If – as has been reported here and elsewhere – thousands of young Eritreans have been rounded up by the security forces and sent to detention centres and military camps, the question is surely, why would the government do this?

The answer is probably a combination of factors, all of which relate to the increasing uncertainty of the regime led by President Isaias Afeworki.

As 2013 has unfolded there have been clear signs of instability:

  • In January there was what the regime describes as ‘an event’ – but was close to a coup by sections of the military. Tanks were driven into the outskirts of Asmara, the radio and television taken over and a declaration read out on air, calling for the Constitution to be brought into force.
  • The number of young people streaming out of Eritrea has increased to between 2,000 and 3,000 a month.
  • This exodus has led to large number of Eritreans attempting to reach Europe – either via the Sinai, where they are frequently tortured, or else via Libya and then onto Italy – often perishing as overcrowded ships flounder in the sea. Many say they have little choice if they are to escape Eritrea, which is today one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The large numbers risking so much to leave Eritrea is – of course – an embarrassment to the government. They were, in the clearest terms, voting with their feet against a regime that they would risk death to escape.
  • Senior members of the regime are reported by the United Nations to have profited from facilitating this exodus by accepting bribes and kickbacks.
  • The growing confidence of young Eritreans in the diaspora who have found, new, innovative means of contacting people inside Eritrea by phone and poster – the ‘Freedom Friday’ movement.

One thing is certain, the government and the Presidency in particular, feels increasingly isolated and under threat from enemies both inside and outside the country.

What better means of regaining control than to conduct a sweep of young Eritreans? Not only does it remove potential dissidents, it also reinforces the President’s image as a no-nonsence leader, who will crack down ruthlessly on any form of dissent.