Members of the Eritrean American community have alleged that a festival held in Tacoma is serving as cover for the Eritrean government’s human rights abuses.
They said that the 49th annual U.S. Eritrean Festival, which took place Aug. 5 to 6 at the Tacoma Convention Center, served as implicit cover for the country’s ruling party, People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The party has remained in power since Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopian occupation in 1993.
“The Eritrean government has been extremely active in using ‘cultural events/festivals’ to propagate its hate against its neighbors, to militarize its diaspora youth and to raise funds to conduct its war,” wrote Abell Tecle, an Eritrean American activist, to Real Change.
These strong political disagreements have led to turmoil and violence at multiple Eritrean cultural events throughout the diaspora. Just days before the Tacoma festival, clashes at a similar event outside of Stockholm, Sweden, left more than 50 people injured and 100 people detained.
Opposition activists called on the city of Tacoma to cancel the festival. Renowned AI researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru wrote to the mayor, asking, “What would you say to the refugees who fled unimaginable atrocities and took perilous journeys to escape this regime, only to come to Tacoma to see it given free rein to conduct its activities? I hope the answer is that Tacoma is not a place that welcomes such regimes, but one that stands with the oppressed.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the city of Tacoma wrote that, as a public venue, “the Greater Tacoma Convention Center is required under the first amendment to permit the use of the venue by all types of events regardless of the client, their ideology or the potential content.”
In the end, the festival — and protests against it — went ahead anyway. Law enforcement was heavily deployed around the venue to minimize potential violence. The Tacoma Police Department reported on Twitter that there were minor disruptions, including alleged vandalism of tents and “disturbances” that “were quickly stopped.”
On Aug. 4, Eritrean information minister Yemane Gebremeskel denounced festival protestors on social media, calling them “asylum scum.”
In 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that roughly half a million Eritreans had been made refugees; the country’s population is 6.3 million in 2023 according to U.S estimates, though the government does not carry out an official census. Human Rights Watch reports that the government of Eritrea has engaged in repression of political dissent, forced conscription, unlawful detention and torture. The country has not held national elections since it gained independence.
Eritrea frequently ranks among the 10 poorest countries in Africa. This disparity is in part due to sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western countries on the PFDJ, state-owned enterprises and the economy at large, which have contributed to Eritrea’s diplomatic isolation and economic immiseration.
U.S. Eritrean Festival organizers did not respond to a request for comment.