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Eritrea's controversial push to feed itself

By Pascale Harter
BBC News, northern Ethiopia

Eritrean refugees in Mai-Aini camp, Ethiopia
Eritrean refugees arriving in Ethiopia say the situation at home is unbearable

Eritrea's drive for food self-sufficiency is opening it to allegations of grain confiscation - a charge the government denies, and which is difficult to verify.

Nineteen million people in the Horn of Africa are expected by the UN to need food aid to survive after failing rains aggravated a drought which has already destroyed crops and starved livestock.

However, Eritrea is turning down food aid.

Girma Asmerom, Eritrea's ambassador to the European Union, told the BBC "foreign food aid demonises the local people and makes them lazy".

Eritrean refugee who did not want to be identified
They have been confiscating the food and what the farmers have grown
Refugee who worked for Eritrea's health ministry before fleeing

He said the Eritrean government had its own strategy for dealing with the food shortage, including transporting grain from parts of the country which, he said, had enjoyed a bumper harvest.

But Eritreans who have fled across the border to a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia told us their government's policy was causing widespread hunger.

Farmers from Eritrea said the government had seized their harvest, paying them as little as 8% of the market value.

"The government is cheating the people," said one man, who worked for the Eritrean ministry of health until he decided to flee the country.

"They have been confiscating the food and what the farmers have grown and now they are taking the farmers' land so the farmers don't now have the jobs to do. This is the situation in Eritrea."

Like all the Eritreans we met at Mai-Aini camp, he asked us not to publish his name or take a photo in which he could be identified, fearing repression for his family back home.

"We have no freedom, no human rights, nothing," said one woman.

Food sufficiency promise

The Eritrean government has admitted to fining and imprisoning the families of those who leave the country without permission.

Girma Asmerom, Eritrea's ambassador to the EU
Within the next two years I can assure you everybody is going to bite his tongue and Eritrea will be food-sufficient
Girma Asmerom
Eritrea's ambassador to the EU

But the former ministry of health official was able to confirm that two-thirds of the population in Eritrea were now malnourished.

"Especially people who live outside the cities," he said.

"The government is confiscating their grain and their land, so how can they get enough nutrition?"

Supporters of the policy say it keeps the price of basic food low.

But the refugees told us that the quantity the government allows a family to buy is not enough and that police arrest anyone found selling extra grain at market value.

When we contacted Girma Asmerom, he strongly denied that the government was seizing food from farmers.

"Those allegations are absolutely not true," the Eritrean EU ambassador said.

"We are accountable to our people… and within the next two years I can assure you everybody is going to bite his tongue and Eritrea will be food-sufficient."

But because Eritrea is restricting access, it is impossible to get independent verification of the extent of the food shortage the country is facing.

Trickle of information

John Holmes, the UN's under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, says: "When we ask the government if they need help they say 'no', but we remain concerned to track the situation."

Parched mountain landscape in northern Ethiopia
The November rains failed again in many parts of the Horn of Africa

From the information available to the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), Mr Holmes says there is no evidence of acute malnutrition "on a large scale", but that "malnourishment as a broader concept is prevalent".

However, the situation could be severe in some areas. As far back as 2005, before the rains failed, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 66% of Eritreans were "undernourished".

That was the year the Eritrean government suspended food aid distribution programmes operating in the country and declared what it called a "cash-for-work" programme, the details of which are unclear.

Since then there has been little information coming out of Eritrea, except what the refugees bring with them.

While we are at Mai-Aini camp, a jeep arrives carrying new arrivals - Eritrean refugees picked up near the border. They are all women and children under five years old.

It is already five people to a tiny dark hut in the camp. Mai-Aini was built for 5,000, but already accommodates nearly 13,000. Another 1,000 new refugees are arriving every month.

"Everybody is leaving the country," says the refugee from the ministry of health, "because they couldn't survive the situation in Eritrea."



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SEE ALSO
UN warns over East Africa hunger
24 Sep 09 |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
30 Nov 10 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Eritrea
07 May 11 |  Country profiles

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