Eritrean Diaspora Festivals Spark Global Violence Amid Political Tensions

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The Eritrean diaspora in Canada and worldwide has long been subject to underlying tensions, however, these tensions seem to have reached a tipping point, as violence ensues at numerous Eritrean-themed festivals. Critics of these events argue that they simply spearhead financial and political support for a suppressive regime.

One of the most recent outbreaks of violence took place last Saturday in Canada’s northeast Calgary neighbourhood, where footage revealed men wielding long sticks and bats. The local law enforcement reported few minor injuries.

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This episode is akin to similar happenings at celebrations in Toronto and Edmonton last August, marking a trend of conflicts sprouting during Eritrean-related events around the globe, including locations like Sweden and Germany. Israel has further made headlines, with substantial clashes between supporters and critics of the Eritrean government occurring in Tel Aviv, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for deportation of the involved Eritrean migrants.

Accused of more than celebrating heritage, the festivals have been pinned as propaganda vehicles of the Eritrean government, designed to manipulate diaspora communities and raise funds for the state.

Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 following almost three decades of guerrilla warfare. Isaias Afwerki, the leader of the independence movement has been ruling since 1991, and took official presidency in 1993. The nation has drawn criticism for numerous human rights violations, oppressive practices and for holding no elections since Afwerki’s inauguration, earning it the moniker ‘the North Korea of Africa’.

Despite these conditions, why has the tension reached boiling point only now?

The festivals in question have persistently been a topic of hot debate, with those who have fled Eritrea due to suffering and persecution calling for the festivals’ cancellation because of their alleged political ties. The Eritrean government dismisses these critiques and accuses the critiques of being part of a western campaign to destabilize Eritrea.

As it stands, Canada sees an approximate 31,000 Eritrean-born immigrants, with over half of that number migrating between 2016 and 2021. Said immigrants, along with festival organizers, argue that the events are apolitical, and simply support the commemoration of Eritrean culture and history.

Historically, there have been diaspora festivals predating Eritrea’s independence; however, their role has morphed over time, particularly as the regime became increasingly oppressive.

Protests against these festivals aren’t just motivated by politics. Protestors argue that these events aren’t welcoming because they’re orchestrated by the regime that forced them from their own homeland.

This year has seen a drastic escalation of violence surrounding these festivals, adding a concerning layer to on-going existential tensions.

The cause of such a sudden eruption of violence is uncertain, but Eritrea’s military activities in the Tigray region in Ethiopia over the past few years could be a potential trigger.

Eritrea’s militarization is a chief reason why many Eritreans flee their homeland, fearing forced conscription.

Tensions remained high even after an agreement in 2000 officially ended the conflict with Ethiopia. This culminated in an armed conflict in November 2020 between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigrayan regional state. The fighting claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions. Eritrean forces have been accused of various human rights violations during the conflict.

This military activity in Ethiopia further deepened the division between Eritreans who support the regime and those owning a critical stance. Eritrean involvement in the Tigray conflict could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, leading to a spillover of frustration within the diaspora.

Calgary’s recent violent clash, featuring an estimated 150 participants, is the “largest violent event to happen in our city in recent memory” according to Calgary police Chief Constable Mark Neufeld.

Disputes have escalated even further in other countries, with over 50 people injured in Stockholm, Sweden, and around 100 people detained.

Incapable of addressing its persistent human rights violations, Eritrea continues to perpetuate a dire environment that seems to have no sign of improvement. Nada Al-Nashif, the United Nation’s deputy human rights chief, stated earlier this year that the lack of improvement is characterized by severe human rights violations and restrictions on basic freedoms.

Turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the Ethiopian conflict, Eritrea is yet to establish mechanisms for accountability, according to Al-Nashif. There are also reports of Eritrea punishing the family members of those who seek to evade military conscription.

In light of the increase in Eritrean military action against Tigray, Canada advised its citizens to exercise caution while travelling in September 2022, just a few months before a peace deal was reached. The United Nations further shed light on Eritrea’s overreliance on its pattern of military conscription, calling thousands of reservists to arms.