A camel rider passes in front of a fenced mangrove plantation along Eritrea’s arid Red Sea coast. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Meet the three Eritrean women who are taking on the regime

Feruz Werede, Selam Kidane and Meron Estefanos are finding ways of challenging one of the most repressive states in Africa.

Eritrea – bordering on the Red Sea – is a land of extremes. The searing heat of its deserts and the harness of the mountains are softened by abundant valleys and a green, fertile plateau. Much the same can be said of its politics. Fierce and stubborn in their 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia that ended in May 1991, the Eritrean people briefly held the promise of a model state, with an open democracy and real hopes of prosperity.  

Yet today Eritrea is among the most repressive states in Africa. Thousands of its youth, desperate to escape interminable conscription, flee the country, running the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean or being sold to people-traffickers in the Sinai.

These tragic facts are never far from the minds of the Eritrean diaspora, some 17,000 of whom have made England and Wales their home, according to the most recent census. In a flat in central London, two bouncy little girls play on the family couch. Their elder sister, keen to get on with her homework, shoos them off to bed.

For their mother, Feruz Werede, it’s the end of a long day at work. With the supper cleared away, her campaigning begins. Feruz collates a lengthy report to be sent to British politicians. She’s campaigning against a tax imposed on the diaspora by the Eritrean government. “If you don’t pay the tax – 2 per cent of all your income, in addition to the tax you already pay to the British government – you can do nothing for your family back home,” she explains.

The tax is collected from the moment any Eritrean starts working. Even students must pay £50 a year. For many in this immigrant community, this means scraping together their meagre savings, or borrowing from friends. “Even if you want to send clothes home, you have to be ‘cleared’ by the Eritrean embassy,” says Feruz. “Want to register your child or get a passport? It’s just the same!”

The tax was outlawed by the UN Security Council and her campaign, launched last month, is beginning to pay dividends. In reply to a question from Lord Dubs – Alf Dubs – the government minister, Lord Dolar Popat replied that Britain had condemned the tax and called on the Eritrean ambassador in October last year to cease using illicit means to collect it. Answering Lady Dianne Hayter, the Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Warsi explained that Eritreans were “urged” to report “any use of coercion or other illicit means” of collecting the tax to the police.

But why does Feruz spend her few spare hours fighting the government of a country she no longer lives in? She was born “in the field,” as Eritreans say. Her parents were fighters during Eritrea’s long war of independence. She grew up in the liberated zone that was under rebel control. “My parents together gave 40 years of their life to the struggle and achieved the impossible. They - and so many other Eritreans – who fought for independence did not do so for tyranny, dictatorship and one man rule,” she says angily. “This was not our dream!”

Feruz is not alone. Across London, Selam Kidane has been running another, remarkable campaign. “Freedom Friday,” as it has been called, has been using phone-banks to get through to Eritreans back home. A group of Eritreans in the diaspora, armed with nothing more than phone cards, began dialling numbers at random to convince their compatriots that they were not alone in opposing the regime.

“Freedom Friday” then hit on the idea of using the technology developed by telemarketing – robocalls. These uses a computerised autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message. Not wonderful but better than the isolation that has descended over a country that has absolutely no independent media.

Today the campaign has found means of smuggling posters and pamphlets back home. Local people paste them up whenever the regime is not looking.

In Sweden another Eritrean mother, Meron Estefanos, is probably the best-known of these feisty campaigners. She is a presenter with the Swedish-based Radio Erena, an opposition station broadcasting into Eritrea. It was while broadcasting back home that she was contacted by Eritreans attempting to find refuge in Israel. Travelling through Sudan and then into Egypt and the Sinai, they were easy pickings for people-smugglers.

Meron’s experience began with her family. In 2012, she received a phone call from her cousin, who had been kidnapped and taken into Sinai. Her captors were demanding $37,000 for her release and they didn’t just use threats. Their tactic was to put their victims on the phone to their relatives while they were being tortured.

“If you're listening to your cousin being gang-raped or burnt – the cries, the begging... you just want to end those phone calls,” said Meron. “So I collected the money [from friends and relatives] and borrowed some.” Her cousin finally ended up in an Ethiopian refugee camp, severely burnt and deeply traumatised.

Her cousin’s plight spurred Meron to action. She has been campaigning on the issue ever since, with increasing success. She teamed up with Professor Mirjam van Reisen, a foreign policy adviser to the European Commission. Together they produced a major report on the issue: “Human Trafficking in the Sinai”. The campaign has been a considerable embarrassment to the Eritrean authorities, who like to portray the country as being fully behind President Isaias Afeworki.

Together these women have begun to dent the Eritrean regime’s sense of invulnerability. A year ago there were disturbances that shook the regime to its core, with an armoured column seizing the television station. The coup was poorly planned and failed. But the president’s prestige was badly dented, making the activities of dissidents like Feruz, Selam and Meron increasingly important.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.