Talking Eritrea Seminar Series

The Talking Eritrea Series seminars aim to create a space to share current research and promote open discussion on the challenges for peace and rights in Eritrea.

Convened by Justice Africa & the Centre for African Studies, SOAS, University of London

All seminars at: SOAS Vernon Square Campus, Room V211, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, London, WC1X 9EW

February 3, 17, March 3, 17

17:00 – 19:00

See e-poster for 17 March talk:

 Talk 4_TalkingEritrea_JA_CAS




Justice Africa and the Centre of African Studies at SOAS are collaborating to convene a series of events during February and March 2014. The series will comprise of talks on the most pressing themes affecting the people of the Red Sea nation, concluding with a panel discussion by eminent academics and civil society activists. While there exists an extensive amount of literature on Eritrean history and affairs, forums raising awareness and garnering dialogue on ways to ameliorate the burning issues remain few and far between; namely, the reasons behind Eritrea being the largest migrant and refugee producing nation; national conscription and its implications; the refugee situation in neighbouring countries; human trafficking and torture, amongst many other key issues. Space for such debate has been absolutely closed down domestically, with Eritrea finishing last in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Freedom of Information Index, ranking beneath even North Korea. This makes opening up space for discussions in the diaspora all the more important.

This series of events aims to contribute towards awareness-raising on critical issue areas as defined by long-standing researchers, activists, academics and authors, as well as to promote dialogue among relevant stakeholders – for instance, various generations of the diaspora and region, academics, students, activists, and professionals working in development about the complicated questions of nation formation, sovereignty, governance, and human rights in Eritrea. Ultimately the ‘Talking Eritrea’ series is designed to encourage discussion on a range of often inter-twining issues pertinent to Eritrea and add to depth to the existing understanding of key issues while contributing to peace initiatives.




Date: 3rd February 2014

Speaker: Prof. Dan Connell

Title: Eritreans: Migrants or Migrating Refugees?

Chair: Martin Plaut

Respondent: Jason Mosley

Talk overview:

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled their once promising nation after a devastating border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 and the imposition of a repressive regime. Most of those fleeing are conscripts escaping an open-ended “national service” of military postings and forced labour. But their flight carries new threats, from border guards with shoot-to-kill orders and human traffickers who torture them for ransom to perilous desert and sea crossings that can end in tragedies like the October Lampedusa shipwreck. Where is the line between a “migrant” and a “refugee,” when motives, routes and experience among political refugees, economic migrants and victims of trafficking overlap? These and other questions will be the subject of a slide show and lecture drawing on recent visits to refugee camps and communities in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Israel.


Bio of Prof. Dan Connell:

Prof. Dan Connell is a senior lecturer in journalism and African studies at Simmons College, Boston. His reports on the Horn of Africa have been carried by the BBC, Voice of America, AP, Reuters, Boston Globe, Financial Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Toronto Globe & Mail, Washington Post, and others, and he has consulted for numerous international organisations, including the UN, Oxfam America and Human Rights Watch. In 1983 he founded the Boston-based aid agency Grassroots International. He is the author or editor of 10 books, notably: Against All Odds (1997), Rethinking Revolution (2002), Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners (2005) and the second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Eritrea (2010).  He is currently working on a book on the plight of Eritrean refugees.


Bio of Martin Plaut:

Martin has worked on Africa since the 1970?s, first for the Labour Party and then for the BBC. He was Africa editor, until he retired in November 2012 and is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London. He has written various books, including: War in the Horn Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999 (with Patrick Gilkes). Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at war Red Sea Press, 2005, (editor, with Dominique Jacquin-Berdal) Ethiopia and Eritrea: Allergic to persuasion. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2007 (with Sally Healy). His current research is on South Africa in the early years of the twentieth century and the rise of the ANC.


Bio of Jason Mosley:

Jason has been a Research Associate of the African Studies Centre, Oxford University since 2012. He is also the Managing Editor of the Journal of Eastern African Studies and an Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House. His main geographical interests are in the greater Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region and Nigeria. He is interested in the politics of ethnicity, and of religion — particularly of Islam — in these and other areas. Current research is focused on the impact of multilateral regional organisations on stability in the Horn of Africa, and on linkages between state-building, foreign investment and security in peripheral regions in East Africa and the Horn. Jason also serves on the board of Stakeholder Democracy Network, a non-profit working in the Niger Delta to bolster the capacity of communities affected by resource extraction to push for their interests in negotiation with governments and companies.


Date: 17th February 2014

Speaker: Prof. Gaim Kibreab

Title: On National Service and its impacts on the social fabric of Eritrean Society

Chair: Dr David Styan

Respondents: Selam Kidane, Iyob Tsegai


Talk overview:

After a brief description of the theory and practice of national service in a historical perspective, the purposes of the presentation are to examine: (1) the mobilising and unifying effect of Eritrea’s thirty years’ war independence; (2) the goals of the Eritrean national service as conceived by its architects; (3) the effects of the national service on the  Eritrean economy and society;  and (4) the extent to which the national service is the major causal agent of displacement in post-independence Eritrea.


Bio of Gaim Kibreab:

Prof. Gaim Kibreab is a Research Professor of the MSc Refugee Studies at London South Bank University. He has published widely on forced migration (refugees, development-induced displacement, internally displaced persons, and environmentally-induced population displacement), development and governance in post-conflict societies, particularly with regard to Eritrea. He is an internationally recognised expert on forced migration, resettlement, repatriation and development, conflict, environment, water resources governance, post-conflict reconstruction, gender and development, livelihoods, governance and civil society. He is currently working on causes of forced migration in post-independence Eritrea.


Bio of Dr David Styan:

Dr David Styan is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck University whose principal publications include: (Editor and editorial introduction) Underdevelopment in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, Organisation for Social Science Research in East Africa, 2004), a posthumous collection of essays by Eshetu Chole, Ethiopia’s leading 20th-century economist and ‘Twisting Ethio-Eritrean economic ties: misperceptions of war and the misplaced priorities of peace’, in Jacquin-Berdal, D. Plaut M. (eds.) (New Jersey, USA: Read Sea Press, 2005), pp. 177-200.


Bio of Iyob Tsegay:

Iyob Tsegay is an electrical engineer with a Bsc degree from the University of East London gained in 2011. In 2003 he also graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Asmara. He served in Eritrea’s National Service until 2008 when he left the country. Iyob is a human rights activist and a member of the Stop National Slavery Campaign, he has many friends who were in the National Service with him, who are now in prison.

Bio of Selam Kidnane:

Selam Kidane is a Policy Advisor for the London Borough of Enfield and psychotherapist by training. She is a human rights activist working involved in many Eritrean campaigns including the Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea. She is also a director of an Eritrean human rights charity – Release Eritrea – with her main focus being lobbying in the fields of religious rights and refugees.



Date: 3rd March 2014

Speaker: Meron Estefanos

Title: From Eritrea to Sinai: the ongoing Human Trafficking and Torture Situation


Talk overview:

The overwhelming majority of victims of human trafficking and torture in the Sinai Peninsula are Eritrean and the presentation will explore the genesis of how this under-reported tragedy takes place. Through discussing issues of trafficking and torture, themes of forced migration, the situation in the refugee camps and Eritrean domestic policies – topics which are covered in more detail in other seminars – will be touched on to differing degrees.


Bio of Meron Estefanos:

Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean journalist and human rights activist. She is a contributor to the leading Eritrean diaspora news site Asmarino and a presenter for Radio Erena. Estefanos is the co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, an advocacy organisation for the rights of Eritrean refugees, victims of trafficking, and victims of torture. She actively campaigns for freedom and democracy in her country, which has suffered under the dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki since 1993. She has co-authored a number of papers documenting the human trafficking situation in the Sinai of which Eritrean nationals are the primary victims. Furthermore she has been threatened and harassed for her work, especially her coverage of the case of Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist imprisoned without charge for more than ten years in Eritrea.



Date: 17th March 2014

Panellists: Dr John Campbell, Dr Laura Hammond (chair), Dawit Mesfin, Dr Sarah Ogbay and Michela Wrong

Panel topic: Limits on Research and Reporting in Eritrea: the Implications for Peace and Rights


Panel Questions:

Include but not limited to: 

  1. How and to what extent is research addressing the human rights issues facing Eritreans inside and outside the country?
  2. What kind of research is possible in present day Eritrea and how has this changed?
  3. What are the impacts of research in Eritrea and the diaspora?
  4. What is the state of knowledge and debate about contemporary Eritrean politics and human rights and who is shaping this?


Bio of Dr John Campbell:

Dr Campbell is currently a Senior Lecturer in the SOAS Anthropology of Development department. His career has taken him across the world working both in academic institutions and on development projects spanning Tanzania, Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenya, Wales and Northern Ireland. His particular area of expertise lies in the Horn of Africa, specifically on refugee issues relating to Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Between 2007 and 2009 Dr Campbell was undertaking research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council following refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia who were seeking asylum in the UK. Dr Campbell has published numerous articles, book chapters and edited collected essays. His most recent publication is Nationalism, Law and Statelessness: Grand Illusions in the Horn of Africa (2013).


Bio of Dr Laura Hammond (Chair):

Dr Hammond is head of the SOAS Development Studies Department and her research interests include food security, conflict, forced migration and diasporas. She has worked in the Horn of Africa for the past fifteen years, and has done consultancy for a wide range of development and humanitarian organizations, including UNDP, USAID, Oxfam, Medécins Sans Frontières, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Food Programme. She is the author of This Place Will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia (2004) and several book and journal articles.


Bio of Dr Sarah Ogbay:

Dr Ogbay has a PhD in Applied linguistics from Lancaster University UK and was a professor at the College of Arts and Social Science of Asmara University, Eritrea, for 26 years during which she taught at the British Council in Eritrea for 11 years. She left her country on foot at night with her four children on 4 January 2012.

She has co-authored book chapters and articles, namely: ’English and development in Eritrea’ for the British Council book Dreams and Realities: Developing countries and the English language and ‘The development of teacher education in Eritrea’; and for the International Handbook on Teacher Education Worldwide: issues and challenges for the teaching profession. Her research interests are language and gender and the construction of social identities. Currently Dr Ogbay freelances for the University of Manchester Language Centre.


Bio of Dawit Mesfin:

A former principal director of Justice Africa. Originally from Eritrea, Mr Mesfin is a peace, human rights and democracy activist who has worked for numerous organisations in the Diaspora for over a decade. He instituted a number of civil society organisations in Europe, set up and managed Voice of Liberty, a radio station whose primary focus was on people’s rights. Since the mid-seventies he has journeyed through numerous European cultures (Italian, German and British) – journeys that played significant roles in the development of his character. Moreover, he is a researcher, writer and commentator on Eritrean affairs. Currently he is working on a book about an African nationalist politician.


Bio of Michela Wrong:

Michela Wrong became a foreign correspondent for Reuters in the early1980s. She moved to then Zaire in 1994, later rebasing in Kenya, where she spent four years covering east, west and central Africa for the Financial Times. She has since authored several acclaimed non-fiction books centred on Africa. They include “I didn’t do it for you”, published in 2005, which focused on Eritrea and was hailed as a “gripping political thriller” by Monica Ali. She is a board member of Justice Africa and trustee of Human Rights Watch Africa and International Alert. In 2010 she was awarded the James Cameron prize for journalism “that combined moral vision and professional integrity.



The Talking Eritrea Series seminars aim to create a space to share current research and promote open discussion on the challenges for peace and rights in Eritrea.


Panel session: Dr Sarah Ogbay, Dr John Campbell, Dr Laura Hammond, Michela Wrong & Dawit Mesfin (left to right)