Milena Belloni: “When migration is everywhere, but you cannot see it: methodological reflections from fieldwork in Eritrea”

When migration is everywhere, but you cannot see it: methodological reflections from fieldwork in Eritrea

by Milena Belloni


Eritrea has experienced massive international emigration since the 50s. Due to war and lack of freedom, in 1993 it was calculated that over 1 million Eritreans over a population of 3 million lived in the diaspora. After 1998 border conflict with Ethiopia and the consequent “no war no peace” situation, many more left the country. In the last UNHCR report Eritrea is estimated the ninth largest refugee producing country worldwide with over 500,000 displaced people.

In practice the above numbers imply that most Eritrean families are highly dispersed. Practically everyone in the country has a brother or a sister living abroad and an uncle or a parent that left at the time to the Independence struggle (1961-1991). The family histories, which I collected throughout my fieldwork in the country between October and December 2018, are marked by the suffering for the absence of dear ones and by the relief brought by their remittances. Pictures of emigrated relatives were typical elements of the internal decoration of the homes I visited in rural as well as urban areas. The architectural landscape of the capital is also extremely telling. Entire neighbourhoods are owned by Eritreans living in the diaspora.

Notwithstanding the huge and evident impact of migration in the country and in people’s everyday life, I was baffled to hear that most of my research participants declared that migration had little effect in their life. As they stated, they could see little influence of it in the public and private space surrounding them. How was it possible? Mostly young urbanised youth in their twenties, my research participants had – like most other Eritreans – many of their siblings and friends abroad. Sometimes their parents had also emigrated to Europe or the Middle East to support the family. Their phones, their clothes and, at times, even the house they lived in had been paid thanks to the help of their relatives abroad. Still they did not see it. In my opinion, there are several possible answers to this somehow puzzling attitude.

One possible explanation lies in the irregular nature of most emigration from Eritrea in the last 20 years. Given the conflict with Ethiopia and the mobilisation of most civil population towards state defined priorities, mainly concerning national defence, emigration, especially that of young people, was not allowed. Public discourse sanctioned migration as an unpatriotic behaviour. Those who crossed the borders – hundreds of thousands since the 2000s – did it without a legal permission often using passeurs and facing huge risks along the way. Those who got caught were incarcerated or sent to military training facilities. Families were often held accountable for their children’s escape.

This situation has completely changed since July 2018, when Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a historical peace agreement and the border between the two countries was open again after 20 years allowing the free movement of people and merchandise. In spite of this huge shift, memories of incarcerations and punishment are still associated with emigration.

Most of my informants perceived migration as a very sensitive topic. Even if the People Front for Democracy and Justice research office kindly allowed and facilitated the research, most people felt that participating in the study could harm them or their families. Explicit questioning about any issue related to migration was often resulting in avoidances.

The second explanation lies in the routinization of emigration in people’s everyday life. Emigration from Eritrea has been so massive and pervasive to make unnoticed in a way. Some of my research participants for instance have grown up giving remittances from their relatives for granted. Even the absence of their siblings was not exceptional. One of my interlocutors told me: “It is true, we are four sisters and three of us are abroad. You see their pictures all around in this house. But I don’t feel their absence. They have never been here. I got used to living without them”. It is equally unexceptional to receive money from abroad. Every does. Someone jokingly told me once: “Whoever puts his hands in his pockets is reminded about migration”. By this, my interlocutor pointed to the crucial role of remittances for everyday survival given low public salaries and high cost of living.

A third possible explanation is that people’s refusal to acknowledge the contribution of emigration to their daily life is rooted in a sort of resentment. This resentment at times seemed to reflect the idea that remittances from sibling abroad were too limited and not life changing. Narratives of selfish emigrants who do not support families back home were common among my interlocutors. They felt their living conditions were not significantly improved by remittances, but instead they felt left alone to face the hardships of everyday life at home. Some of them were still paying for the debts accumulated by their siblings in order to pay for journeys out of the country. As the benefits of emigration seemed limited compared to its related suffering, those who had decided to stay back often reproduced the public discourse on migration. They represented it as a selfish, unpatriotic and destructive conduct, which had no effect on the life of people, if not in a negative way.

Besides noticing and attempting to understand this paradox between what is visible and what people say, the above reflections are telling of the importance of home as a key ethnographic and conceptual site to explore the intimate and the public dimension of migration in countries of origin. Although I will build more on this in my next blog post, it is important here to notice that entering my research participants’ domestic spaces as well as investigating remittance architectures of villages and urban neighbourhoods allowed me to go beyond conventional representations of migration and to address those contradictions which make Eritrea a unique case in the study of home and migration.