Trump’s travel ban: Thousands of lives in limbo

The Trump administration’s travel restrictions left many Eritreans between a rock and a hard place.

Trump Reuters Travel ban photo
On January 31, US President Donald Trump expanded his controversial travel ban to include Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sudan, Tanzania and Nigeria [Reuters]

On January 31, US President Donald Trump expanded his controversial travel ban to include six additional countries, including my home country, Eritrea.

Reportedly, Eritrea was included in the ban for three reasons: the Eritrean government’s lack of cooperation with the US in its efforts to remove Eritrean nationals living in the country without proper documentation; widespread visa overstays by Eritrean nationals; and the African country’s inability to comply with the US information-sharing criteria on matters of national security and safety. 

The decision was a devastating blow for thousands of already beleaguered Eritreans. Without the possibility of seeking safety in the US, they are now left to make an impossible choice between embarking on a deadly journey towards an unwelcoming Europe, facing gross abuses in Sudan, shuttered opportunities in Ethiopia, or tolerating what passes for life in the open-air prison that is Eritrea. 

By expanding its travel ban to include Eritrean nationals, the US not only condemned thousands of innocent people to a life of oppression, uncertainty and pain, but it also signalled that it would do nothing to censor their oppressors.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said the ban would see the United States suspend the issuance of visas that can lead to permanent residency for nationals of affected countries, but would not hinder the issuance of non-immigrant visas, such as those given to tourists, students and businesspeople.

Eritrea does not issue passports to its citizens except for in extraordinary circumstances, and most Eritreans who manage to leave the country only have refugee travel documents. This means there is almost no chance for them to score a non-immigrant visa and enter the US.

The perpetrators of repression in Eritrea, who hold official passports, however, will almost certainly be unaffected by the new travel restrictions. Politicians, military leaders and other supporters of the regime who are wreaking havoc in the country will continue to travel to the US whenever they need and want to conduct seminars, attend meetings, give music concerts, collect donations and even enjoy holidays. The new travel ban also spares holders of diplomatic passports, which means the Eritrean diplomats will be allowed to continue visiting the US and delivering their vicious propaganda. Ordinary Eritreans who have been forced to escape their homes due to the regime’s flawed policies, however, will continue to suffer.

In response to the travel ban, the Eritrean Ministry of Information issued a statement, indicating that while they have no problem with the newly introduced travel restrictions on their citizens, they are disappointed with the reasoning behind them.

The government of Eritrea “has consistently opposed ‘automatic asylum’ and other misguided measures invoked by certain countries in the past 20 years for ulterior reasons of ‘strategic depopulation’ against Eritrea”, the statement said, adding that it had lodged protests against previous US administrations that followed similar asylum policies. But it nevertheless criticised the Trump administration’s travel ban, only because the ban does not appear to stem from the concerns repeatedly voiced by the Eritrean government, and hence sends a “negative signal” to the Eritrean leadership.

The statement all-but-proved that the Eritrean government has no intention of negotiating with the US government to help reinstate its citizens’ right to travel and immigrate to the US.

Now, many Eritrean citizens’ only hope is that regional powers who have strong relations with the Trump administration, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will intervene to help Eritreans, as they have previously done by helping lift UN sanctions on Eritrea. Without such help, Eritreans will continue to be punished both by their own government and the governments of countries that they seek asylum in, simply for the misfortune of being born in Eritrea.

Escaping repression, not posing a threat

Trump’s travel ban implies that Eritrean immigrants pose a threat to the US government and its people. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. Over the years, Eritrean immigrants made invaluable contributions to American society.

Many Eritrean-American artists made significant contributions to the US cultural scene, such as Tiffany Haddish and Nipsey Hussle, whose fathers fled from war and settled in the US. Olympian medalist and one of the most accomplished distance runners in American history,” Mebrahtom “Meb” Kiflezghi, was born in Eritrea to Eritrean parents. Haben Girma, the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard, who was named “White House Champion of Change” by President Obama, was born to Eritrean parents who fled war. The list of influential Americans of Eritrean origin also includes Dr Haile Debas, who was once described as a “one person transformer for global health in California, at UCSF, in America, and around the world.” Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse, who has condemned the travel ban, is also the son of Eritrean immigrants.

One may argue that while Eritrean immigrants are clearly not a threat to the US, they should still be banned because they ignore US laws by overwhelmingly overstaying their visas. It is true that Eritrean immigrants are more likely than immigrants from other nations to violate their visa conditions: Overall only 1.9 percent of visitors to the US overstay their visas, while the rate among Eritrean visitors is 24 percent. But before making a judgement, it is necessary to ask some important questions: Who are these Eritreans who have overstayed their visas and why did they do so?

I can easily provide examples: I overstayed my visa. My sister, who is now a registered nurse in California, did, too. My younger brother, who is now a software engineer in the Silicon Valley, also did the same. Why did we overstay? Because we had no other option. Staying in the US was our only chance to escape repression. If we returned home when our visas expired, we’d be thrown into a dungeon. The fact that most Eritreans who overstay their visas are eventually granted asylum should be seen as confirmation that they have legitimate reasons to do so.

Caught up in indefinite transit

Since 2010, 17,564 Eritreans have resettled in the US as refugees according to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

As mentioned before, the Eritrean state rarely issues passports to its citizens and allows them to leave the country officially. As a result, almost all Eritreans who were lucky enough to resettle in the US have many family members who have been stranded in Eritrea. The dreams of all these people of one day reuniting with their relatives in the US have been crushed by the Trump administration’s new extended travel ban.

The 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia and the resulting easing of border restrictions had renewed many Eritreans’ hopes for leaving the country and joining their loved ones in the West. The US’s very long and convoluted vetting process for issuing family reunification visas, however, made this almost impossible for many. As the US embassy in Asmara stopped issuing immigrant visas, many who want to immigrate to the US moved to neighbouring countries to complete the process. Now, they are stranded in limbo indefinitely, as they do not want to return to Eritrea and continue living under unbearable oppression.

Trump’s travel ban also devastated Eritrean nationals in the US, like me, who were hoping to be reunited with their family members. As they do not have a government acting on their behalf and fighting for their rights, they do not know where to seek help. Following the announcement of the extended ban, I have no idea when and if I will be able to see my mother, who is still in Eritrea, again. 

While facing tremendous external challenges, the Eritrean regime seems to care very little about improving conditions inside the country, something that’s been the case for a very long time. Eritreans continue to flee their country at an alarming rate. Those left in the country face mounting challenges with little hope for improvement or redress.

I thought I had escaped from a repressive regime that retaliates against families for others’ perceived wrongdoing. Yet, the sad, familiar story has followed me and many of my countrymen/women. Now I must figure out how to explain to my daughter and nieces – who are Americans – why their government banned them from seeing their grandparents

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.