Is there a safe place for the Eritrean refugees?

by Abraham G. Mehreteab

(05.09.2010) It has been now six years since I started campaigning against the inhuman treatment on my fellow Eritreans by the government of Eritrea. It is true thousands of Eritreans left their country opposing the unlimited National Service which was to be only one year and six month according the 1995 National Service proclamation. In this short text I will not concentrate on the mistreatment caused by the Eritrean regime as it has been recognized by many governments, human right groups and activists. Instead on what is happening to those who left the dictator and try to get a safe place in other countries.

But I cannot pass without mentioning the horrors of Conscious Objectors in Eritrea. The three strong men are still in prison refusing military training since 1995. Once Eritrea achieved independence, it became a “militarily mobilized national security state.” This militarized state seemed bent on making an example of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their Conscientious Objection to military service.

The tragedy begins at the border of Eritrea and the neighbouring countries specially Sudan and Ethiopia. Many Eritreans who have tried to escape the military recruitment and those who have been in Service for unlimited years are the victims on the border by the security. Several of them were shot dead or imprisoned as traitors for unlimited years. If the government identifies someone who has successfully crossed into Ethiopia or Sudan, it subjects their family members to large fines and sometimes imprisonment. Despite of all these challenges, opposition to the military regime and flow of young Eritreans did not stop until this date. Those who got a chance to escape, have very little opportunity to settle themselves in the neighbouring border countries. Most of them cross the Sahara desert and try to use the Mediterranean sea to reach European states and some others try to cross Egypt and reach Israel.  

The Sinai desert border has become a major trafficking route for African migrants seeking jobs. Thus the desperate Eritreans who stayed in Sudan for years have been trying to use this route to distance themselves from the Eritrean government as the two countries (Eritrea and Sudan) restored their diplomatic relations lately. As the result there are many Eritreans which were detained in Sudan and handed to the Eritrean government. Nobody knows now where the imprisoned Eritreans are. But as usual their lot is to be in harsh desert Eritrean jail centres like the MaywuUi and others without any right of a lawyer and family visits. The best e.g is the case of Petros and Yonas who were deported from Germany and faced imprisonment by the Eritrean government.

As AFP reported in August 2010, smugglers and police have shot dead six Eritreans near the Israeli border. This was confirmed by the Egyptian security official. Three men and a woman -- were killed in an exchange of fire between the migrants and smugglers, and police shot dead two Eritreans from the same group as they tried to cross into Israel.

Cairo has rejected harsh criticism from human rights groups of its policy of using potentially lethal force against migrants along its 250-kilometre (150-mile) border with Israel.

After fleeing the dangers and destitution of their countries to Cairo and facing brutal racism and repression that culminated in a police massacre, they began making their life-threatening way from Cairo through the Sinai and across the Israeli border.

The refugees in Israel are described as murderers, thugs, thieves, drunks, drug dealers, gangsters, job-stealers and other prejudice as foreigners. Although there are many good hearted people who sympathize with the Eritrean refugees, it is sad to hear such negative attitudes from people who were refugees for centuries and regimes victimised them as second class citizen in different countries around the world.

But it is true that the Eritreans fit the classic profile of refugees. They suffer psychological trauma not only from the savage fighting and government repression they fled in their homelands, but also from the journey through Egypt to the Israeli border. On their way to the border, they are exposed to violence and sexual abuse by their Beduin guides and are hunted by Egyptian border guards.

Once they reach Israel their life is still extremely hard. In South Tel Aviv, many of them are jobless and idle, hanging around the streets, living 10 or so to a small apartment.

Now the number of refugees has grown to more than 25,000, according to the UN, with more continually on their way over the border.

The other way for the Eritrean to reach a safe state is through Libya. This country is a close friend of the Eritrean regime in Asmara. There are many Eritrean refugees who were deported to Eritrea. Eritrean detainees in Misrata have managed to inform Human Rights Watch that over the Libyan officials forced them to complete bio-data forms in Eritrean Tigrigna language provided by Eritrean embassy officials and to be photographed. Fearing that these steps were taken in preparation for their deportation, some detainees tried to escape on June 28, resulting in a confrontation between detainees and guards.

According to credible sources, on June 30 Libya transported 245 male Eritreans from Misrata to a remote detention centre at al-Biraq, near Sabha, a town with an airport in the centre of the country in the Sahara desert that has been the site of previous deportations to Sub-Saharan African countries. About 80 women and children remained behind in Misrata, some separated from male family members.

Both the Convention against Torture and the African Refugee Convention forbid Libya from sending individuals to countries where they face a serious risk of persecution or torture. Libya is also a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, under article 13, prohibits arbitrary expulsion and entitles foreigners to an individual decision on their removal/expulsion.

The Human Rights Committee has interpreted article 7 of the ICCPR to forbid refoulement- or forced return - of persons to places where they would be at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Under customary international law, Libya is also obliged not to return anyone to places where they may face persecution or where their lives or freedom would be at risk.

Those who were able to cross the Meditteanean were not safely recognized as refuges by countries like Malta and Itally. Many of them were deported to Eritrea and Libya.

The Italian government says it has brokered a deal for the release of the Eritrean detainees to do "socially useful" work in Libya at the direction of Libyan authorities. According to the Libyan Foreign Ministry, the Eritrean embassy in Tripoli will deliver identity cards to about 400 Eritreans in Libya.

All the Eritrean neighbouring states and other countries have both moral and legal obligation to give protection to refugees. But countries with better economy and stable government are more responsible to meet the needs of the Eritrean refugees. But countries with better economy and stable government are more responsible to meet the needs of the Eritrean refugees. We have to see that some of these countries deported Eritrean refugees in recent years. On the other hand we appreciate that the rate of acknowledgements increased significantly.

As Eritreans, we must accept the hard reality in our country and we are the only people who could make change in Eritrea. Although to some of us leaving Eritrea and get a temporary stay in another country seems to be a quick solution, it cannot be a solution in long term. We might have some social or economic problems but there is still a great chance to challenge the government’s policies and curb the inhuman treatment on our fellow Eritreans. Eritrean Antimilitary Initiative has been engaged on these issues in the past six years. Besides the campaign on the issue of Eritrean human right in particular focusing on Conscious Objectors, EAI, with the help of some good hearted German peace lovers, tried its best to inform the Eritrean public and political leaders on the opposition side, to think twice about war and peace in Eritrea. EAI still believes that more should be done to be the voice for voiceless to achieve the great goal.

Abraham Mehreteab: Is there a safe place for the Eritrean refugees?

Keywords:    ⇒ Desertion   ⇒ Eritrea   ⇒ Europe   ⇒ Refugees