Photo (from left to right): Daniel Mekonnen (Eritrean Law Society), Helen Kidan (EMDHR), Prof. Gaim Kibreab, Filmon (refugee), Rudi Friedrich (Connection E.v.), Dr. Sarah Ogbay, Aspasia Papadopoulou (ECRE). Credit: Klara Smits | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2017

Conference on Eritrea Stresses the Need to Protect Refugees

By Klara Smits

BRUSSELS (IDN) – More than 30 organizations gathered in Brussels at the conference on ‘Eritrea and the Ongoing Refugee Crisis’ have expressed “deep concern” about the remarks by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, that now there is “a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route” with a view to halting the flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa. Tusk was commenting the conclusions of the European Council meeting.

“Leaders agreed to offer Prime Minister Gentiloni stronger support for Italy’s work with the Libyan authorities. We have a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route,” Tusk said at the press briefing of European Council meeting of October 19.

The conference organizers included the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, EEPA, War Resisters’ In­ter­na­ti­onal, and the Eritrean Law Society. The participants comprised, among others, European Union policy makers, refugees, experts, scholars, and lawyers. They discussed the situation of Eritrean refugees in Europe and the human rights situation in Eritrea, with Sheila B. Keetharuth, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, making opening remarks.

The EU says: “Illegal arrivals decreased by almost 70% on the Central Mediterranean route in the third quarter of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, thanks to the efforts of the EU and its member states, especially Italy.”

According to an official document, “As concerns the Central Mediterranean route, the European Council recognises the significant contribution made by Italy on the Central Mediterranean route;

“calls for continued efforts by the EU and support for Member States to stem the flows and increase returns, as well as to build strong cooperation with countries of origin, transit and departure;

“reiterates the importance of working with the Libyan authorities and all neighbours of Libya to enhance border management capacity and underscores the urgency of supporting the development of the local communities in Libya along the migratory routes;

“encourages and calls to support, also financially, UNHCR and IOM efforts in Libya, the Sahel and the region, including to further facilitate voluntary returns and resettlement and to improve reception conditions in cooperation with Libyan authorities so as to ensure the humane treatment of migrants;

“commits to ensuring sufficient and targeted funding, including through the North Africa window of the EU Trust Fund for Africa, to underpin the necessary migration-related actions in North Africa and finance all relevant projects in 2017 and beyond, with timely disbursements. It tasks the Council, with the assistance of the Commission, to undertake immediate operational follow-up to ensure delivery on this commitment before the December European Council;

“calls for increased efforts to rapidly establish a permanent EU presence in Libya, taking account of the conditions on the ground.”

The Conference organizers warned in their statement. “The EU is already working with Libyan coastguards to forcibly return Africans to Libyan detention camps in which rape, torture and slavery are routinely practiced. Finally, closing the Central Mediterranean route for refugees desperate to escape Africa’s notorious dictatorships will have a disastrous impact on people – many of them children – who have risked all to flee from repression.”

The statement added: “We urge European politicians not to adopt this fortress Europe policy, turning their backs on the most vulnerable refugees and betraying the sacred principles enshrined in the human rights and other treaties they are signatories to.”

In her opening remarks, UN Special Rapporteur Keetharuth from Mauritius emphasized that there was no reason to believe that the situation in Eritrea was improving in respect of any of the essential points. The investigation by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea concluded in 2016 that there were “reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity are taking place”, Keetharuth said. These human rights abuses include arbitrary detention, gender-based violence and extrajudicial executions. The large number of minors, often unaccompanied, who flee, illustrates the desperate situation in the country.

The first panel of the Conference placed emphasis on the changing political climate in Europe. An upshot was that although Eritrean refugees have historically seen a high acceptance rate to their asylum claims, illustrative of the severe situation of human rights in Eritrea, this acceptance rate is under threat. The number of refugees who are accepted under the Geneva Convention is decreasing which is resulting in lower protection status and in some cases a rejection of the asylum applications.

Speakers emphasized the growing pressure to decrease the amount of migrants coming to Europe, through deals on border security with countries such as Libya and Sudan. They pleaded for full protection for asylum seekers as refugees in Europe. The panel’s refugee speaker, Filmon Debru, who fled Eritrea’s indefinite national service, which has been described as ‘slavery-like’, in 2012, gave a clear illustration of this need. Although he had no intention of going to Europe, he was kidnapped and taken to the Egyptian Sinai desert, where he was tortured so severely that he had no other option but to come to Europe for the surgery he needed. The young man argued that opportunities and recognition of local diplomas were key to successful integration of Eritrean refugees.

The second Conference panel focused on the situation in Eritrea, particularly the national service, religious persecution and gender-based violence. A female refugee spoke of how she was forced to marry at 16 years of age to avoid conscription in the national service, where abuse of women is abundant. Though the national service is mandatory for both men and women, women may be given exemption – if they are lucky – when they are pregnant or married. The human rights abuses in Eritrea, including persecution of religious minorities, is made possible due to the complete lack of rule of law, said Dawit Mesfin. Another speaker, Selam Kidane, emphasized the traumatization of Eritrean refugees and the effect of this trauma on society.

The third panel focused on the protection needs and future prospects of Eritrean refugees, especially in the diaspora. Even outside of Eritrea, the government still has a large influence over the Eritrean diaspora. This was illustrated by the recent report commissioned by the Dutch government on the 2% tax for Eritreans in the diaspora, which according to the researchers is part of a mechanism of control, extracted through intimidation and fear. Speakers emphasized the protection needs of the Eritrean diaspora as well as the need for accountability for the crimes committed by Eritrean officials. Martin Plaut called into question that the Eritrean government was a ‘real government’ and referred to it as a ‘mafia state’.

The conference also attracted attention from supporters of the PFDJ, the Eritrean ruling party. Several of the participants had been warned that members of the PFDJ would be attending and recording the conference. Eritreans in exile taking a stand against the regime continually face pressure from the regime’s loyalists in diaspora, including threats to the safety of family members still in Eritrea. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 October 2017]

Photo (from left to right): Daniel Mekonnen (Eritrean Law Society), Helen Kidan (EMDHR), Prof. Gaim Kibreab, Filmon (refugee), Rudi Friedrich (Connection E.v.), Dr. Sarah Ogbay, Aspasia Papadopoulou (ECRE). Credit: Klara Smits | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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