Moving the goalposts to keep out refugees from repression

Published by The Independent (31st August, 2015)

Eritrea is routinely called ‘Africa’s North Korea’ for its repression, restrictions on daily life and routine use of torture to crush the slightest signs of defiance. The United Nations has condemned the country’s all-pervasive control and systematic human-rights violations, saying such actions may constitute crimes against humanity. The defiant dictator was called ‘unhinged’ in one leaked American diplomatic cable, while his regime keeps the state on a war footing so it can conscript citizens into a form of forced labour.

Yet in some ways this beautiful sliver of East Africa is worse even than the world’s most infamous state. The UN, in a 500-page report two months ago, concluded the population is kept in ‘a permanent state of anxiety’ and found even those outside the country scared to testify for fear of repercussions. And the censorship is tighter than in Pyongyang, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with fewer people permitted to possess mobile phones and ‘a media climate so oppressive that even reporters for state-run outlets live in constant fear of arrest.’

Little wonder hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled their homeland. For all the froth and fury of the domestic immigration debate, it can be a difficult decision to leave friends and family for the uncertainty of seeking sanctuary in another nation. Those heading to Europe must evade their own security forces, knowing the hundreds of prisons in Eritrea include stifling shipping containers in the desert, along with kidnap gangs in deserts, lynch mobs in Libya and the lethal risks of crossing the Mediterranean. Many of those corpses washing up on coastlines are young men and women from this blighted nation.

This grotesque repression under Isaias Afwerki, a leader who once promised so much, is why a small nation on the Horn of Africa with a population not much bigger than Scotland provides so many of the migrants coming to Europe. It accounts for less than 0.1 per cent of its continent’s people, yet last year there were more Eritreans arriving in Europe than from any other nation apart from refugees escaping war-torn Syria. It is estimated 5,000 people leave this country a month, which works out at about one per cent of its population each year; most end up in neighbouring nations.

Yet this tiny country, and that tide of refugees, exemplify the hypocrisy over human rights and demeaning doubletalk of our immigration debate as we confront a humanitarian crisis that may come to define our age. The response of Europe’s politicians is honeyed words about helping genuine refugees, while walls are built around Fortress Europe that only lead to more deaths and line the pockets of callous human traffickers. Meanwhile we witness panicking politicians in Westminster getting ever-tougher towards those termed ‘economic migrants’ or ‘illegals.’

To understand why their approach is so phoney, delve deeper into the migration statistics that caused such outrage when released last week. Look at the data on Eritreans. This showed just one-third applying for asylum in Britain were given protection between April and June, compared with almost three-quarters in the previous three months. So given the undiminished intensity of human rights abuses in their homeland, what had changed? Simple: the government moved the goalposts by redefining rules for Eritrean refugees.

New guidelines issued to civil servants show the Home Office has accepted assurances from Eritrea’s ruthless regime that any people returned home would be safe if they signed an apology and paid extra taxes imposed on exiles. They also fell for the falsehood that the national service programme – used to reconstruct roads, labour in state farms and with women often sexually assaulted by officers – had been curtailed to between 18 months and four years. This paves the way to put people who risked their lives to escape on a plane back to Asmara, despite UN warnings they may be arrested, jailed and abused.

With the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, so many lives can be devastated. This updated Whitehall guidance was largely based on a report last year for the Danish government by its immigration service. Yet after fierce criticism, including from the only named source in the document who said he felt ‘betrayed’ by findings that ‘completely ignored facts’, the agency admitted to ‘doubts’ over its conclusion that Eritreans sent home after avoiding national service were safe. Denmark now accepts most Eritreans should be granted protection.

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, is right to say that if the sharp rise in numbers of Eritreans refused asylum was the result of their country moving towards freedom, creating a safe environment for return, that would be something to celebrate. This is, after a country, that claims to be hitting several Millennium Development Goals. Instead Britain is just playing cruel political games by rejecting refugees from repression.

Remember this when politicians talk sanctimoniously about helping ‘genuine’ refugees and defending human rights. Remember this too when they turn fire on ‘economic migrants’ to appease an ugly public mood they have fanned. As the UN says, to use this term in most of these cases ‘is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrean and the very real suffering of its people. Eritreans are in need of international protection’. But now they find it less in Britain; instead, our nation is scarred by hostility to those in need of help.

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