government turned repressive and authoritarian rule became the way in Eritrea.”
An Aug. 9 press release from Eritrea’s Ministry of Information praised the Toronto festival as a “graceful Eritrean community festival in Canada,” claiming that participants “underlined their commitment to increasing their continued involvement in national matters.”
Weldemichael noted that the protestors share the same culture as festival-goers, but feel these events are not ones they can feel welcome because they’re “for the regime that chased them out of their own country.
“Yes, there are cultural elements to it. But the centerpiece of these festivals are political propaganda, and (as a) fundraising avenue. And that’s what these Eritreans are protesting,” Weldemichael said. “And are their methods right? Appropriate, legal? That’s a different matter. But what they’re protesting is not the celebration of Eritrean culture.”
Although tensions have existed for years surrounding these festivals, this year has seen a startling escalation into violence.
In early August, at least nine people were injured in a west-end Toronto park during a protest at an Eritrean festival. Although it started as peaceful chanting, violence soon broke out.
People in the park told CTV News Toronto that some tents were set on fire, and police said there were reports of a man with a knife.
Around a dozen people were hurt during an Eritrean-themed event on Aug. 20 in Edmonton, with both festival organizers and protesters claiming that violence was started by the other side.
Protesters wore light blue shirts featuring an olive branch – like that on the flag of Eritrea used in the 1950s. Michael Asfha, a protester from Winnipeg, told CTV News Edmonton that the current flag of Eritrea, which the festival had used, represents a “dictatorship.”
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason for why years of trauma and strain are boiling over into violence now, Weldemichael said.
“When you let a ball (roll) down a hill, you shouldn’t be shocked when it hits the bottom, right? So that’s the snowballing thing that has been going on for years.”
But one of the triggers behind this eruption of protests could be Eritrea’s military activity in the Tigray region in Ethiopia over the past few years, he said.
A HISTORY MARKED BY WAR, PERSECUTION AND SURVEILLANCE
Eritrea’s heavy militarization is one of the driving factors behind Eritreans fleeing the country, fearing the spectre of forced military conscription.
In 1998, Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia following a border dispute, a major armed conflict which cost both countries hundreds of millions and tens of thousands of lives.
“Since then, Eritrea has been on war footing and (under a) brutal dictatorship,” Weldemichael said. “And there has not been any demobilization of Eritrean forcefully conscripted men and women.”
Once conscripted into the military, citizens can be trapped for decades with very few options for discharge, a situation the United Nations Commission of Inquiry has referred to as “enslavement.”
“Many people see no future for themselves in such a system where there’s unending military conscription and military service,” Weldemichael said. “The human rights violations that went hand in hand with this prolonged militarization became excessive and hard to bear. So many voted with their feet and fled the country.”
Although a peace agreement was reached in 2000 to officially end the war, tensions remained thick between the two countries, with differing ethnic and regional groups allying with or opposing one another on and off throughout the past few decades.
In November 2020, armed conflict broke out between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional state, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, The fighting that followed devastated the Tigray region, claiming thousands of lives and displacing millions.
“The Eritrean government was a leading actor on the side of the Ethiopian federal government and fighting the Tigrayan government, regional government within Ethiopia,” Weldemichael said.
Eritrean forces are among those who have been accused of enacting various human rights violations in Tigray, including gang-rapes, lootings and killings of civilians. Atrocities were reportedly committed on both side of the conflict, but the bulk of the charges implicated Ethiopian government troops and their allies, with one report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accusing forces of committing “ethnic cleansing” against Tigrayans in western Tigray.
The role of the Eritrean military in this civil war in Ethiopia only created a wider division between Eritreans supportive of the regime and those who stand in opposition to the regime, Weldemichael explained.
“Many Eritreans opposed the war on multiple grounds. Number one, it was that mentality of war-making right and left that drove them from their country in the first place,” he said.
“Second, this is a war that was consuming a lot of Eritrean lives and resources. And three, it was dealing devastating blows and causing atrocities and humanitarian catastrophe in the Tigray region … with whom many Eritreans sympathized.”
A peace deal ended the bulk of the fighting in Tigray in November 2022, but Eritrean troops are still occupying some areas near the border. The Guardian reported in August that citizens in these areas are alleging intimidation and looting by troops is still continuing.
Seeing the Eritrean government flexing its military power at the expense of both its people and those in Tigray may have been the “last drop in the bucket” to cause frustrations to spill over in the Eritrean diaspora, Weldemichael said.
“While there has been long, legitimate grievances of Eritreans traumatized under the ruling party in Eritrea, and feeling very traumatized by their tormentors having festivals … then there is this aspect to it, that solidarity with Tigray,” he said.
The violent clash between opposing Eritrean groups that unfolded in Calgary last Saturday is the “largest violent event to happen in our city in recent memory,” Calgary police Chief Constable Mark Neufeld said Tuesday.
When police arrived on scene in the community of Falconridge, they found an estimated 150 people. A dozen people ended up in hospital, but no charges have been laid yet.
Some of the protests in other countries have escalated even further. More than 50 people were injured in Stockholm, Sweden, when opponents of the Eritrean government clashed with festival-goers, lighting tents and booths on fire. Around 100 people were detained.
Weldemichael said that the violence and vandalism seen in the recent clash between opposing Eritrean groups in Tel Aviv, Israel, was “absolutely unacceptable,” adding that he’s concerned about the consequences for Eritrean refugees who may be at risk in Eritrea if deported.
“Eritreans around the world are known by our hard work,” Weldemichael said. “My hope is that the most recent incidents of violence don’t tar the reputation of this hard working, proud diaspora community.
“Cooler heads need to come forward, and calm the situation in their respective sides or in their respective camps. Each side needs to recognize the fact that not only do we share the same heritage, but also the same opportunities and challenges in Canada, and we share the same responsibilities as Canadians, to abide by the rule of law, to be considerate to each other and our neighbors, who may or may not be of Eritrean heritage.”
FAILING TO ADDRESS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
During an address to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, the United Nation’s deputy human rights chief warned that Eritrea has not shown any signs of addressing human rights violations that the UN, as well as other advocacy groups, have identified.
“The human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire and shows no sign of improvement,” Nada Al-Nashif stated. “It continues to be characterized by serious human rights violations, and our office continues to receive credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, inhumane conditions of detention and forced disappearances, restrictions of the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
A 2021 UN human rights report that found Eritrean Defence Force troops attacked civilians and carried out executions in Ethiopia, but as of March 2023, Eritrea has not established mechanisms for accountability, Al-Nashif said.
According to the Human Rights Watch, Eritrea punishes the family members of those who seek to avoid military conscription.
In Sept. 2022, Canada issued a travel advisory telling citizens to be vigilant following an increase in Eritrean military action against Tigray, just months before the peace deal was struck. The United Nations also noted that Eritrea called upon thousands of reservists to fight as part of the country’s pattern of military conscription.
With files from the Associated Press