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Eritrean refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place

by Caitlin L. Chandler

Aster’s one-story house in southern Eritrea was painted white and teal. Five windows overlooked a lawn, where her four daughters could play and donkeys grazed. But last September, authorities spray-painted a giant X on the front. Aster (not her real name) gathered her children and left before a bulldozer smashed the walls, leaving only rubble.

As huge numbers of Eritreans flee the country, President Isaias Afwerki’s regime is increasingly retaliating against their families. The government has demanded payments from families whose children have escaped—50,000 nafkas (US$3,333) per child, or face jail. Now it’s demolishing houses and seizing property too.

“They want to punish people,” says her brother, Fikru, 31, who recently arrived in Geneva after seven years of bouncing between countries as an Eritrean refugee. Fikru, who recounted Aster’s story to me, says his other brothers had sent money from abroad to pay for the construction.

Experts say Afwerki needs a constant supply of young people to maintain his police state. A June 2015 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea documented in detail the regime’s indefinite military conscription. The military has drafted children younger than 15, tortured its own members and engaged in the systematic sexual abuse of women.

But despite the report’s conclusion of possible “crimes against humanity”—and an Eritrean government official’s recent admission to a Wall Street Journal reporter that the regime engages in torture—some countries and right-wing political parties in Europe are jostling to send a signal to Eritreans: don’t come here anymore.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, many of Europe’s right wing parties were quick to insinuate Syrian refugees were to blame and to call for stricter immigration and border controls. But even before the attacks, some European governments were already manoeuvring to prevent refugees from entering their countries.

Eritreans—who represent one of the largest groups of refugees seeking safety in Europe in recent years—have been a primary target of those who would close Europe’s doors.


Whitewashed report as pretext

Efforts to exclude Eritrean refugees from Europe began over a year ago in Denmark. In mid-2014, the Danish Immigration Service embarked on a fact-finding mission to Eritrea after seeing a dramatic rise in the number of Eritreans seeking asylum. The mission report—based primarily on anonymous interviews in Asmara—declared conditions had improved enough that Eritreans would no longer be recognised as refugees in Denmark.

Human rights organisations denounced the report, and two men who contributed to it resigned, saying they were pressured to ensure the report allowed Denmark to adopt stricter asylum practices. After a period of public pressure, the Danish government announced Eritreans would still receive asylum in Denmark, but the report remained public.

Then in March 2015 the UK Home Office changed their asylum guidance for Eritreans using the Danish report as its key source; the recognition rate for Eritreans subsequently dropped from 73 per cent to 29 per cent.

Professor Gaim Kibreab, director of Refugee Studies at London South Bank University, was the sole academic interviewed for the Danish report and then went on record to denounce it. “What can you do when governments don’t care about principles or rights?” said Gaim in a phone interview.

“There’s a competition in the EU on who is harsher on asylum seekers,” Gaim says, adding that most Eritreans who were recently denied asylum in the UK are now appealing.

On 6 November 2015, Norway’s Ministry of Justice announced on Facebook a tightening of the country’s asylum policies. It warned Afghani asylum seekers they might be denied protection and deported to Kabul, and then mentioned efforts to “conduct dialogue with the Eritrean authorities to get diplomatic assurances from the Eritrean authorities that enable return.”

Most countries base their new willingness to work with Eritrea’s regime on unconfirmed indications that Afwerki’s government may end indeterminate national service. Yet experts say there’s no evidence to support these claims.

“I have not received any information emanating from the Government of Eritrea that it will no longer carry out the practice of ‘indefinite conscription,’ ” said UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea Sheila B. Keetharuth via e-mail.

“I have heard from other sources, including diplomatic sources that the Government of Eritrea has indicated that those newly enrolled will be discharged from national service duties at the end of 18 months. Yet, those concerned have not been informed that they will be released, nor have their parents been informed.”

Keetharuth also noted there has been no talk of demobilising those currently in the military–some serving for more than 15 years. Keetharuth has requested permission at least four times to enter Eritrea, most recently in August 2015, to independently assess the situation inside the country. Each time her visa application has been denied.


Norway moves to pull the welcome mat

The 6 November Facebook post from Norway’s Ministry of Justice is the latest in a string of moves by the ministry, which is led by a minister from the right-wing Progress Party. There are presently 13,246 Eritreans seeking asylum in Norway, and Eritreans were the largest group of asylum seekers until this year, when Syrians surpassed them. Norway’s actual asylum proceedings have not yet changed; 99 per cent of Eritreans who applied for asylum so far in 2015 received protection.

But in June, Jøran Kallmyr, state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, visited Asmara to discuss a “return agreement” after publicly commenting that Norway might alter its asylum policies for Eritreans.

Kallmyr then stated that, “Eritrea has lost a large part of its youth population because of European asylum policies.” His comment echoed what Afwerki has long claimed publicly: that his regime is not to blame for the exodus.

“The government’s public statements were definitely made to send signals to Eritrean asylum seekers not to come to Norway,” said Florentina Grama, an advisor at the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers in Oslo. Grama, speaking by phone, said the majority of Eritreans apply for asylum based on the indefinite national service, and a few for religious persecution.

The Eritrean government only recognises four religions: the Orthodox Church of Eritrea; Sunni Islam; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Those who practice other religions have to report their activities to the government, facing torture and detention.

For over a year, the European Union has also been quietly working with the Eritrean government on stemming migration and calling for, amongst other things, “promoting sustainable development in countries of origin…in order to address the root causes of irregular migration.”

This October, the EU Development Fund announced it was resuming aid to Eritrea with a possible US$229 million package for economic development in part to give people alternatives to migration.

According to official EU sources, the funding will help tackle poverty and “directly benefit the population.” Such a rationale seemingly ignores that most Eritreans indicate leaving to avoid the regime’s human rights abuses—although officials said such cooperation allows “the EU to reinforce a political dialogue to highlight the importance of human rights.”

But new research reveals aid does not stem migration from poor countries—and actually has the opposite effect. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC, found in a recent study that as people earn more, they also leave at higher rates.

“The unanimous finding of half a century of research is that more economic development is associated with more migration not less, until a country surpasses middle-income status,” said Clemens on the phone. “It’s politically convenient to have an alternative narrative in which aid money will somehow make Eritrea a desirable place to live, but that runs counter to all the evidence we have.”


“A crisis of politics, not numbers”

The recent Valletta Summit on migration made clear the EU would continue in this vein, as well as attempting to leverage development funding to force African countries like Eritrea to allow EU countries to return failed asylum seekers.

Clemens argues European countries have an alternative to their current approach to Eritrean and other refugees: flexible regulation and accommodation of the new arrivals.

“When you invest in refugees, they turn into an amazing resource,” he says. “They’re an economic resource—not if one forbids them from working or confines them to camps, but if they’re given job training, language training and upfront investments. The current crisis is one of politics, not numbers.”

In October, I spoke with Hayat (name changed to protect his identity), a 16-year-old boy from Eritrea who recently arrived in Switzerland. To get here, he had travelled for days across the Sahara, crammed in the back of a truck. Two people from his group died when their truck flipped; one was a pregnant 16-year-old girl.

The accident left the group stranded for four days in the blinding heat. Later, Hayat was forced to stay in underground caves in Libya while his group was bought and sold by different smugglers.

“I was very afraid,” said Hayat. “But the older people cared for me. They gave me some of their food, water and hope. I’m now missing my family, but happy to be here for my life.”

When European countries helped create the 1951 Refugee Convention in the aftermath of the Second World War, they realised that people fleeing persecution deserved protection. They also recognised the right not to be returned to a place where your life or freedom is threatened.

Over the past few months, that right has been put in jeopardy as European countries have manipulated asylum systems so that it matters more where you flee to, rather than what you flee from.


This article was originally published in The Nation, republished here with the kind permission of Agence Global.

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Your comments

  • On 11 December 2015 at 03:42, by Eritrean Replying to: Eritrean refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place

    So your solution to the problem of Eritreans leaving their Country is to make it easier for them to leave so more of them come??? Is this not just liberal nice talk for brain drain? Does Eritrae not have the right to development? The right to live in peace? How about you stop enticing young people to take dangerous journeys through the desert by giving them free asylum when they land in Europe? If you really want them to come to Europe, why not fly them direct out of Sudan?

    Have you also read what the current US Charge De’affairs said about the Bisha mine in Eritrea? Looks like he invalidated much of the claims made by the so-called human rights commission.

  • On 11 December 2015 at 14:36, by shida Replying to: Eritrean refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place

    From Chief of Mission Louis Mazel

    “My visit to the Bisha Mine”

    I had the opportunity November 21-22 to visit the Bisha Mine along with my Deputy Lori Dando and her husband. I have been wanting to visit the mine for some time as it is the only mine currently operating in the country (although the Zara Mine should come on line soon) and is a major contributor to the Eritrean economy. I was joined on the trip by diplomats from Canada, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nations.

    For me, the visit was a real eye-opener. The Bisha Mine is a modern, well-run facility that currently employs 1400 people, of whom 90 percent are Eritrean. Twenty percent of the employees are women and the Bisha facility is creating employment opportunities for people in neighboring towns and villages, who otherwise would never have opportunities to work in the wage economy. Most people in neighboring towns and villages are subsistence farmers and herders. One woman, who began as a cleaner at the mine, is now driving one of the heavy Caterpillar trucks (American made!) that carries copper ore to the crushing plant. That is what I call creating opportunity! The mine also pays some of the highest wages in the country and employees at the mine have Western protective gear and safety rules equaling anything you would find in Canada or the USA.

    Our first stop during the visit was a training session for the mine’s security section on human rights, including Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights in the Extractive Industries as developed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The security team working at the mine has developed good relations with local police and security officials and they work in a collaborative manner. The guards at the mine are not armed and there have been no security incidents at the facility involving the local population.

    We were briefed on how the Bisha Mine hires its staff and were told that the mine ensures that all of its employees are demobilized from National Service and have a certificate of release on file. The mine also puts into its contract with sub-contractors, including the trucking company that delivers the copper to the port of Massawa, that workers employed by sub-contractors must be demobilized from National Service. The mine conducts periodic audits of these sub-contractors personnel records to ensure that this requirement is being met.

    We also had an opportunity to visit the health clinic at the mine and receive a briefing from the doctor and medical staff working there. It is one of the most advanced clinics in the country and has the only digital x-ray scanner in the country. I was very envious, because the availability of digital scans is a requirement for the Consular Section of the Embassy to do immigrant visa processing.

    The huge open pit-mine, which I observed from above, operates 24/7 and is currently finalizing its copper phase. The gold phase of mining was completed almost two years ago. After the copper phase is completed, Bisha will move into the zinc layers. Following the visit to the mining site, we then visited the crushing plant and the copper slurry facility where the final product (copper slurry) is prepared for export. The new zinc processing facility was recently installed and will be operational in the coming year when the main mining product will shift to zinc.

    Some 30-40 trucks travel from Bisha to the port of Massawa every day carrying huge containers of copper slurry that is then exported to various processors around the world. Drivers of these trucks have strict requirements on the hours they can operate and the number of hours every day they can drive, in order to eliminate the problem of driver fatigue. The yellow Chinese-made trucks with their grey containers of copper slurry are always visible on the roads going to and from Keren and on the road heading down from Asmara to Massawa. Drivers are monitored via tracking GPS systems to ensure that they follow the rules regarding vehicle safety.

    The Bisha Mine is also making efforts to be a responsible neighbor and partner. This year it is planting 20,000 seedlings (all indigenous varieties) to replace trees that were removed during the open pit mining process. The company has pledged to plant five trees for every one tree removed. In addition, the Bisha Mine is embarking on community corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in neighboring communities, primarily in repairing dams and canals and refurbishing watering points for livestock.

    Before returning to Asmara we stopped in the village of Tekreret where we met local leaders, witnessed a lovely coffee ceremony, and did a bit of sword dancing with some local youth. They also dressed me in traditional Tigre clothing.
    In sum, I saw a Western mining company that is creating jobs, investing in local people, mining responsibly, respecting human rights, acting as a good neighbor, and contributing to national development in Eritrea. I hope this will become a model for future mines operating in the country.

  • On 12 December 2015 at 01:27, by John Replying to: Eritrean refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place

    I don’t know if I should call the reporters and the European government evil or stupid . Is it not the root cause of Eritrean problem THE REFUSAL OF ETHIOPIAN REGIME TO ABIDE BY THE RULING OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT???? Why don’t these governments force Ethiopia to let the UN demarcate the border ?? All the problems would have been solved>>

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