Eritrean Identity and Migration Discourse as Shaped by Indefinite National Service and Education Reforms


To escape the authoritarian government under President Isaias Afwerki, evade forced conscription, and/or find economic opportunities, an estimated 5,000 people flee Eritrea every month.

Brief Overview of Eritrea’s Political History

In 1941, British forces occupied Eritrea, and Britain then administered Eritrea as a United Nations (UN) trust territory until 1952, when the UN federated Eritrea with Ethiopia. In 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) began its fight for Eritrean independence, continuing after the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea in 1962. In the 1970s, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) separated from the ELF and “established a stronghold among Eritrean war refugees by extending its mass organizations to all countries with a significant Eritrean exile population.” In 1991, the EPLF beat Ethiopia’s army, replacing the Ethiopian-run regime that had been in power since 1952.

In May 1991, the EPLF leader, Isaias Afwerki, declared that the EPLF would act as a provisional government, and with its 1993 referendum the provisional government declared Eritrea an independent state. With 1994, came the first post-liberation congress, and the EPLF transitioned into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). After Eritrea’s liberation struggle, the EPLF leadership and most political elites, despite criticisms from former ELF leaders and civil society, embraced the idea of guided democracy. The 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia displaced over half a million Eritreans, and contributed to the outflow of refugees as well as “an economic and political crisis of citizenship.”

In 2001, when a group of elite PFDJ members, the G15, called for political reform, Afwerki, now President of Eritrea, arrested 11 of the 15 as well as significant numbers of journalists. Elections were suspended, and the 1997 constitution, which discussed the political future of the state and had yet to be implemented, literally disappeared. Since then, Afwerki has allowed no opposition or challenge to his rule.

The Eritrean government lacks regional and international allies and has used it bouts of conflict with Ethiopia to justify its lack of democratization, since it is perpetually suspended in a “no war, no peace” environment. Policies intended to modernize the state ultimately prevented economic growth and led to political instability. In his 2013 essay, “Introduction: Post-Liberation Eritrea,” Tekle Woldemikael uses Schmitt and Agamben’s idea of a “state of exception” in which “the sovereign exceeds the rule of law for the public good in a state of emergency” to describe Eritrea. In a state of exception, citizenship is “narrowly constructed” to include the members of the ruling elite; meanwhile, the remainder of the population is kept “at the level of bare existence.”

Woldemikael argues that Eritrea’s state of emergency began with its colonization, which produced an amalgamation of “different ethnicities, histories, religions, and cultures that did not consider themselves part of a single national entity.” Citing Mahmood Mamdani’s dichotomy between “citizens” and “subjects,” he explains how a hierarchy developed within the Eritrean population that is reflected in the diaspora, and is characterized by patron-client relations. As ruler, Afwerki created a hierarchy that “ranges from what may be called super citizenship for the top echelons of the government and party members, to local persons’ status as subjects, with few rights and little chance of upward mobility.”

Woldemikael claims that, with slight revision to Mamdani’s framework—due the effects of globalization and the information revolution—Eritrea’s distinction between state and society parallels the reproduction of the citizen-and-subject social hierarchies common across post-colonial African states. Citizenship is linked to sacrifice, and martyrs, he writes, have become “a symbol of Eritrean culture.” Full citizenship, which is reserved for party members, equates to enjoying civil, political, and economic rights, while the rest of society are subjects of the state and are not granted these rights. Citizens include former guerrilla fighters, or tegadelti, and subjects include the masses, or hafash, who “were not members of the EPLF and are not members of the new party, PFDJ (i.e., civilians in Eritrea and in the diaspora)” who are often referred to as gebar, or taxpayers by the government.

According to Woldemikael, the tegadelti “receive a higher salary, better housing, and special treatment for services and goods in all government institutions,” dominating government positions despite representing a small percentage of the population. Tegadelti are divided between the oligarchy, or laalewot halefti (“higher authority”), and the rest of the former soldiers considered to have sacrificed their youth for the nation. They are privileged through patron-client relations, which are dependent on “loyalty, friendship, acquaintance, and future favors for service rendered.” Subjects are divided between the locals and diaspora, who are accorded a higher status than locals.

The lowest class of individual in Eritrea is composed of those who fled to avoid forced labour and conscription; however, if these refugees, or segre-dob (“those who crossed the border”), later achieve prosperity elsewhere and refrain from condemning the Eritrean government, they can become respected diaspora members within Eritrea. This process takes a considerable amount of time; today’s respected diaspora members consist of those who fled in the 1970s and 1980s and have since become professionally successful. Diaspora members who do criticize the government are likely to be arrested and possibly tortured if they return. Woldemikael’s analysis, nonetheless, excludes a discussion of gender; however, women and gender-nonconforming groups have been targeted by the policies advanced by the state of exception, which enforces a strict gender binary. Additionally, a significant number of women tegadelti have not enjoyed the same privileges as their male counterparts.

According to a June 2015 United Nations report, major human rights abuses perpetrated by the Eritrean government and military include: arbitrary arrests and detentions; torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings; violations of various freedoms, including those of expression, association and assembly, religion and belief, and movement. Woldemikael characterizes Eritrea’s refugee crisis as a “stealth revolution,” or selahta maabel, stating “young people leaving the country will prevent the state from reproducing itself in the future.” Political change, however, remains to be seen.

Contextualizing Eritrean Migration

While current and detailed disaggregated data is not readily available, UN data concerning the total number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean during the first 9 months of 2016 indicates that more than 300,000 people have attempted the journey. In the first 7 months of 2016, 11,564 Eritreans arrived in Italy. Within the same timeframe, European Union (EU) countries, Italy included, fielded 17,810 asylum applications from Eritreans. As at September 2016, more than 90 per cent of Eritrean asylum seekers were granted asylum in the EU.

It is estimated that 9 per cent (400,000 people) of the Eritrean population have left Eritrea, a figure that does not reflect the number of people who died or were stranded en route. The number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe quadrupled between 2011 and 2015, leaving Eritreans at the crux of EU debates concerning who should be granted refugee status. This is especially worrying, as according to Matina Stevis and Joe Parkinson in the Wall Street Journal, “[r]elative to its population, Eritrea has the biggest group of refugees who are unaccompanied minors.”

Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign

In 2001, a spontaneous armed revolt at Sawa military training camp was brutally put down by the government. According to Magnus Treiber’s “Dreaming of a Good Life— Young Urban Refugees from Eritrea between Refusal of Politics and Political Asylum,” this incident may have influenced the creation of a programme to purportedly educate recruits and instil them with national pride. In 2002, two years after Eritrea’s war with Ethiopia ended, the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign (WYDC) was instituted in Eritrea. Warsai, means ‘inheritor’ or ‘follower’ and yikealo, a term used to denote the generation of fighters, means a wise elder; the name is apropos given that the campaign was promoted as a passing on of the older generation’s values of duty and honour.

In a working paper for the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Nicole Hirt and Abdulkader Saleh Mohammed explain that under the WYDC, Eritrean youth are required to serve in the national service for 18 months; however, in practice the service is indefinite. This programme, which initially held widespread support, stems from the 1991 Proclamation on National Service, in which everyone, men and women alike, aged 18 to 40, was expected to undergo 6 months of military training and another 12 of development and reconstruction projects. In 1998, before the beginning of the war, those who completed their service were remobilized, and since that time, excluding some selective releases from service, especially of women, there has been no comprehensive demobilization effort.

All students are required to attend ‘grade 12’ at Sawa, which is reported to have extremely abusive conditions. Reports of torture and the sexual abuse of female soldiers are widespread; other complaints include harassment, boredom, forced marching, forced labour, arbitrary imprisonment in shipping containers or underground holes, suicides, suicide missions, and executions. The government claimed that the educational reforms of the WYDC were created to prevent “wastage,” which referred to the larger number of students who repeated grade levels, did not complete high school, or had no opportunity for higher education. The Ministry of Education asserted that the previous curriculum was too rigorous, exacerbating wastage; however, Eritreans recognized the states’ need to forcibly recruit students.

Knowing that they would be sent to Sawa for 12th grade, students reportedly lost motivation and exhibited “poor behavior, chronic truancy, and poor academic performance.” Upon completion of their training, youths typically work on infrastructure projects, cash-crop farms, and projects for party-owned construction firms; they receive a negligible salary of 500 nakfa per month, approximately 30 US dollars, which is not enough to provide for their individual needs let alone those of a family.

National service greatly disrupts society in that it inhibits traditional norms; “collective life under military discipline” is no substitute for “community-oriented living.” Aspirations deemed normal by society, such as starting a family and providing for them, seeking higher education, and finding personally fulfilling employment, are unobtainable. Instead, extra money is obtained through illegal means and reliance upon diaspora connections. High rates of suicide among national service participants indicate the dissolution of societal support mechanisms.

To evade national service, Eritrean youths employ a variety of methods. Many refuse to register for military service at the age of 18 or, if they do join, they do not report back to their positions after taking their annual holiday leave. These individuals must then abscond from security agents and avoid regular military roundups. Some students are selected to continue their education at the university level, as well, but they are the lucky few. Since women over the age of 27, married women, and women with children are usually exempt from the service (this does not mean that exemptions are always respected), female students often marry early and get pregnant (whether married or not) in order not to serve. Others, according to Hirt and Mohammed, purposefully fail their grade 11 exams so that they cannot advance to grade 12. Once the government realized this was happening, they quickly made it almost impossible to fail. These avoidance strategies are policed by military intelligence officers, who have pervaded society.

Education in Eritrea

In 1991, after gaining independence, Eritrea promised to universalize primary education and improve its national literacy rate. At this time, 84 per cent of its existing 190 schools were in serious disrepair after decades of war. The location of schools was also unevenly distributed with the number of secondary schools in the highlands significantly higher than in the lowlands. As of 2009, 1,100 schools existed in the country. Tertiary institutes, many of which were created in 2004-2005, include programmes in technology, science, agriculture, business, etc.

Despite Eritrea’s 2003 Educational Reform Policy, which declared education a fundamental right, gender disparities exist at all educational levels, with more male Eritreans enrolled than female Eritreans at the national level. It is estimated that only 50 per cent of children ages six to eleven attend elementary school (first to fifth grade), around 40 per cent of children ages 12-14 attend grades 6-12, and about 25 per cent of adolescents ages fifteen to eighteen attend grades 9-12. The following percentages estimate the number of male and female students enrolled in the given educational levels as reported by Eritrea’s Ministry of Education: 52.6% male and 47.4% female in nursery and kindergartens; 55.7% male and 44.3% female in elementary schools; 60 per cent male and 40 per cent female in middle schools; 66.6% male and 33 per cent female in secondary schools; and 84.6% male and 15.4% female in vocational and technical schools.

Statistics provided by the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) do not match those provided by the Ministry. UNICEF statistics for the period between 2008-2012 show pre-primary school gross enrolment at 15.2% for males and 14.7% for females; primary school gross enrolment at 51 per cent for males and 42.1% for females and net enrolment at 39.6% for males and 34.2% for females; secondary school net enrolment at 31.7% for males and 25.4% for females. Since Eritrea is extremely closed off and data collection within the country is impossible to verify, accurate numbers are unknown. Both sets of data, however, point to gender disparities. Between 1991 and 2003, the student population increased by approximately 250 per cent, but the gap between male and female students increased from 4 per cent to 33 per cent. From 1991 to 2005, female enrolment in primary through secondary schools dropped in relation to male enrolment. Reportedly, 38 per cent of girls leave school due to marriage and 10 per cent stay home to care for siblings and complete domestic tasks. Livelihood and educational opportunities within Eritrea are extremely limited by the state and cultural practices of punishment. Students are not motivated to learn, and teachers are expected to produce high turnover rates from grade to grade.

Referencing Michel Foucault, in “Avoiding Wastage by Making Soldiers: Technologies of the State and the Imagination of the Educated Nation,” Jennifer Riggan observes that schools “through the regulation of space, time, and body” facilitate surveillance and observation. Sawa created a mechanism through which students could be named and tracked by the government; failure to comply with a national service obligation precludes youth from applying for specific services and jobs. Furthermore, Triber’s “Dreaming of a Good Life…” details how young adults are kept “in a state of delayed adolescence for an unpredictable period of time, no matter whether they are assigned to the army or to civil bureaucracy, or even whether they become deserters” because “[v]ocational training and continuing academic education, economic independence or the founding of a family all remain dreams.” Without the ability to protest freely or challenge the current political and social order, these individuals seek opportunities outside of the formal economy and outside of Eritrea. In fact, migration narratives and discussions of social hierarchies, which privilege the diaspora, have shaped Eritrean identity in terms of individual aspirations and individual perceptions of nationalist responsibilities.

A Re-imagining of National Duty

Riggan’s research on debates among Eritrean grade 11 students concerning national duty provides valuable insight into the ways in which Eritreans conceptualize emigration as a national duty. Conducted in 2003, and summarized in “Imagining Emigration: Debating National Duty in Eritrean Classrooms,” her research is reflective of Eritrea’s new educational policy and students’ realization that “the state was radically altering their life trajectory.” These students had this debate knowing that the following school year would be spent at Sawa. Students overwhelmingly presented education as a method of developing the nation; from where this education comes and whom it benefits, however, were debated. Interestingly, she notes, “No one refuted the assertion that education in Eritrea was poor, but many argued against the idea that knowledge from another country could successfully develop Eritrea.”

When asked the question, “Is it better to emigrate from your country or stay in your country?” Eritrean students provided a range of answers using a vocabulary of sacrifice and responsibility to defend their arguments. Some of the students’ answers are included below; each bullet point represents the ideas of one student unless otherwise noted:

  • “Life without country is too difficult;” “the word migration means spoiling culture and religion” (to which Riggan notes: “A few students nodded and quietly called out, “Yes!” while “Other students shook their heads…”
  • Migration provides a “new life” and enables them to “get a good job”
  • “When your country has harsh conditions and when leaders are oppressing their people, what does it mean to have a country? If you live in the US for three to five years you become a citizen and then you can do what you want.” (To which Riggan notes: “half the class cheered”)
  • In response to one student saying he would like to receive his education abroad and then return to Eritrea to help develop the country, another student responded by saying that Eritrea could be like Europe tomorrow and “If many of the young people leave, who is going to develop the country?” To which another student responded, “You can’t develop your country by staying because you will be ignorant if you stay here. There is no education here.”
  • Referring to economic conditions in America, one student said, “If you leave who will feed you? It’s better to stay home than to be hungry.”
  • “When we go abroad, we’re going to get something. Lack of food is the first problem that makes people go away. If you go there, people will help you; here, no one helps you…There you can earn a little money and have a peaceful mind.” This student said that he could earn money as a “sweeper” abroad and then acquire skills and find better employment. Another student responded to this by saying, “In America, they will feed you but won’t give you skills to develop your country: they will only take your labour.”
  • “If people in this country think only of their stomach, there will be no development. If everyone leaves, what will the next generations do? I think it is better to live here.”
  • “It’s not about stomach: it’s about knowledge.”
  • “Are people in developed countries going to other countries to learn? No! They get their knowledge from their own country, and then come to exploit developing countries.”

While Riggan provides some analysis of each of these responses, what is important to note is the emphasis placed on culture and betrayal, which align with students’ repetition of national rhetoric; and choice and opportunity, which are used in students’ reframing of national duty. The discourse was also framed within the context of what was best for the nation and what was best for the individual and whether the two could be reconciled; both leaving and staying can be seen as sacrifice when framed accordingly, as both include hardships. Riggan observed that throughout the fifty-minute class, “the atmosphere in the classroom became increasingly raucous.” The creation of a “playful public sphere, which departed from both the government-dominated public voice in Eritrea and the diasporic public spheres in which modalities of being Eritrean tend to become polarized,” enabled students to grapple with prevailing narratives and reimagine them. Riggan frames the reworking of the definition of national duty within the context of Eritrea’s “policy of graduated citizenship,” in which Eritreans living in Eritrea are required to participate in national service indefinitely without full citizenship rights while the Eritrean diaspora are “exempt from national service and enjoy the full benefit of citizenship.” This encourages migration, “not only to escape repressive conditions, but to serve the nation and, indeed, to be Eritrean in a different way.” Encouraged by what Riggan describes as “state-produced narratives of nationalism that cast members of the diaspora as model citizens,” students created new characterizations of national duty. As educated members of society, Riggan argues that these students already perceived themselves as “a distinct type of citizen” “who should have the right to travel and advance.”

Riggan explains that the financial support of the diaspora during the border war was “regularly reported on Eritrean television, portraying the members of the diaspora as ideal citizens willing to make sacrifices for their country;” their sacrifices, she notes, “were publicly depicted as being more significant.” While media stories often revered members of the diaspora made famous and elevated them to become symbols of “a transnational nationalism,” according to Riggan, these stories also provided Eritreans living in Eritrea with examples of “lifestyle[s] that could not be attained…without leaving the country.” Students acknowledged this tension in the debate: when one student mentioned that the diaspora has financially supported Eritrea, other students remarked that the sacrifice of one’s life (whether as a martyr in the war or as a citizen dedicated to national service was unspecified; most likely the student meant both) was more significant than contributions of money. The Eritrean state has, thus, created a national identity of sacrifice that can be contrived of very differently by the Eritrean people. With their arguments saturated in nationalism, students justified leaving Eritrea as a means of later supporting the state or as a result of the failure of the state to provide for them. Other students insisted that development must originate from within Eritrea. Both discourses leave intact students’ loyalty to Eritrea; they acknowledge the pitfalls of the state and hope to ameliorate its future in some way.

Unfortunately, Riggan does not consistently identify whether the students whose quotes she includes are young men or women. There is no discussion of the students’ ethnic or socio-economic groups, either. Individuals will always have varying perspectives, but it would be helpful to know if specific groups were more likely to support or reject migration as an act of nationalism. What creates the divides in student opinion, and how would a similar debate sound now, in 2017? Would more students be in favour of migration? How are student opinions dependent on their relationships? For example, are students whose parents inhabit a higher social standing more or less likely to support migration? Additionally, who can realistically consider migrating? How are considerations different for groups of varying identities?

Another important characteristic of these debates is that they were conducted in English. While Riggan argues that this facilitates freedom of discussion, the use of English should be questioned. Although students are expected to achieve a level of fluency in English by the time they reach high school, it should not be assumed that this is the case. Who, then, in the classroom was unable to participate fully in this debate due to their inability to communicate fully? How was the discussion then limited in its clarity and depth? Students obviously provided thoughtful and passionate contributions to the discussion, but a certain level of educational and social success must be assumed for these students.

The Migration of Children and Adolescents

During a visit to one of Ethiopia’s refugee camps, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, was told by Eritrean refugees “that their mostly young population would not fall prey to smugglers and human traffickers if, after fleeing from their homes, they found more reasons beyond simple security to stay in the refugee settlements in Ethiopia.” Recounted by Kisut Gebre Egziabher in the UN Refugee Agency report, “Do Not Risk Your Lives, Grandi Tells Eritrean Refugees,” the refugees stressed the importance of education and the promise of a “productive life elsewhere,” telling Grandi that “[b]etter schooling, more vocational training, and the promise of resettlement would stop…refugees…from attempting these dangerous journeys” to Europe. Many Eritreans explain that they fled their home country due to fear. Elsa Chyrum, director of the UK-based Human-Rights Concern-Eritrea, stated in 2015, “Many children are brought up without their fathers because their fathers are tied up in conscription for life… The whole family unit is completely broken. You see all the unaccompanied children leaving because they don’t want to have a miserable life…”

In four refugee camps in northern Ethiopia alone, nearly 75 per cent of their 38,000 inhabitants are under 25 years of age with several children and teenagers. The following paragraphs discuss how the mental development of children and adolescents can affect their decisions to engage in risky behaviour. It is important to understand that youths may conceptualize the dangers associated with migration differently than adults; additionally, youths who have migrated may acculturate and engage with host communities differently than adults. Variations among youth behaviour will exist.

Adolescent Brain Development

When Eritrean adults choose to leave Eritrea and cross the Mediterranean, it is assumed that these adults have weighed the risks and benefits of their decision. Children and adolescents, however, do not make decisions with the same level of understanding of risks as adults. Adolescents are also not completely matured socially and emotionally, which can exacerbate the difficulties they face both in Eritrea, in transit out of the country, and in host countries.

Structural changes in the brain occur throughout adolescence, affecting adolescents’ behaviour and decision-making processes over a period of years and in various stages. During pre- and early adolescence, a decrease in grey matter in the prefrontal regions of the brain contributes to improved cognitive abilities and logical reasoning. Changes in the density and distribution of dopamine receptors in pathways connecting to both the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex occur in early adolescence, affecting sensation-seeking behaviour. Myelination ameliorates the efficiency of brain circuits, leading to an increase in white matter in the prefrontal cortex; this process continues into late adolescence and allows for higher cognitive functions, including abilities to plan ahead, make complex decisions, and consider risks and rewards. The strengthening of connections between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system affect emotional regulation and self-control.

The evolution of the brain explains why adults are more capable of self-control and why according to Lawrence Steinberg in “The Science of Adolescent Brain Development and Its Implications for Adolescent Rights and Responsibilities,” adolescents are prone to “engage in acts, even risky acts, when the potential for pleasure is high.” Steinberg also notes that adolescents mature intellectually prior to maturing emotionally or socially. Childhood and adolescence are formative in one’s development; the ways in which one processes their environment, sense of self, connections to others, and ambitions and desires are heavily influenced by their development and experiences of trauma. As children and adolescents seek to develop their sense of self and locate their identities in relation to society, it is vital to recognize the ongoing transformation of their social and emotional maturity.

URMs and Psychological Distress

The literature on developmental psychopathy suggests, “An absent or negative parental relationship is associated with maladaptive functioning and/or vulnerability to psychopathology in children and adolescents who have been exposed to (multiple) traumatic experiences.” A 2007 article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease compares psychological distress among unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs) and other adolescent populations. The article, “Comparing Psychological Distress, Traumatic Stress Reactions, and Experiences of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors With Experiences of Adolescents Accompanied by Parents” by a group of researchers at Leiden University, defines a URM as “any child under the age of 18 who is physically separated from both parents (by death or other reason) and is an asylum seeker, recognized refugee, or other displaced person.” Studies have shown that URMs report high levels of psychological distress, as do refugee children and adolescents accompanied by parents who have experienced war-related trauma. Most studies point to a positive relationship between “the number (type) of adverse life events and severity level of psychological distress;” factors including older age, parents’ poor mental health, and female gender are “negatively associated with the mental health of refugee adolescents in host countries.” The study mentions that “pretrauma psychopathology has been reported as being predictive…for the development of posttraumatic stress disorder,” but it is impossible to ascribe causation to migrant experiences pre-departure, during departure, while in reception centres, or after arriving in host nations. Studies on the mental health of young immigrants are not conclusive, but this study argues that both unaccompanied and accompanied immigrant adolescents “run a risk of developing (chronic) emotional problems or maladaptive behaviors,” which can create difficulties for mental health professionals faced with a multitude of cultural and language barriers.

Using data from populations within the Netherlands and Belgium, the study compared native populations, URMs, and accompanied minors. The findings showed “an extraordinary high severity level of internalizing complaints and especially traumatic stress reactions among unaccompanied refugee minors in comparison with two other groups of adolescents with parental caregivers.” Gender moderately affected results regarding the internalization of emotional problems (which females were more likely to do) and externalizing behaviour (which males were more likely to exhibit) for the native and accompanied minor groups, but had little effect on URM results. The report posits that the unusual levels of stress experienced by URMs may counter the “inherent protective factors associated with gender.” A correlation between increased age and increased emotional distress, traumatic stress reactions, and behavioural problems was seen only among the URM group, who also reported a higher number of average stressful life events, which “was the most robust predictor of internalizing behavior and traumatic stress reactions in the regression models,” than the other two groups. The study hypothesizes that this may be the case due to the inability of younger URMs to fully comprehend traumatic experiences due to their relative stages of brain development; an alternative explanation offered states that URMs’ separation from their parents also separates them from their parents’ anxiety, “which could exacerbate their own stress reactions.”

Ultimately, the study admits that, due to the limitations of the research, it is not possible to ascertain whether the differences between groups stem from a lack of parental care or adverse life experiences; additionally, it does not track these youths over time to monitor their mental well-being. Psychological distress does not equate to impaired social functioning, and young migrants might prove extremely resilient. Regardless, schools, government officials, mental healthcare providers and adults working with other organizations that interact with migrant children must create supportive environments for URMs and provide them with necessary services to promote their mental health. The report recommends that once basic emotional and physical stability is established, URMs should have access to “low-threshold, psychological interventions aimed at emotion regulation and improving cognitive information processing.”

The combination of experiences of interpersonal violence within their origin countries and trauma experienced en route to host countries can create complex traumatization among migrants, which may manifest in problems of temper, lack of compliance and understanding of rules, difficulty in attention regulation and executive functioning, low self-esteem, and interpersonal difficulties. URMs may have sleep disturbances and learning difficulties; their experiences in host schools may be marked by failure and dropping out if services are not in place to mitigate their disadvantages.

Changes in identity can affect self-esteem and mental health, and for migrants especially, feelings of alienation and rejection can stem from a lack of social support, isolation from one’s culture, and the challenges related to finding acceptance within a host community’s culture. Young migrants face acculturation; as they struggle to create and understand their own self-identity, their perception of self is shaped by the culture around them. Rejection, de-culturization, and culture shock can lead to mental distress, including depression and “psychotic-like experiences.” Adolescent immigrants face acculturative stress as two cultures are elided to form self-identity. Not all migrant children, however, will develop mental health problems or exhibit maladaptive behaviours.

Towards a More Comprehensive Study of Eritrean Migration

Migration narratives and diaspora privilege heavily influence the creation of Eritrean identity. The relatively limited number of sources referenced is indicative of the overall lack of research on social and mental developmental concerns created by Eritrea’s authoritarian government and the experiences of young Eritrean migrants in the EU and elsewhere. If host countries and organizations that work with migrants wish to provide migrants with support and ensure their success in their host countries, it is imperative that they understand the psychological development, cultural context, and migration experiences of these children and adolescents. Further research must addresses gender disparities in experiences (including a discussion of non-binary gender identities); young migrants with disabilities; young migrants fleeing due to religious or ethnic persecution by the Eritrean state; young migrants tasked with caring for a younger relative or their own child; young migrants involved in gang and/or criminal activity; and young migrants who manage to eschew formal education and/or live on the streets. Further research should also follow the same groups of migrants over time to better understand how they succeed and/or fail to adapt to life in the host countries⎈