Bloomberg: Eritrean President Accused of Crimes Against Humanity in Sweden

Published by Bloomberg

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and seven other senior officials have been accused of crimes against humanity by a press freedom group for detaining a Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaak, for almost two decades.

Reporters Without Borders filed the complaint in Sweden and is calling for a “serious criminal investigation” into the torture, abduction and enforced disappearance of Isaak, who was arrested in 2001 when he returned to the Horn of African nation to run a newspaper. He holds dual Eritrean and Swedish nationality.

The move is “too preposterous and ludicrous to merit response,” Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea’s minister of information, said in a phone message.

Afwerki has been president of Eritrea since the country secured independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The country has no free press, and ranks 178th out of 180 countries on a World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, ahead of only North Korea and Turkmenistan.

“Justice in Eritrea will not progress as long as these persons are able to act with complete impunity and no attempt is made to convict them by the countries that can,” lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, one of the complaint’s signatories, said in a statement on Wednesday.

HRW: Eritrea Busses Thousands of Students to Military Camp

Published by the Human Rights Watch

Videos and photographs circulating on social media earlier this week showed buses in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, crowded with students, who were not wearing masks, as they were separated from their families and sent off to a military training camp in the country’s west.

Each year, Eritrea’s government forces thousands of secondary school students, some still children, to attend their final school year in the infamous Sawa military camp, where students study but also undergo compulsory military training.

This year’s departures take place amid a lockdown. To curb the pandemic, the government imposed strict movement restrictions and closed schools. Yet it still decided to send the students off to Sawa and risk exposing them to the virus.

That is likely because the final secondary school year in Sawa serves as the government’s main conveyor belt through which it conscripts its citizens into indefinite government service.  

Last year we reported on what life in Sawa looks like: students under military command, with harsh military punishments and discipline, and female students reporting sexual harassment and exploitation. Apart from Sawa’s other defects, dormitory life there is crowded, facilitating the spread of the virus if introduced. The danger is compounded by its very limited health facilities.

This has a devastating impact on students’ futures. From Sawa, those with poor grades are forced into vocational training – and most likely military service. Those with better grades go to college, then into a civilian government job. Students have little to no choice over their assignment.

Former Sawa students abroad have campaigned recently for the government to stop sending students to Sawa, but in vain.

Even in “normal” times, life at Sawa is grim and abusive. During the pandemic, it is likely even more dangerous. Eritrea will not build education back better after the pandemic if it funnels students into military camps. 

Instead of bussing new students to Sawa, the government should allow students serving in Sawa to return home and let them choose where they complete their final year in school, including at public secondary schools closer to home. It should end compulsory military training during secondary school and ensure that no one underage is conscripted.

Eritrea’s youth deserve real reform if they are to have any hope of a brighter future.

Freedom House: Eritrea 2020: Freedom in the World Country Report

Read full report at the Freedom House

Overview

Eritrea is a militarized authoritarian state that has not held a national election since independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), headed by President Isaias Afwerki, is the sole political party. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, and citizens are required to perform national service, often for their entire working lives. The government shut down all independent media in 2001.

Key Developments in 2019
  • Eritrean authorities closed the border’s country with Ethiopia in April. Eritreans crossed the border, which was previously opened in 2018, to seek asylum or refuge elsewhere, and continued to do so after the government’s decision.
  • The government continued to interfere in the activities of religious groups during the year. In June, it closed health facilities operated by the Roman Catholic Church, after bishops called for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission; that same month, the government reportedly arrested five Orthodox Christian priests for criticizing government interference in their church.
  • The authorities also continued moves to restrict academic freedom. Seven secondary schools operated by religious organizations were seized by security forces in September.

Open Democracy: No way to find home: common stories of Eritreans in Italy and the Netherlands

Published by Open Democracy

The aspiration to find a new home – not only a safe place, but also a ground to exercise freedom and to think positively about the future – is a key ingredient in the life histories of the Eritrean refugees that we met in Italy and the Netherlands. Aspiration here refers to the individual and collective capacity to imagine possible alternatives to present lives. This capacity is a crucial resource for Eritreans who risk everything to change their lives. However, as much as they want to find a stable place for themselves and their families they are continuously struggling with precariousness and isolation.

“Life here is like a traffic light: sometimes it’s green, when you have a job, but can suddenly turn red”, Kibron, 37, said. In Italy for over eight years, he lives in a squat on the outskirts of Rome and recently lost his seasonal job. “Maybe it can be green again, but then it will be red, and again, and again”. It’s an apt metaphor for the unpredictability of daily life for Eritreans in Italy. Poor or lacking inclusion policies for newcomers have led to widespread economic precariousness among refugees. They are often relegated to underpaid, irregular and unskilled jobs and face chronic residential instability. As a consequence, many Eritreans experience social marginality and feel without control over their lives, even after years spent in the country.

But precarious jobs and bad housing are not alone in preventing Eritreans from feeling at home in Europe. In the Netherlands refugees mostly struggle with social isolation and feelings of helplessness. Although there are several institutional programmes and, depending on the area, local organisations’ initiatives to support inclusion, many refugees we spoke to had a hard time starting a new life there. “I do not feel at home anywhere here”, said Yohannes, who at 39 lives in a provincial town where Eritreans are an absolute novelty. “Back in Eritrea, the house is not what we mean by home. Our neighbourhood instead, is what we call home… the friends, the people, the ground.” He’s not there by choice. In the attempt to reduce concentration of specific ethnic groups in bigger cities, such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Dutch asylum reception policies have moved people into small towns and semi-rural areas. In doing so, they have neglected the importance of community connections for the wellbeing of newcomers and their long-term integration.

These difficulties, this continuous sense of unachievement, come at the end of a long series of obstacles marking refugees’ pasts. Like most young men in Eritrea, Yohannes and Kibron saw years of military service, violence, and poverty before them. The idea that a better life was possible elsewhere motivated them to leave, yet doing so was not easy. They were incarcerated multiple times for attempting to escape the country. Yohannes was in and out of prison more than four times before managing to reach Sudan.

Many Eritreans spend years in camps in Ethiopia or hiding from police while employed in low-paid jobs in Sudan. They then invest their extremely limited resources and those of their families in a potentially deadly journey across the Libyan desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Their aspiration to find a new home, a safe and comfortable haven to allow them some emotional and material stability, drives their actions along this entire pathway. “Since I was a teenager, I dreamt of leaving”, said Yakoub, who is 26 years old. “I met so many 50 even 60 years old men who went into military when they were seventeen and then they were never released. Life stopped for them … I did not want it to be the same for me”.

Aspirations can at times lead migrants into extremely dangerous circumstances. The stronger the aspiration to change one’s life, the higher the level of vulnerability one is willing to tolerate. The high number of Eritreans imprisoned in inhuman conditions in Libya, facing daily abuse and torture, is a testament to the driving power of aspiration. The counterintuitive flipside, however, is how hard the landing can feel once they get where they are going. After all the risks taken in pursuit of an imaginary future, once they arrive refugees often look back on their trajectories as a cumulation of losses. Losing their families, losing what was familiar to them, losing money, and not finding a new home. As one Eritrean we spoke to said, “I don’t feel at home here…I don’t have a job, I want to achieve something but I do no manage… as far as I don’t have hope and happiness inside me I don’t have a home.”

Accumulated homelessness

Within our research we’ve taken to calling this feeling accumulated homelessness, a notion which points to the subjective meaning of protracted displacement. This idea – this state of being – is far more than a simple policy category referring to the situation of refugees living for five years or more in exile in refugee camps, mostly situated in Africa and Asia. Marginality, a lack of ‘durable solutions’, and institutionalised precariousness characterise refugees’ lives even after reaching a safe place in Europe. Eritreans we met in Italy and the Netherlands were constantly struggling to find a house and a job, and they were unable to escape the feeling of being out of place.

This struggle, however, did not stop them from aspiring. In Italy, living in an informal settlement or in a squat is an ordinary solution to fight housing precariousness and job fluctuations. Huge buildings occupied for years by hundreds of refugees lie on the outskirts of the Italian capital. These places, often described by media as ghettos, represent homes for most Eritrean refugees. Once ex-municipal bureaus, they have been turned into functional, at times cosy, apartment blocks by the Eritrean squatters. They usually have common areas for watching TV, eating together and playing table tennis. Although inhabitants complain about job instability, racism, and their precarious accommodation, living together in these squats allows them to re-establish a familiar environment and to overcome stress and isolation by supporting each other.

Eviction is an ever-present threat for people in a squat. This became clear in August 2017, when a building inhabited by 600 people, mainly refugees from Eritrea, was suddenly cleared out. The pictures of police water cannons used to violently repress the protest of inhabitants have had some resonance in the local and international media. But the effects of this eviction in people’s lives have been far more profound. Beside facing the practical consequences of being without a shelter, many inhabitants lost their homes once again. “Now we are here chatting together and someone is even laughing”, said Binyam, 37, on the evening of the eviction, “but our hearts are crying because our lives have been broken today”.

In the Netherlands, Eritreans often visit each other in different villages to overcome solitude. In 2018, Yohannes and his co-nationals living in the same region were planning to establish a cultural association, called “Our Home”, where they could meet to listen to Eritrean music, talk among each other, and drink coffee the way they used to do back home. “When we arrive here, we all have traumas”, said Aaron, 40. “We need a place where we can share our experience, feel safe and also exchange ideas on how to deal with our new lives here.” According to him, this association would have been a way for his community to find a place in a society which they perceived as hostile and unwelcoming.

Unfortunately, the association had a short life. After a long negotiation to convince the municipal authorities that the association will not be “a site of ethnic segregation, but of integration”, Aaron found a place to rent and furnished it the way he liked. He placed a long bar resembling Asmara art-deco cafes right in front of the door, a big TV to play Eritrean videos in the corner, and traditional carpet on the wall. He opened the doors and people came. A few weeks later the police came as well, and the doors were shut. Some said the neighbours had complained about young Black people hanging out in that area. Others explained that the place did not fulfil all the right legal requirements for a cultural association. “They took away my home… again,” Aaron said. “I feel emptied.”

Squats in Italy and the attempt to start cultural associations in the Netherlands materialise migrants’ aspirations to establish a place to call home in their new countries of settlement. Amidst widespread discrimination, little institutional support and unfamiliar cultural surroundings, Eritreans keep finding creative solutions to feel at home and to start anew. From a policy perspective, this points to the importance of building on migrants’ initiatives, rather than destroying them through evictions or hindering them for fear of ethnic segregation. Surely many aspects of the home left behind cannot be reproduced in exile, but it is not unimaginable to think about a policy which would work towards facilitating refugees’ initiatives to reconstruct of a familiar and safe environment for themselves. This would imply that the need for a home is acknowledged as a basic condition for the exercise of more functional activities, such as working, supporting oneself, one’s own family and the society at large.

HRW: Lack of Rights Reforms Highlight Ongoing Need for Mandate Renewal

Published by the Human Rights Watch

We welcome the report by the Special Rapporteur and her ongoing efforts to shine light on the dire rights situation in Eritrea despite many challenges.

Despite Eritrea’s engagement with certain UN mechanisms, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Eritrea still refuses to constructively engage with much of the UN rights system, including OHCHR and the mandate holder, who the government recently denounced as “the mouthpiece of Eritrea’s archenemies.” Eritrea’s denial  of access and refusal to cooperate with this council’s mechanisms violates their membership obligations.

As both the Special Rapporteur and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have reported, there have been no tangible improvements in the dire rights situation in Eritrea, including against the bench­marks which the Council had requested. 

Since the last dialogue, the country has taken no steps to reform its notorious indefinite national service system. Thousands of children were forced to go to the Sawa military camp to attend their final year of high school, where they face abuse and are channeled into indefinite national service.

Individuals continue to be held incommunicado and detained indefinitely, denied basic due process rights, without access to legal counsel, judicial review, or family visits, some for decades.  Detention facilities are overcrowded and unsanitary – made worse by Covid-19 restrictions which denies many detainees vital food parcels and sanitary products their families could bring.

The government could have implemented greatly needed rights reforms during Covid-19, notably by allowing students in Sawa to return home, and to release political detainees and low-risk offenders, but such calls from the Special Rapporteur and Human Rights Watch among others have fallen on deaf ears.

As the Special Rapporteur states, the government still clamps down on religious freedoms and religious institutions. When the Catholic Church leadership called for basic reforms in 2019, the government responded by taking over important religion-affiliated schools and confiscated all Catholic health facilities, leaving people in parts of the country without access to healthcare.

In the first quarter of 2020, thousands of Eritreans, many children, fled into Ethiopia – a telling sign of the lack of tangible improvements in the human rights situation for Eritreans back home.

The Council has given Eritrea a number of opportunities since this mandate was created to offer it a constructive way forward, none of which have resulted in a shift of approach by the Eritrean government. Eritreans facing the brunt of this ongoing repression back home deserve to know that their government will continue to face Council scrutiny.

Euronews: Eritrean migrants in Libya claim EU-backed voluntary returns programme isn’t so voluntary

Published by Euronews

When the 21 migrants arrived at Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli in May 2019, each was given a bag containing a clean shirt and a pair of trousers.

The group had spent the last eight months in prison in the city of Zwara, 100 kilometres to the west, where conditions had deteriorated.

Approached by staff members of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in prison, they had provided their names and – unwittingly, they claim – agreed to be repatriated back to Asmara, Eritrea, on a commercial flight paid for by the European Union.

But once at the airport, the men changed their minds. At least five of them turned and fled, managing to evade the security forces, who fired their weapons into the air. The remaining 16 were bundled onto the plane in view of UN staff, a number of the men told Euronews.

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When the 21 migrants arrived at Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli in May 2019, each was given a bag containing a clean shirt and a pair of trousers.

The group had spent the last eight months in prison in the city of Zwara, 100 kilometres to the west, where conditions had deteriorated.

Approached by staff members of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in prison, they had provided their names and – unwittingly, they claim – agreed to be repatriated back to Asmara, Eritrea, on a commercial flight paid for by the European Union.

But once at the airport, the men changed their minds. At least five of them turned and fled, managing to evade the security forces, who fired their weapons into the air. The remaining 16 were bundled onto the plane in view of UN staff, a number of the men told Euronews.about:blank

“IOM told us it was too late, everything had been organised: you have to go back to your country,” one said.

“We had a lot of language barriers, we couldn’t communicate,” another said.

The language barriers apparently began long before the flight was due to depart. One of the men told Euronews that all communication with him had been in Arabic and conducted with Libyans. In a statement, an IOM spokesperson told Euronews that “IOM has international staff who speak Tigrinya, Amharic and Swahili.”

The flight to Asmara was just one of hundreds operated under the EU-IOM Joint Initiative, which has assisted the voluntary return of 81,000 African migrants – 50,000 of them from Libya since 2015. Under the programme, African migrants are offered flights back to their home country as well as cash, counselling and reintegration support.

But a Euronews investigation has uncovered massive failings in the programme, funded by the European Union to the tune of €357 million. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) itself admits that only one third of migrants who start the reintegration process actually complete the process. Others suggest the numbers are even lower.

Across seven African nations, Euronews has gathered first-hand accounts from migrants that have returned home on commercial or charter flights paid for by the EU. Most received no support from the IOM once they returned, and even those that did found it insufficient. In some cases, migrants were planning to leave home for the shores of Europe again.

In the case of Eritrea, the situation is compounded by the dire conditions in the East African nation, led by the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afewerki and described as one of the world’s most repressive nations by Human Rights Watch.

As well as a lack of political and social rights, citizens are forcibly conscripted into the military and suffer abuse and violence.

Any Eritrean who flees the country without completing military service and returns home has to sign a form that reads:

“I regret having committed an offence by not completing the national service and am ready to accept appropriate punishment in due course.”

Even after Eritrea’s 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, told the UN Human Rights Council that there “is no concrete evidence of progress […] in the human rights situation in the country.

A recent enquiry by the UN found that “returnees are systematically ill-treated to the point of torture during the interrogation phase“ by local authorities. They “are inevitably considered as having left the country unlawfully, and are consequently regarded as serious offenders, but also as ‘traitors’,” it said.

Despite these conditions, the IOM, with European Union support, has facilitated the return of 61 Eritreans to Eritrea from Libya over the past two years.

IOM admitted to Euronews that not only does the organisation have a “limited presence” in Eritrea, but neither it nor the UNHCR have “no access and cannot monitor their situation on return.” As a result, a key element of the voluntary return programme – reintegration assistance once migrants return home – cannot be carried out in Eritrea.

In a statement, the organisation said migrants are “aware of options available to them to exercise their right to seek asylum if they wish to seek international protection instead of returning to their country of origin. If following this joint counselling the individuals decide to return to Eritrea regardless, IOM facilitates their return.”

Indeed, the director-general of the IOM, Antonio Vitorino, brushed off criticism of the voluntary returns to Eritrea by Elizabeth Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist based in London, last May after she requested an end to repatriations of Eritreans from Libya.

In a letter sent to Vitorino, she argued that the repatriations were taking advantage of the desperation of Eritreans to escape horrific conditions in Libya, and that Eritreans don’t receive appropriate information about the process.

Vitorino replied to Chyrum that the “programme proves to be a viable option to evacuate stranded migrants out of countries in crisis,” such as Libya.

Once the men flown back to Eritrea from Tripoli reached Asmara, they were immediately arrested and interrogated. One of the men, Theame, said that he received daily calls from officials and was forced to sign a form declaring that he had committed a crime by leaving.

Released from jail, he immediately left the country and is currently registered as a refugee in Ethiopia, where he survives due to cash sent by his brother in Germany.

But for those that escaped that night in Tripoli, life has also been hard. One of the escapees, an unaccompanied child, subsequently crossed the Mediterranean to Italy, and then to France, where Euronews met him in a makeshift camp north of the capital, Paris. He planned to continue his journey until he reached his final goal: the UK.

Commenting on why Eritreans agree to go back to Eritrea despite the conditions, he said: “Many people in Libyan detention centres have lost hope. Those who decide to go back to Eritrea had no alternative.”

DW: Eritrean refugees in Germany struggle to reunite with family

Published by Deutsche Welle

People granted refugee status in Germany are allowed to bring their spouse or partner, as well as children under the age of 18, into the country under family reunification laws. 

But for many of those from Eritrea, who make up the biggest group of African refugees in Germany, this is proving difficult.

In 2019, German embassies in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya received 1,645 visa applications from Eritreans for family reunification — as Germany’s Embassy to Eritrea doesn’t have a visa office, Eritreans need to lodge their visa applications in one of these neighboring countries. 

Only 48% of these were approved, according to a response to a parliamentary question asked in Germany’s Bundestag by Die Linke, a socialist party. 

A major hurdle is that German consular officials are “systematically suspicious” of marriage certificates issued by churches in Eritrea of being forgeries, said Ulla Jelpke, a member of German parliament for Die Linke. 

Germany’s Foreign Office, however, says it has no choice but to reject such certificates. 

“Due to the variety of document formats that exist, there is no reliable way for German embassies abroad to verify the formal and textual accuracy of Eritrean religious marriage certificates,” it says in a written response to the parliamentary question. 

This forces refugees, or their spouses, to turn to officials in Eritrea, a state renowned for persecuting its citizens, to register the marriage and issue documents recognized by the German government. 

“These are unbearable requirements that need to be changed as soon as possible,” Jelpke told DW.

Eritrea’s appalling human rights record

There are many reasons Eritrean refugees are often reluctant to approach their own consular authorities. 

The country is viewed as one of the world’s most repressive nations. President Isaias Afewerki used the threats of conflict with Ethiopia to justify his authoritarian rule, marked by the suspension of independent media, the quashing of dissent and its infamous national service, where many spend years suffering forced labor and physical abuse.

Despite the signing of a peace accord with Ethiopia in 2018, this situation hasn’t changed. 

Germany’s Foreign Office is itself critical of the Eritrean regime. 

“Democracy and the rule of law are not guaranteed, the political system is repressive. There is no free press and the civil society is marginalized. Human rights are severely restricted,” says a Foreign Office report. 

By the end of 2018, more than 507,000 Eritreans had fled their country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — a little under 10 percent of the population. 

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report on Eritrea 2020, “leaving the country without permission is illegal and individuals trying to flee risk being shot, killed, or arrested.”

The long arm of that state means that those Eritreans living abroad fear approaching consular services because of the threat of reprisals against their families at home. 

Diaspora tax

On top of this comes the threat of the so-called diaspora tax. All Eritrean citizens living abroad are supposed to pay 2% of their salary in tax to the government back home.  

“If someone goes to the [Eritrean] embassy in Germany to get documents, the person isn’t physically threatened. But it can happen that pressure is put on relatives at home, or the person is forced to pay the … diaspora tax,” Eritrea expert Nicole Hirt from Germany’s GIGA Institute told DW.

When asked by DW, Eritrea’s embassy to Germany said its citizens are expected to pay what they called a “solidarity contribution” and confirmed that Eritreans can’t receive certain state services if they don’t pay the tax.

The German government doesn’t see this as an issue. 

“The levying of the reconstruction tax by Eritrea does not violate German law and does not appear fundamentally unreasonable,” the Federal Government writes in its response to the parliamentary question. 

It added that the Eritrean embassy in Berlin didn’t collect this tax, something that critics don’t necessarily believe. 

Declaration of repentance 

Eritrea’s embassies are also said to force its citizens living abroad to make something known as “declarations of repentance” in which they admit their escape was illegal and they accept that they will face punishment if they return to Eritrea. 

Germany’s Foreign Office also considers this unproblematic. 

“The Federal Government has no evidence that the signing of the so-called declaration of repentance would fundamentally worsen the signatories’ legal position or that their relatives would be exposed to reprisals in Eritrea.”

Eritrea’s embassy in Berlin told DW the declaration is an Eritrean immigration authority form used to prevent illegal migration and signing it would not automatically result in punishment.

However, in 2016, the then UN Human Rights Commissioner for Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, warned that the declaration of repentance gave Eritrean authorities a “blank check” to violate the rights of returning refugees.

Long waiting times

Refugees and their families sometimes face far more mundane problems. Simply getting to see a consular officer in the region takes patience — the average waiting times for an appointment are 14 months in Nairobi, 13 months in Addis Ababa and ten months in Khartoum. 

“These endless waiting times need to be urgently shortened,” politician Ulla Jelpke told DW. 

But this is unlikely to change for the time being. 

“The Foreign Office is keeping a close eye on waiting times and responding to persistent appointment bottlenecks as quickly as possible with organizational measures and staff reinforcements,” it says in its written response.

However, improving the situation in the short term might be problematic. 

“Conditions specific to the situation abroad can make the expansion, rental or purchase of new real estate more difficult or delay it; the assignment of qualified personnel who may still be undergoing training requires longer lead times than domestic hiring,” the Foreign Office added.

For Eritrean refugees and families, this means they are still waiting — and hoping.

Africa Report: Eritrean refugees: Still caught in a game of ‘political football’

Published by Africa Report

Ethiopia is planning to shut a camp and is refusing prima facie acceptance of Eritrean refugees ensnared in toxic rivalries between Addis Ababa, Tigray, and Asmara.

A year ago, Tigrayan minibus drivers gave discounted rates to newly arrived Eritrean refugees who travelled to the town of Shire, especially if they were attractive young women. There was flirting and jokes in a packed minibus with loud Tigrinya music in the background and white netela scarves frantically danced in the wind when the driver sped up to impress the girls.

It seemed like a school trip. Nobody could have guessed that the young people on the bus had fled Eritrea. The driver’s brother said in a wide hypodontia smile, “These are our Tigrinya brothers and sisters: we are happy to welcome them.”

“Darker reality”

A darker reality lay not far beneath, namely views of an independent state of Tigray, incorporating at least a part of Eritrea.

During the bus ride between Hitstas and the nearest town, Shire in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, which borders Eritrea, was being buoyed up with nostalgia and nationalism about the Axumite Kingdom, which many centuries earlier had lost control of Red Sea trade to an Arab caliphate. And last century, Ethiopia lost access to the Port of Assab, as Eritrea became independent.

Some of the Tigrayan passengers who did not hope for the province’s secession from Ethiopia, or who did not support the (fringe) Agazian movement that called for the establishment of a Tigrinya-speaking Orthodox Christian state, were at least hostile to Abiy Ahmed, then in power for a year as the new chairman of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and, by extension, as prime minister.

They saw him as a CIA agent on steroids, pulling public relations stunts that fooled naïve foreigners.

On the minibus, nobody knew Abiy’s policies but they were quick to comment on his Oromo ethnicity and religious beliefs, and his apparent hatred for the people of Tigray, whose governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had dominated Ethiopia’s ruling system for a quarter century. The TPLF’s leaders had fought a war with Eritrea in the 1990s.

Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia

Last August, Hitsats the newest of four refugee camps, accommodated 34,000 Eritreans, and was full of artists: musicians playing a traditional guayla on a type of lyra called krar, as well as poets and actors performing hikeyya, a form of political satire.

Eritrean refugees who had the money took the one hour ride to Shire and other towns in Tigray. They said they left Eritrea because nothing had improved after the peace agreement between Abiy and Eritrea’s President Issayas Afeworki in 2018, for which Abiy alone would soon go on to be fêted with a Nobel Prize.

In September 2018, the countries briefly opened their border until Eritrea closed it again, ostensibly because of unregulated cross-border trade. (Eritrean households used Nakfa to buy goods from Ethiopian merchants, who, having no use for the Nakfa they accumulated, bought goods in Asmara to take back to Ethiopia as well as secretly hoarded foreign currency from Eritrean households.)

Eritrean refugee flow increases

The moment the borders were opened,  the refugee flow increased almost five-fold to an average of 390 daily, with 27,000 arriving at entry points to Ethiopia, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

In Hitsats, small, one room shelters of 4×5 metres were overcrowded, sometimes with as many as twenty young people of both sexes living in cramped conditions, and five persons having to share one, self-made mud bed. After the mass exodus followed by the open borders, there were no more shelters left to accommodate the newly arrived refugees.

The agencies started constructing ‘transitional shelters’ from CGI sheets. In the hottest months of April and May, they were as scolding as a mogogo, an oven used to make injera, a traditional flatbread. During the rainy season, the rain was so loud from inside the shelters that it was almost impossible to hear what the person sitting beside was saying.

Closing the doors

Two years after the rapprochement, the Nobel laureate’s policies seem darker and muddier. After Abiy last walked the red carpet in Asmara to meet with Issayas in January 2020, the Ethiopian federal government’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) has moved rapidly on plans to shutter Hitsats.

One senior retired Tigrayan intelligence official told us that Issayas had instructed Abiy to do as much. (Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Since February, residents are being told that they will be moved to two older and overcrowded camps: May-Ayni and Adi-Harush, after an initial delay stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hitsats, paradoxically, was established exactly seven years ago, precisely to deal with the lack of capacity of the three other camps in Tigray accommodating Eritrean refugees. There are now about 12,000 refugees in Hitsats and ARRA is refusing to accept Eritrean refugees on the prima facie basis on which they have always been accepted.

Fleeing Eritrea

Among those who travelled across the border in the months it was open in 2018 include the family of a mother, sister (both had been imprisoned in Eritrea), and niece (was raped in Eritrea) of Mesfin (not his real name), a resident of Hitsats. Mesfin had arrived before them in 2015 after forking over an equivalent of $2,500 in Nakfa to smugglers.

Fifteen years ago, Mesfin had joined a theological college in Asmara, vowing to become a Catholic priest. But he decided to flee after what he described as an over six-years’ cycle of intermittent imprisonment that followed his initial refusal to be conscripted into open-ended national service. Finally, he was forced to work at a state enterprise.

As Mesfin crossed over, he recalled Eritrean soldiers firing at those who fled. First, Ethiopian soldiers gave him food and water; then he was sent to Sheraro, a frontline refugee reception centre; and a day later, he was sent to Endabaguna, an official reception centre of ARRA, where he was debriefed for three days.

Eventually, UNCHR promised that he would be resettled in America, but it remains a distant dream.

Eritrean refugees: “political football”

Frontline reception centres at the Tigray-Eritrea border, once 16, are now three, even though Eritreans continue to cross the border, which remains porous. The Hitsats refugee committee has written to UNHCR fearing revocation of their refugee status and deportation back to Eritrea.

In March, the organisation wrote back that it had not received an official written notification about the planned camp closure, but all refugee camps in Ethiopia are run by ARRA and UNHCR is merely an implementing partner that needs to tread carefully.

For years, Eritrean refugees have served as something of a political football used to advance Ethiopia’s national security objectives; and so it is again. “This is your home; this is your country,” the TPLF’s chairman, Debretsion Gebremichael, declared in February, “To the Eritrean army, this is your country!”

Eritrean dissident organisations in Tigray want to absorb residents of Hitsats whom they say ARRA will not help; and Tigray doesn’t want to shut its doors to Eritrean refugees as rivalries deepen with the governments of Abiy and Issayas, who seem to want nothing less than the TPLF’s leaders’ heads on a platter.

Deteriorating conditions at the camp

Abraham, another refugee (not his real name), gained prima facie status at Hitsats a month before the peace agreement. Since then, conditions have deteriorated, food rations have dropped from 10 to 7 kilograms, wheat was replaced with maize, and water and medication are less available than before, he says. As the camp is not fenced, he is fearful, given anyone can enter, especially at night.

To make matters worse, one of the agencies working in the camp is threatening and imprisoning refugees opposing closure. Violence escalated during Orthodox Easter celebrations in April when police were called in but did not carry out any arrests. Although Hitsats is considered safe during the day, it is perceived as dangerous at night.

There is no electricity grid, and the dominant demographic, young men between 16 and 25 are seen as a threat and are blamed for night-time disturbances. Some refugees suspect that ARRA may wish to incite violence in the camp in order to have a pretext to close it down or that Eritrean pro-government spies living there are reporting to Asmara.

Rapprochement at a dead-end

In the wake of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, the neighbours sheltered and armed each other’s dissidents, but the rapprochement has seen Issayas export Ethiopian rebels back home while Abiy put an end to operational support and subsidies from Ethiopia’s federal government to anti-Issayas Eritrean exile organisations.

When Debretsion spoke, Issayas Woldegiorgis, an ex-deputy head of Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service under TPLF rule, was seeking out active military defectors before they were able to enter Endabaguna (the entry point into the federal refugee bureacracy), according to an Eritrean source in Tigray (he was informed of this by refugees who had been contacted by Woldegiorgis).

The Eritrean President’s position was already clear as he accused Tigray’s rulers of “hiring spies and collaborators” in order to create “opposition” and a surge in “acts of establishing “refugee camps” in collusion with UNCHR “to attain carefully-woven schemes of draining Eritrean manpower.”  “We will stay the course until this process, which is still at its incipient stage, is consummated,” Issayas said of his still little understood dealings with Abiy.

New York Times: Eritreans Sue E.U. Over Use of Forced Labor Back Home

Published by the New York Times

BRUSSELS — A Netherlands-based group of Eritreans sued the European Union on Wednesday, demanding it cease financing a project in the east African dictatorship that uses forced labor, the lawyer representing the group said, the first test of an effort by individuals and organizations to hold the bloc accountable for the way it spends billions in Africa.

The lawsuit in the Netherlands, a member of the European Union that directly contributes to the funding for Eritrea and is home to a large number of Eritrean migrants, will soon be followed by similar legal action in Britain.

The Amsterdam-based group, Human Rights for Eritreans, accuses the European Union in the lawsuit of financing a project that uses forced labor in a country that is notorious for relying on it, of arranging the money through a deliberately opaque process, and of failing to provide meaningful oversight.

The suit filed focuses on a decision by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, to pay for heavy construction equipment to open and pave a road that connects the Ethiopia-Eritrea border with the Eritrean port of Massawa, as part of a broader strategy to support peace between the two longtime foes.

An unknown number of workers operating the equipment are forced conscripts, stuck in Eritrea’s notorious mandatory, universal and open-ended drafting of its population — a practice decried by the European Union, and one that the United Nations said was “tantamount to slavery.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, the European Commission said that its actions are guided by “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.”

The commission has previously defended the funding by saying that the heavy equipment makes work for conscripts lighter, and that it can effectively scrutinize the project even though it is dependent on the Eritrean government for access to the construction site.

The European Union has so far spent 80 million euros, about $87 million, with €120 million more on the way, all part of a $6 billion pot called the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which was created in 2015 to pay for projects intended to curb the migration of Africans to Europe by creating jobs at home.

The fund’s​​ component for the Horn of Africa “does not have documented criteria for selecting project proposals and the European Court of Auditors also highlights serious shortcomings in terms of risk and performance assessment,” said Michèle Rivasi, a French member of the European Parliament. “We have no information; the management of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa needs to be more transparent.”

The fund is technically a separate entity from the main European Union budget, making it difficult to hold to account. Critics, including rights advocates, migration and legal experts and lawmakers, say the opacity is deliberate. The establishment of the fund was approved by European governments at the height of the migration crisis and is unusual, but not unique.

Emiel Jurjens, the Dutch lawyer lodging the lawsuit on behalf of the Eritrea Dutch group, said the European Commission was likely to argue that Dutch courts had no jurisdiction, and if successful, it could act with impunity. If the court challenges fail, he said, “it would create a bulletproof way for the commission to fund projects that are ethically hard to defend from a human-rights point of view.”

The European Parliament will vote on Thursday on a motion to freeze such spending in Eritrea, on the grounds that the European Commission does not have any genuine oversight of how the money is being spent.

Eritreans, who have historically been in the top nationalities of people seeking asylum in Europe, have long fled to the Netherlands, Britain and other European nations, as their country, the underdog winner of an independence war against Ethiopia in the 1990s, has become a hermetic dictatorship led by a former rebel, Isaias Afwerki, in the past two decades.

The lawsuit and the vote come after a January investigation by The New York Times into the European Union’s spending in Eritrea, and cite it in their supporting documentation. The commission has said that the project was monitored by the United Nations Office for Project Services and that European Union ambassadors were able to visit the construction site, but observers say there is no meaningful oversight.

The ambassadors who visited the site in February were escorted by Eritrean government officials, and independent access is prohibited.

The United Nations Office for Project Services does not have an office in Asmara. Asked the number of conscripts at the construction site and their working conditions, the European Commission sent The Times a link to the page on the Eritrean Information Ministry website, which outlined pay, leave and work conditions for conscripts that could not be verified.

The Eritrean government, having said it would consider abolishing conscription when peace with Ethiopia was achieved, has failed to do so, despite an agreement in 2018 that secured Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia the Nobel Peace Prize.

“The E.U. is coming under scrutiny on a number of levels — both close to home at the level of the European Parliament, and further afield, with the filing of a lawsuit in the Netherlands. This can only be positive,” said Laetitia Bader, the Eritrea expert at Human Rights Watch.

Habte Hagos, a co-founder of the London-based group Eritrea Focus, the organization behind a British lawsuit, represented by Duncan Lewis Solicitors, left Eritrea for Britain as a young man. He expressed disbelief that the European Union was paying for a project that used conscripts, and even more so that his adopted country was contributing.

“I find it absolutely shocking for the European Union, given its commitments to human rights, to be involved in this place where people are enslaved for years on end,” he said. “In terms of the United Kingdom, a country that outlawed slavery a long time ago, it seems to me like double standards,” Mr. Hagos added.

HRW: Unaccompanied Eritrean Children at Risk

Published by Human Rights Watch

The Ethiopian government’s changes to asylum procedures for Eritreans undermines their access to asylum and denies unaccompanied children necessary protection. The Ethiopian authorities should ensure that all Eritreans have the right to apply for asylum and publicly announce changes to its asylum and camp management policies.

In late January 2020, the Ethiopian government unofficially changed its asylum policy, which for years granted all Eritrean asylum seekers refugee status as a group. Staff from Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) have only registered some categories of new arrivals at the Eritrea border, excluding others, notably unaccompanied children, the United Nations and aid groups say. Ethiopia’s refusal to register these asylum seekers could force them to return to abusive situations in violation of international refugee law.

“Ethiopia has long welcomed tens of thousands of Eritreans fleeing persecution each year,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “With no letup in repression in Eritrea, the Ethiopian government shouldn’t be denying protection to Eritrean nationals, particularly unaccompanied children.”

Each year, thousands of Eritrean secondary school students, some still under 18, are conscripted into the country’s abusive indefinite national service program. National service is supposed to last 18 months, but the government often extends it to well over a decade. National service hampers children’s access to education and family life.

To apply for asylum and gain official refugee status, Eritreans need to register with Ethiopia’s refugee agency at “collection centers” when they cross the border. After registration, many then move into 1 of 6 refugee camps, 4 in the Tigray region. A smaller number live as urban refugees. With official refugee status, Eritreans are eligible for services and protection.

In July 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement, ending two decades of armed conflict and hostility, but it has not led to improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea. In 2019, about 6,000 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia every month. Ethiopia currently hosts 171,876 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, over a third of Eritrea’s global refugee population. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as of December, 44 percent of Eritrean refugees in the Tigray refugee camps were children.

In January 2019, Ethiopia’s parliament adopted progressive revisions to its refugee law that allow refugees and asylum seekers to obtain work permits and access primary education, receiving significant international acclaim. However, in January 2020, for reasons not made public, the government began to exclude certain categories of new arrivals from Eritrea from registering, including unaccompanied children.

Denying people access to asylum is inhumane and unlawful, Human Rights Watch said. It may violate the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, which bars returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they face threats to their lives or freedom or the risk of torture. This principle also applies to indirect acts that have the effect of returning people to harm – for example, when uncertainty leads people to believe that they cannot apply for asylum and have no practical option but to return.

The refusal to register unaccompanied children may compel them to return to abusive situations, Human Rights Watch said. Under international standards, governments should prioritize children’s access to asylum and offer children, particularly those who are unaccompanied, special care and protection.

As of December, UNHCR said 27 percent of the Eritrean children arriving in the Tigray refugee camps were unaccompanied. About 30 unaccompanied or separated children arrived every day. Previously, Ethiopia had granted unaccompanied Eritrean children immediate care arrangements, access to emergency education, and individual counseling, although those services were reportedly under significant strain.

However, the authorities have not been registering unaccompanied children since late January, and these children are not entitled to protection services or refugee camp accommodations, leaving them to fend for themselves. An aid worker in the Tigray region said “If children are undocumented [i.e. unregistered], they don’t have access to food, shelter, protection, or any psychosocial support. That exposes them to many external risks, including exploitation.”

Under Ethiopia’s 2019 Refugees Proclamation, the government recognizes refugees as people who meet both the 1951 Refugee Convention definition and the definition of the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention, which includes people fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.” The proclamation states that the government can revoke group refugee determination, in consultation with UNHCR, by giving due consideration to the country of origin situation and publishing a directive.

The Ethiopian government does not appear to have followed these guidelines. It has not published a directive to inform new arrivals, refugees, and humanitarian partners, including the UNHCR, of the new criteria for registration, appeal procedures if their claims are denied, alternative legal routes for new arrivals, and reasons for the changes. This uncertainty risks creating significant confusion and fear for Eritrean asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 27, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with questions to Ethiopia’s refugee agency requesting a response on any changes to its policies or practice towards Eritrean refugees. No response has been received.

UNHCR maintains its 2011 eligibility guidelines on Eritrea. The guidelines offer countries advice on how to assess protection needs of Eritrean asylum seekers, and the agency recently said at an immigration hearing in the United Kingdom that “until there is concrete evidence that fundamental, durable, and sustainable changes have occurred, these guidelines should be maintained.”

The human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire and has not fundamentally changed since the 2018 peace agreement, making any shift in policy premature, Human Rights Watch said.

The Ethiopian authorities announced in early March that it would close the Hitsats refugee camp in the Tigray region, where 26,652 Eritreans live, as of mid-April, according to UNHCR. That includes about 1,600 unaccompanied children who are receiving care, UNHCR said.

Refugees and aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the timeline and procedures for the camp to close remain unclear. The deputy director general of Ethiopia’s refugee agency recently told the media that the relocations, reportedly on hold because of Covid-19, could begin by late April. The lack of clarity and the asylum policy change make it difficult to assess the impact of the camp’s closure and plan for viable, safe alternatives, including for unaccompanied children, Human Rights Watch said.

An Eritrean man who was unlawfully imprisoned for seven years in Eritrea and now is in Hitsats camp said, “No one explains clearly our rights, where we go, what is the time frame, all these details. We are very worried – we already have our own problems. In addition to our everyday stresses and difficulties, this is adding more.”

“Unaccompanied Eritrean children who seek asylum in Ethiopia face an impossible choice between lack of legal protection and services and uncertainty inside Ethiopia, or the risk of serious abuse if they return home,” Bader said. “Ethiopia should continue to show leadership in its treatment of Eritreans, with international support, and ensure that even during the Covid-19 crisis, it continues to protect asylum seekers from needless harm.”