Are any policy changes visible in Eritrea? Can an EU resumption of aid bring these about?
By Bekuretsion Asgedom
Just a few weeks ago, the EU announced it was prepared to channel a multi-million Euro package of aid to assist the Eritrean regime development programs in the country. Eritrea suspended the EU’s ongoing 10th European Development Fund program in 2011 under the claim it was going to implement its own development program. Three years have passed since the EU’s expulsion from Eritrea, and now the EU is knocking once again on the door of Eritrea even though there has been no obvious change in Eritrean policies, domestic or external. Many in international academic and policy circles, in the US and in Europe, voiced immediate and highly vocal opposition towards the EU’s surprising move to resume funding to what many call the North Korea of Africa and often describe as a pariah state.
The most intriguing question perhaps, is what has prompted the EU to disclose its intention to suddenly re-consider its relations with one of the world’s most repressive regime? According to the EU’s Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, the current intent to resume assistance is part of a program apparently intended to address the social and economic exclusion of Eritrean migrants at their country of origin, and limit the numbers of refugees flooding into Europe. His use of the word “migrant” is interesting in this context. It suggests he sees most of the tens of thousands of Eritreans youngsters fleeing the country every month, every year, as economic “migrants”.
In this regard, an important question is whether these Eritreans constitute a refugees or migrants? According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person residing outside his or her home country, who is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, and membership in a political social group, or political opinion. There is, it is true, no internationally accepted definition of the term migrant, but it is usually understood to refer people who cross to another country voluntarily, of their free choice and under no compulsion.
The UN Refugee Agency recently stated that though not all the Eritreans who flee their home to cross into Europe were looking for asylum, at least three quarters were people who had fled from their country of origin to escape political persecution and indefinite national service. In other words, there are not “migrants’, despite the claims of the Eritrean Government. They are bona fide refugees fleeing repression, religious and political persecution, indefinite national service conscription, and forced labor, willing to face the prospects of death, all too often by drowning on the sea crossing from North Africa to Italy, in order to escape the intolerable conditions of their homeland. Resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council and reports issued by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation of Eritrea supports the UNHCR’s findings.
Indeed, at best the EU’s current plan to resume aid to Eritrea is only addressing a fraction of the problem. It totally ignores the plight of the vast majority (three quarters) of those who flee their home due to repression and human rights abuse. At worst, the EU’s move is no more than a futile effort which loses the sight of its aim as well as providing legitimatization of the brutal oppression of the Isaias regime.
Over the last few years, indeed for over a decade or more, the number of Eritreans fleeing their home country in to another destination has increased steadily. According to the UNHCR, in just the first ten months of 2014, the number of Eritreans who sought refugee in Europe tripled to 37 000, from 13 000 during the same period in 2013. This sharp increase in number makes Eritreans the second largest group of asylum seekers in Europe after Syria. And not all Eritrean asylum seekers attempt to cross the European border through the Mediterranean. A significant number, according to the UNHCR more than 216,000, have also sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Sudan. In fact, the numbers of such refugees is far greater than this as many thousands are not registered with the UNHCR. Indeed Ethiopia alone has been receiving up to six thousand a month for the last decade or more.
No evidence of any policy changes in Eritrea
EU hopes that its re-engagement with Eritrea will promote the long-term interest of curbing the huge influx of Eritreans into Europe. Commissioner Mimicasuggests that Eritrean policies are undergoing a shift. All recent evidence, however, is that it is the EU’s policies that are shifting, not Eritrea’s. Such a one-sided approach can not provide any meaningful outcome to either the EU or to Eritreans. For change to occur, there must be a policy shift from the regime in Asmara too. As has been demonstrated time and again, the Eritrean government has shown no change in its policy or its behavior. This can be easily seen not least in the unchanging nature of the repressive regime in Asmara, as well as in the continued efforts to continued to destabilize the region and the failure to make any adjustment in aggressive external policies.
EU Commissioner, Mimica, stated that the EU assistance would not only benefit the long term development needs of Eritrea but also advances Eritrea’s human rights and democracy. The evidence for this is difficult to discern. It must be questioned whether Eritrea is ready to change its policy in this regard. Eritrea is often called the biggest open prison in the world, and a country that produces one of the largest numbers of refugees in the world. Since obtaining independence in 1993, Eritreans have been living under a dictatorial regime that has refused to implement a constitution, steadily curtailed freedom of expression, movement, association, religion and peaceful assembly. It has closed down all private media, refused to allow any elections to take place and prevented any opposition, or even the mildest criticisms of policy. Young Eritreans have also been subject to forced conscription for national service for an indefinite period of time, in some cases already lasting for nineteen years. Thousands have been imprisoned without charge or trial for years on end and often subject to torture and abuse. The senior government and party officials arrested in September 2001 were never charged or tried and have been held in solitary confinement for nearly fourteen years. More than half of them are believed have died from ill-treatment or lack of medical care.
In light of these systemic violations of human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, as the first Special Rapportuer two years ago with a mandate to investigate and follow up the situation of human rights in Eritrea. The Special Rapportuer in September last year produced a report underlining that Eritreans fleeing their home were “escaping systematic and widespread human rights violations” including political persecution, arbitrary arrests and detentions, indefinite forced conscription in national service, and extrajudicial killings.The Human Rights Council adopted a number of resolutions on the situation of human rights in Eritrea condemning the continued widespread and systematic violation of human rights committed by the Eritrean authorities. These resolutions also requested Eritrea to end arbitrary detention, to release political prisoners, allow humanitarian organizations to operate, stop its shoot-to-kill practice against Eritreans attempting to flee the country, and cooperate with the United Nations. 
The Eritrean regime turned a deaf ear to these repeated calls and has continued to deny access the Special Rapporteur to visit Asmara and carry out her mandate. Following Eritrea’s continued refusal to allow investigation on the ground, the UN Human Rights Council, in June 2014, took the decision to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate all human rights violations in Eritrea.The Commission of Inquiry in March this year issued a preliminary report (it is due to report fully in June), confirming that it was finding very clear patterns of human rights violations in Eritrea.
The only suggestion of any changes have come from the now discredited report of the Danish Immigration Service last year, much quoted by the equally unreliable British Home Office report of March this year. Neither came up with anything more than vague unsubstantiated promises of possible change; neither produced any specific evidence of any change. Both reports, indeed, have been heavily criticized by all independent academic and non-governmental sources. In fact, all the evidence from independent investigations is that that Eritrea appears to be moving from bad to worse. Certainly there is no evidence whatever or any change for the better in any aspect of human rights. It seems the EU is deliberately turning a blind eye to all the resolutions endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, to the reports of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, and to the UN Human Rights Council’s the Commission of Inquiry, and to the wealth of independent academic and other evidence available.
Eritrea’s policies of aggression and destabilization continue
Another area underlining Eritrea’s unchanged policy and behavior is its continued efforts at destabilizing the Horn of Africa. In 2009, the United Nations Security Council, in resolution 1907 (2009) imposed an arms embargo, travel restriction and an asset freeze on Eritrea and its political and military leaders because of Eritrea’s interference in Somalia, providing support to anti-government armed groups, including the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. The UN Security Council also imposed sanctions over Eritrea refusal to admit to its violations of Djibouti territory in 2008 and it s refusal to return Djibouti prisoners of war. Two years later, the Security Council felt obliged to reinforce these sanctions (resolution 2023 (2011)) not only because of Eritrea’s continued provision of support to terrorist groups in Somalia, but also because of other continued destabilizing and subversive activities in the sub-region. The second resolution expanded sanctions with more measures including the questioning of the way the 2% Diaspora tax illegally levied on Eritreans abroad and the establishment of due diligence guidelines to prevent revenues from the mining sector from being diverted to violate the Security Council resolutions.
The UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) has regularly investigated Eritrea’s , activities since the adoption of sanction. In its numerous reports to the Security Counci, the SEMG has confirmed repeatedly confirmed regular and systematic violation of the resolutions by Eritrea. Its latest report, for example, released on 13 October last year, made it quite clear there had been no change in the policy and behavior of the Eritrean government. The report specified that Eritrea remained a threat to the peace and stability of the Horn through continued logistical and financial support to armed groups in neighboring countries and by continued indirect support to terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. It concluded that Eritrea’s continued to violate UNSC Resolution 1907/2009, and emphasized that Eritrea had made no change in its destabilization policies and behavior. 
One final point needs to be made. The possibility must be very high that any money channeled by the EU to Eritrea will go to fund continued policies destabilization as well as repression. This is the very reason why the Security Council, in its resolution 2023/2011, decided to establish due diligence guidelines to ensure that the revenue Eritrea obtains from the lucrative mining sector was not being diverted to fund spoiler activities in the region. As the latest report of the SEMG attests, there is no transparency and accountability in Eritrea. The SEMG concluded that there is a strong possibility Eritrea was, and is, employing the revenue from mining sector to destabilize its neighbors. The raises the question of how the EU proposes to ensure that any funding to Eritrea is used for the intended purpose. Is EU in a position to hold the Eritrean regime accountable if it misuses the fund for unintended purposes?
Academics claim EU proposals on Eritrea are “rewarding repression” ….
A group of over twenty leading independent international scholars and authorities of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, from a wide range of European and American universities, together with Eritrean human rights activists and former Eritrean diplomats, issued a statement last week strongly criticizing EU proposals to triple the amount of EU bilateral aid to Eritrea. The EU Commissioner of International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica said that there was a need to assist processes that benefitted the framework for human rights and democracy in Eritrea as well as address long-term development needs. This, he suggested, would stem the number of Eritrean refugees leaving the country and seeking asylum in Europe and beyond. News reports, indeed, suggested the aid would be provided in exchange for promises by the Eritrean Government that it would stop those trying to leave the country and limit the numbers of Eritrean refugees arriving in Europe.
In their appeal, issued on Tuesday (March 31), the scholars noted “with grave concern the stream of official assertions by governments and official representatives, which suggest that there is a real prospect of “change in Eritrea.” This, they say, is being used to justify changes in official policy affecting the protection of Eritrean asylum seekers” despite the fact that there is no reliable independent evidence that there has been any change in policy in Eritrea or evidence of any change in the Eritrean Government’s approach to human rights.
In fact, the EU’s decision appears to be based on reports of the Danish Immigration Service which visited Eritrea last year, the reports of a UK Home Office’s three day visit last December, a report of the Norwegian Immigration Service and a debate in the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights. These all suggested that the situation in Eritrea has changed. In particular, the UK Home Office reports claimed the Eritrea’s policy of indefinite military conscription had been reduced to a period of no longer than the official 18 months and that this policy was implemented as of November last year.
The group of scholars seriously questions the reliability of these reports on which this proposed change of policy is based. They point out that neither President Isaias nor any other official has made any official announcement to this effect, nor has there been any indication of its implementation on the ground in Eritrea. No members of the National Service have been informed of the supposed change. Indeed, there is no independent evidence of that the government of Eritrea has implemented any change in its human rights regime, whether with reference to the unending national service conscription or in any other area. Indeed all it has done is to provide “hearsay promises about what it may do so in the future” These “promises”, the group of scholars point out, are also “vigorously disputed in great depth and detail by the testimonies of refugees who have fled the country within the past twelve months.”
They also emphasize that the UN Human Rights Council’s official UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea continues to be refused entry into Eritrea to undertake a comprehensive and authoritative review of its human rights practices. They note that offering more funds to a government “with a lengthy and consistent track record of egregious human rights violations will only exacerbate the refugee crisis,” adding that in these circumstances the EU proposals will do nothing to cut the numbers leaving Eritrea.
The scholars note that the UK Home Office reports claim that policy changes have been taking place in Eritrea. Although the authors of the reports visited Eritrea, their conclusions appear to be largely based on the highly controversial and largely discredited Danish Immigration Service report last year. Indeed, the UK’s Home Office report on Eritrean Asylum-seekers makes 48 references to the Danish Report, but the group of scholars suggest, the UK Home Office report “conceals the serious flaws of the Danish Report and obscures the criticism the report has met. Its intent appears to be to mislead, rather than serve the truth.”
The Danish report has certainly been heavily criticized and the source of much controversy in Denmark. The major source of information quoted in the Danish report, Professor Dr Gaim Kibreab, publicly declared he had been misquoted and disassociated himself from the report, demanding his name should be removed. Two of the three officials concerned in the writing of the report subsequently resigned from the Danish Immigration Service after denouncing the report’s methodology and conclusions. There have been accusations that the report was politically driven to limit acceptance of Eritrean asylum cases. While the report has not been officially withdrawn, the Danish Immigration Service subsequently announced that its conclusions will not be used to determine asylum case applications.
The group of scholars point out that over the last two decades, “the government in Asmara has become so repressive that thousands of Eritreans decided to flee in search of shelter abroad.” In June last year, the government’s brutal treatment of its own people prompted the UN Human Rights Council to set up an International Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.” This produced an interim report last month which said, inter alia: “Most Eritreans have no hope for their future: national service, whether in a military unit or in a civil assignment, is the only thing that from the age of seventeen they can expect to spend their life doing – paid between less than one and a maximum of two dollars a day.” The Commission of Inquiry said: “The Government has curtailed most freedoms, from movement to expression; from religion to association. It has created a condition in which individuals feel that they have hardly any choice with regard to the main decisions in their lives: where to live, what career to pursue, when to marry or who to worship.” The regime continues to subject the population to untold cruel and inhuman punishments, including “extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions aiming at silencing all perceived critics and teaching a lesson to them and others.” Similar assessments have been made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, all Eritrean human rights organizations and international advocacy organizations.
The scholars say the EU’s plans to afford new funding resources will allow the regime to continue to carry out its ruthless polices with impunity, using the pretext of “No peace, No war” with Ethiopia to perpetuate perennial National Service which they describe as “a policy which in essence enslaves the youth while keeping them hostage” and as “enslaved hostages are bound to do” they will either leave or be targeted by the regime’s shoot-to-kill policy. Those that ultimately end up in Europe are “only the survivors of a treacherous journey that claims the lives of thousands of men and women, children and the elderly,” in their attempts to cross the Sahara, the Sinai or the Mediterranean. There is certainly a need to address the refugee crisis urgently, but the scholars note that the Eritrean government “is singularly responsible for the mass immigration of the population from the country. When not brutalizing its own people, the regime is prone to wreak havoc elsewhere. Isolated from the international community and marginalized in the region and beyond, the Isaias regime has repeatedly drawn UN sanctions for playing a destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa.”
The group of scholars, therefore, suggest the EU should use its funds to provide food, shelter, counseling and transitional assistance to the refugees. A clear and unequivocal message should be sent to Asmara, declaring that EU stands squarely behind the Eritrean people in their struggle to remove from power and bring to justice key members of the regime. They also urge that Eritrea should give full access to the UN Commission of Inquiry; that all governments, particularly in the EU, should observe the principle of non-refoulement and implement asylum procedures in line with UNHCR guidelines, refrain from discriminating against Eritrean refugees and continue to ensure that their protection remains based on international refugee law and fair domestic asylum policies and procedures; and that the European Commission delays its preparations for an aid package to the Eritrean government until the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea has been given full and unfettered access to Eritrea and presented its conclusions. The EU, they emphasize, must act in accordance with its own legal provisions identifying human rights as an essential element of EU development policy.
….and strong criticism of the new UK Home Office policy on Eritrean refugees
Professor Dr. Gaim Kibreab, one of the group of scholars criticizing the EU proposals, also commented on the UK Home Office guideline reports on Eritrea this week. Professor Gaim, who has been studying the impact of Eritrea’s national service on conscripts for some twenty years both in and out of Eritrea, noted that in the past the UK had provided refuge for Eritrean asylum-seekers because of the reports of the UNHCR and other reputable human rights organizations describing the indefinite Eritrean National Service as “persecution.” National service, in effect, became a “modern form of slavery proscribed in international law and the inhumane and degrading treatments meted out to conscripts as punishment for overstaying permitted leave, disobeying commanders, attempting to escape from the national service, absconding to avoid conscription, answering back to commanders.” Many conscripts sustained permanent injuries or died as a result of these punishments as “amply documented by reputable human rights organizations”.
Professor Gaim notes that while the latest Home Office reports referred to such findings they apparently preferred to draw conclusions from last year’s Danish Immigration Service report, totally ignoring the fact that the Danish report was deeply flawed and had been the subject to of a series of very damaging criticisms. He said “the Home Office Team makes no mention of the criticisms or that the Danish Immigration Service has decided not to use the report’s conclusions.” He went on: “It is therefore alarming to learn that the UK Home Office has decided to change its policy on Eritrean asylum-seekers who flee from the indefinite Eritrean National Service based on a report whose validity was rejected even by the people who collected the information in Eritrea.” Professor Gaim also pointed out that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a report on “Eritrea, Country of Concern” issued in January, just two months before the Home Office report was made public, said “the Eritrean government made no visible progress on key human rights concerns … continued to violate its international obligations and domestic law, including in the areas of arbitrary and inhumane detention, indefinite national service, and lack of religious freedom, freedom of the media and freedom of speech.”
As far as can be judged from the Home Office reports, he said, “no new material which could justify change of policy was collected by the Team during their visit to Eritrea except the questionable information provided by the President’s advisor, Yemane Gebreab, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, regarding the duration of the Eritrean National Service,” that it was now limited to 18 months. The Home Office reports said the authors were told by the Eritrean President’s Adviser Yemane Gebreab, that “from November 2014 national service is reverting to a duration of 18 months. This will now all be based in military …This has started with the 27th round and people have been informed we have had meetings with students and families at Sawa. We do not want to publicize this by a presidential announcement—this is not how we wish to do things.”
Professor Gaim says categorically there no evidence whatsoever for this apart from this statement. The indefinite nature of the national service has not changed in practice or at a policy level. What the report calls “up-to-date information from inside Eritrea” is only drawn from the discredited report of the Danish Immigration Service. He went on: “information obtained from Eritrea, including from the Sawa military camp indicate that no such information was disseminated to students or conscripts. Conscription is continuing as before.” He also notes that in any case, there is nothing in the Home Office reports about the hundreds of thousands of others forced to join the national service before November 2014 when the 27th round took place. In other words, the vast majority of national service conscripts from the first 26 rounds will still remain under indefinite conscription.
Professor Gaim said the indefinite national service and the associated severe punishment regime has been driving tens of thousands of Eritreans to flee in search of international protection with the number arriving in EU member states increasing dramatically in recent months. He concluded that “It seems that the sole purpose of the Home Office Guidelines is to stem this flow disregarding the consequences on those who desperately need protection against persecution, forced labor, accompanied with severe punishment regimes.” He concludes that most of the Home Office recommendations are drawn “from a deeply flawed source that has been discredited by those who worked on it and by many who are familiar with the situation in Eritrea” and adds that “it is disturbing that the UK Home Office is resorting to such unsafe practices that jeopardize the lives of many asylum seekers and the UK’s obligations to them under the refugee convention and EU and UN treaties.”
Last weekend, Italian navy and coastguard ships rescued some 1,500 refugees and asylum seekers from five boats in less than 24 hours. Three of the boats were in difficulties off the coast of Libya. More than 3,000 people died last year attempting to cross the sea from Libya in unseaworthy and over-crowed boats, many of them Eritreans. In the first two months of this year, arrivals were up 43% of the same period last year.