Wednesday, February 17, 2016

This Tiny African Nation of Eritrea Plays A Huge Role In The Refugee Crisis

This Tiny African Nation Plays A Huge Role In The Refugee Crisis

Thousands flee Eritrea's brutal dictatorship every month for Europe.

 02/16/2016 07:33 pm ET
ANTONELLO NUSCA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Eritrea was the fourth-most common country of origin for refugees reaching Europe in 2015, after Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In this 2011 photo, a refugee boat approaches the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
The historic tide of people braving the journey to Europe in the past year has refocused the world’s attention on wars most of the refugees are fleeing -- in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But after these three countries, the largest group of people fleeing to Europe last year hails from a small African nation that gets much less international attention.
Eritrea is a totalitarian state, ruled by the country’s first and only president, Isaias Afwerki. Few outsiders are allowed to see what goes on inside its borders.
But those who have escaped tell harrowing stories that include indefinite forced conscription, prison camps and widespread torture. A United Nations commission report last year, based on interviews with over 500 people who had fled the country, said the regime may be responsible for crimes against humanity.
CARL COURT/GETTY IMAGES
An Eritrean man eats lunch next to a shelter with the Eritrean flag in the camp known as the Jungle in Calais, France, in January 2016. Almost 10 percent of the population are refugees, according to the U.N.
The U.N. estimates that about 5,000 Eritreans flee the country every month.
Eritreans had been making perilous journeys to Israel and European countries for many years before the refugee crisis captured Europe’s attention last summer. The U.N. refugee agency estimated in 2014 that nearly 420,000 Eritreans -- about 6 percent of the population -- were refugees or seeking asylum.
Here are some things to know about the exodus from Eritrea:
PETER ENDIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Eritreans are fleeing an authoritarian government and indefinite forced conscription. Here, a refugee from Eritrea holds a poster reading, "We are not illegal refugees - We are legal asylum-seekers," during a demonstration in Germany in October.

It’s A Brutal Dictatorship

Afwerki was once a popular rebel leader who helped win Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993. He has ruled since, increasingly without oversight. His People's Front for Democracy and Justice is the only legal political party. The country’s constitution has never been implemented. Elections have been indefinitely postponed. U.S. officials say Afwerki has become an “unhinged dictator,” according to leaked diplomatic cables.
Under his leadership, Eritreans live under a “rule of fear,” according to last year's U.N. report. The regime operates a network of spies and informants, and citizens face the threat of being locked up without charge or disappearing altogether, the report said. 
“When I am in Eritrea, I feel that I cannot even think because I am afraid that people can read my thoughts,” one witness told the U.N.
Every aspect of life is under regime control. U.S.-based monitoring group Freedom House designates the country as among the world's “worst of the worst” for civil liberties. The regime has banned independent media and civil organizations, and blocks international human rights organizations and U.N. investigators from entering. Only four religious traditions are officially recognized, and an estimated 3,000 people are locked up for observing other faiths. 
Reporters without Borders ranked Eritrea the worst country in the world for press freedom last year, below North Korea.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
President Isaias Afwerki, pictured here last June, has ruled Eritrea since the country won independence in 1993.

Eritreans Have To Join The Military, Sometimes Forever

Officially, Eritrea has a national service for men and women when they turn 18. It lasts for 18 months. The regime says conscription is mandatory because of ongoing tensions with neighboring Ethiopia.
In practice, many Eritreans are forced to stay in the military for decades -- some for life, the U.N. says. Some are forced to serve in armed forces, others in state-run industries, like schools, construction or agriculture. They are paid very little, and conscription is enforced by military roundups or the threat of imprisonment or execution. Female conscripts have reported sexual violence by military officers. Children, too, have also been forced to undergo military service.
“My father and mother are already conscripted, my father since before my older brother was born,” an 18-year-old woman who gave her name as Maryam told Amnesty International. “My brother was in the military for six years before he fled the country. And now they want me too?”
PETER MARTELL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Eritrean soldiers parade during independence day celebrations in 2007. Afwerki has turned from a popular rebel leader to an "unhinged dictator," according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

Eritrea Is A ‘Prison State’

Arrests are common, but trials are rare. Often, people just disappear.
“The waiting is the worst,” a relative of a journalist arrested in 2001 told U.N. investigators. “It is like the whole family was in custody.”
The country is described by experts as a “prison state,” with some estimates that at least 10,000 political prisoners are languishing in jail. According to Human Rights Watch, prisoners are held in dire conditions, including underground dungeons and shipping containers, without proper food, water or sanitation.
Inside these detention centers, torture is routine and gruesome. “There are no rules when torturing,” one survivor told U.N. investigators. “They can beat you five minutes or an hour, as they wish.”
NICHOLE SOBECKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Hundreds of Eritreans demonstrate in front of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa after the U.N. inquiry report was published in June. The report detailed the harrowing testimonies of torture, extrajudicial execution and forced labor and conscription.

The Regime Denies Food Insecurity, Despite A Regional Crisis

Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy is dependent on agriculture, and international agencies have warned that a drought caused by the El Nino could cause food shortages.
Afwerki recently denied that a crisis was afoot, even though he conceded agricultural output is down because of the regional drought. His regime also dismissed concerns of mass hunger during the last major food crisis in the region, in 2011, despite evidence to the contrary. Aid agencies and the U.N. have little access to the country to gauge the true extent of the problem.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES
A view of the Eritrean capital Asmara. A regional drought could imperil the country's agriculture, international agencies have warned.

It’s A Huge Risk To Leave The Country

The Eritrean regime tries to stop people from leaving the country. Fleeing while in military service is considered defection and severely punished, the U.N. says. Even if someone secures a release from military duty, they have to obtain an exit visa, at the regime’s discretion. People trying to leave the country without one are detained and guards at the Ethiopian border regularly shoot people trying to flee, according to human rights groups.
Escaping Eritrea may leave family members left behind at risk of detention. When the regime’s information minister went into exile in 2013, his family was reportedlyrounded up.
The government tries to enforce a 2 percent income tax on Eritreans living abroad, and some say they fear retaliation against family members back home if they don’t pay.
The regime “turned Eritrea into an earthly inferno and made life insufferable for its people,” writes Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, a former Eritrean official who broke ties with the regime in 2006, in a recent book about the country. “This has rendered the country unsuitable and insecure to live in for its people and provoked mass exodus,” Giorgis wrote.
LIONEL CIRONNEAU/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Several European nations are trying to make it harder for Eritreans to make asylum claims, based on reports about improvements in the country that have been criticized by the U.N. In this photo, migrants wait on a beach in southeastern France in June.

Europe Is Making It Harder For Eritreans To Get Refuge

Last year, over 40,000 Eritreans fled to Europe. According to the U.N. most took the dangerous route to Italy. This usually involves traversing the deserts of Sudan and Libya before a perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing -- all at the mercy of smuggling gangs known for kidnapping, extortion and torture. Almost half of the Eritrean asylum-seekers in Europe interviewed by the Overseas Development Institute had been kidnapped for ransom along the way.
Yet several European nations, including Denmark and the United Kingdom, are trying to make it harder for Eritreans to get refuge inside their borders, citing the regime’s claims that reforms are underway. The United Nations and international human rights groups have slammed these claims, saying Afwerki’s pledges are not credible without verification, and human rights organizations are still banned from the country.
Also on HuffPost: 
Harrowing Photos From The Grande-Synthe Refu

Swiss Migration office criticises politicians’ Eritrea visit - SWI swissinfo.ch





While declaring that Eritrea is not the “North Korea of Africa”, the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration has criticised elements of a controversial two-week private visit by a group of Swiss politicians to the small African state. 

The secretariat is currently examining demands by a group of Swiss politicians who visited Eritrea last month and who wish to meet Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, in charge of immigration, to discuss their conclusions. They had praised the openness of the people they met in Eritrea and the fact that they didn't have problems travelling around.
The secretariat told the Swiss News Agency on Monday that Eritrea is not “the North Korea of Africa” and foreigners could move around “relatively freely”.  Government experts had been able to visit the capital Amsara and other cities without surveillance on trips to Eritrea. 
“However the politicians did not discuss human rights topics linked to asylum procedures,” it added, referring to legal rights, national military service and prisons. 
Parliamentarians Thomas Aeschi (conservative right Swiss People’s Party), Yvonne Feri (centre-left Social Democrat), Claude Béglé (centre-right Christian Democrat), Christian Wasserfallen (centre-right Radical), visited Eritrea with Aargau local politician Susanne Hochuli on a two-week private trip at the beginning of February. They were invited by the Swiss honorary counsel Toni Locher, and met Swiss and Eritrean officials and travelled around the country. 
On their return, the group requested a meeting with Sommaruga and called for a Swiss mission to examine the human rights situation in Eritrea. They also want Switzerland to set up a permanent diplomatic representation, to launch a special development aid project for Eritrea and to discuss refugee issues.

Positive impressions

Members of the group have given several media interviews expressing positive impressions of developments on the ground. 
“It’s a country which has known a very tough dictatorship and the system remains authoritarian but it is opening up,” Béglé told Swiss public radio, RTS, on February 10.
However, in a statement the secretariat said there was “no sufficiently strong evidence to show that the human rights situation in Eritrea had improved significantly”. 
The visit has also been criticised in Switzerland by several politicians and by the head of the Swiss branch of Amnesty International, Manon Schick.
“I would also like to go to Eritea to get an idea of the situation on the ground. But unlike Mr Béglé, and the other parliamentarians, I was not invited on their organised trip last week,”she declared in an editorial in the 24Heures newspaper on Tuesday. 
"That’s normal, the government is frankly hostile to any monitoring of human rights situation in Eritrea. The UN special rapporteur on Eritrea, the African Commission of Human Rights and People and independent organisations like Amnesty International have been refused entry to Eritrea for years. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which can enter, does not have access to prisons. What does the Eritrean government have to hide?” 
Last November, the Swiss government commissioned a report from the foreign ministry on the situation in Eritrea, which should contain a detailed analysis of the situation and “illustrate the political strategies that Switzerland could adopt in the mid- to long term”.
Eritreans make up the largest national group of asylum seekers to Switzerland, with 6,640 Eritreans having been granted refugee status in 2014. Only two other European countries had accepted more Eritreans: Germany, with 13,200 and Sweden, with 11,500.
swissinfo.ch with agencies


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eritrea: Supporting Saudi Arabia’s Battle Against Militants






ASMARA (HAN) February 12, 2016 – Public Diplomacy and Regional Stability Initiatives News. Eritrea’s president reiterated his support for Saudi Arabia’s battle against militants, without commenting on a United Nations report that said the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates were paying the African country to help their military campaign in Yemen.
“The Saudi government has declared to combat terrorism, and that is something that has to be supported without preconditions,” President Isaias Afwerki told local media in January, according to a transcript published Wednesday on the Eritrean Information Ministry’s website.
“What makes the Saudi initiative unique is that it is the initiative taken by countries in the region,” he said. “If properly handled, it could register progress and bring positive results. That is why we supported the initiative without reservation and preconditions.”
The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said in an Oct. 21 report that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its land, airspace and territorial waters in a “new strategic military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” The two Arab nations haven’t commented on the allegations.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. struck the deal with Eritrea to back their anti-Houthi military campaign in Yemen after failing to arrange a similar accord with its neighbor Djibouti, according to the report. It said Eritrea receives fuel and financial compensation in return for its support, which includes providing 400 soldiers who “are embedded with the United Arab Emirates contingent of the forces fighting on Yemeni soil.”
Eritrea, situated along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes on the Red Sea, is less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) across the waterway from Yemen at its closest point.
Bloomberg

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Eritrea: COURT RULES IN FAVOUR OF DUTCH HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE

 "Eritrea: COURT RULES IN FAVOUR OF DUTCH HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE


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 by IDN  on 11 February 2016  in Video  0
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By Reinhardt Jacobsen | IDN-InDepthNews Report

AMSTERDAM (IDN) - A Court in Amsterdam struck down Meseret Bahlbi lawsuit against Mirjam van Reisen, Dutch professor and human rights advocate. The judge found that she was not guilty of libel and slander and that the youth party of the Eritrean regime can be seen as a means of collecting intelligence abroad. The decision comes as a huge relief not only for the Dutch professor, but also for the Eritrean diaspora across Europe.



When the case was heard on January 27, 2016 in Amsterdam the focus was more about the nature of the regime in Eritrea, and the role played by its supporters in Europe. The court room was packed to overflowing, mostly by Eritreans from the diaspora in Europe. The majority came to support Mirjam van Reisen. She was being sued for libel and slander by Bahlbi, an Eritrean residing in the Netherlands.

Although the legal action centred on remarks made by the professor on Dutch radio, it quickly became apparent that this case was about more than the comments. On February 10, 2016, the judge ruled that van Reisen had no case to answer and awarded damages against Bahlbi in her favour. The ruling ensured that opinions based on research and evidence would not be muted, and should not be silenced by those who disagree.

Although certainly not the crux of the matter, it is important to understand the background of the case. On May 21, 2015 van Reisen expressed concern that two interpreters for the Dutch Immigration Office were siblings of the “centre of the Eritrean intelligence in the Netherlands”.

Bahlbi’s name was not mentioned during the interview for BNR Nieuwsradio, but he felt it was clear that the statemented referred to him. This is because Bahlbi is the former head of the Young People's Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) in the Netherlands, a nationalist Eritrean Diaspora youth organisation connected to the Eritrean ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

Following van Reisen’s comments, Bahlbi filed a legal action for libel and slander. In the judgement, the judge declared that van Reisen’s statements were warranted and that she had provided sufficient evidence of the facts.

In the Amsterdam court room, both the prosecution and the defence spent little time debating the facts of what was said. Instead, arguments centred on the relationship between the YPFDJ and the PFDJ, conditions in Eritrea, why so many Eritreans were fleeing their country and the existence of the Eritrean secret services in the Netherlands.

Van Reisen’s lawyer strove to show that the YPFDJ was the “eyes and ears” of the Eritrean regime. The court’s decision accepts this to be the reality. A common headline across Dutch newspapers was De lange arm van Eritrea, or the ‘long arm of Eritrea’. The arm not only refers to intelligence gathering, but also to intimidation. UN personnel, journalists and van Reisen herself have all been subjected to intimidation from members of the YPFDJ because they have drawn attention to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime and its supporters.

Interpreters are a crucial part of the Dutch immigration service, and yet their direct access to political refugees makes them a valuable asset for a repressive and secretive Eritrean state. Information given to interpreters during the asylum process can prove costly for relatives and friends back home. Such interpreters are also in a position to twist the meaning of what is being said. Regulations are in place to ensure that the integrity of interpreters is beyond doubt. They are screened to check that they and their family members are not connected to the Eritrean regime. Questions remain regarding how interpreters with clear connections to the Eritrean regime were employed in the first place.

Professor van Reisen has expressed her relief that the judge ruled in her favour, but also expressed concern and continued to advocate for those fleeing from and suffering in Eritrea. She told the Dutch press “I now know what it feels like to be Eritrean” having witnessed the legal and less than legal attempts to silence her. Overjoyed with the news of her judgement, van Reisen posted on Facebook: “victory to all justice seekers. Together we will continue to pursue the truth.”

The court’s decision sends a strong message – the Netherlands is an open democracy where evidence based criticism is legitimate. The rule of law, democracy and freedom of speech, values that the EU and the Netherlands stand for, have been defended. Values which Eritreans do not enjoy in their own country. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 February 2016]"



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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Dutch Court Examines Alleged Eritrean Surveillance & Intimidation | IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

By Reinhardt Jacobsen | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea Sheila B. Keetharuth introducing New UN report detailing litany of human rights violations, ‘rule by fear’ in Eritrea in June 2015. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard
AMSTERDAM (IDN) - The reach of an allegedly long arm of the Eritrean regime abroad has been the subject of a series of high profile articles in the media. Latest reports say that it is not only targeting Eritrean refugees but also Dutch citizens.
At the core of the debate is a series of articles by OneWorld journalist Sanne Terlingen who revealed that members suspected to have links to the Eritrean regime were serving as interpreters in asylum cases. Two siblings of the chair of the YPFDJ, the youth wing of the only party of Eritrea, were still employed by the interpretation service, even though the rules of the Dutch government agency would not allow this.
In connection with these articles, YPFDJ’s former chair Meseret Bahlbi sued Prof Dr Mirjam van Reisen on the plea that she had in a commentary linked the YPFDJ to Eritrean surveillance and intelligence, a link disputed by Bahlbi. Incidentally Bahlbi was not named but he felt he was the target of the comment.
The Dutch media have also been reporting on alleged intimidation. Prof Dr van Reisen claimed she had received threatening tweets. The newspaper De Volkskrant reported that a car had followed her. Court proceedings indicated that Bahibi had accused Van Reisen of being part of a trafficking ring.
Van Reisen’s lawyer Van den Biesen, argued that the YPFDJ could be viewed as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Eritrean regime, keeping close tabs on Eritreans abroad. Van den Biesen refered to a youtube video of a speech of the leader of the YPFDJ, Yemane Gebreab, an advisor to President Esayas Afewerki, at a YPFDJ meeting in Germany in April 2015. In the video Gebreab directs the YPFDJ members to identify “enemies” and to ensure that the YPFDJ-members know who they are, where they are and what their tactics are.
In the Dutch radio show Argos, Eritrea expert Jacques Willemse corroborated this sentiment: “The regime can only survive if all possible opposition can be oppressed both internally and externally. How can you do this? By gathering as much information as possible about suspected adversaries.”
Eritrean commentator Selam Kidane has already drawn her conclusion in good English understatement: “Meseret accuses Mirjam Van Reisen of slandering him by claiming that his activities for YPFDJ extend to passing information to PFDJ. We shall see what the court makes of that, but as for me the attempt to make us believe that PFDJ and YPFDJ are independent organizations and that they don’t share information about the people that are working to undermine PFDJ’s continued grip on power is a rather refreshing news.”
The court hearing on January 27 drew a full room of Eritreans and has continued to draw attention of the Eritrean community. Many Eritreans have come forward to give details on the organization of the Eritrean intelligence network. Bahlbi and his lawyer stated during the court proceedings that these statements were not credible as they were all members of the ‘opposition’.
Legal sources argue that Interpreters are particularly well placed to gather intelligence on Eritrean refugees. The information that refugees give in their asylum process can have menacing repercussions, especially for family members of refugees within Eritrea, if it reaches the Eritrean regime.
Dutch politician Linda Voortman stressed in an interview to Argos the critical importance of the integrity of the interpreters, which she said, must be beyond any doubt. The two interpreters that OneWorld covered in their research were suspended only after a picture was published of an event of the YPFDJ in which one of the interpreters could clearly be identified.
According to Voortman, it is particularly worrying that the interpreter could identify other interpreters working for the Dutch immigration office by name in the picture, yet no further investigations were made.
Intelligence gathering is not the only problem for the Eritrean diaspora; it is intimidation too. In Dutch media such as the newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’ and radio programme ‘Spijkers met Koppen’, Mirjam van Reisen gave a personal account of the intimidation she had experienced. “I know now what it feels like to be Eritrean,” she said, referring to the fear of reprisals that Eritreans in and out of the country appeared to have felt for years.
She reported that her car had been followed and she had found it difficult to shake off the pursuer. Other people that have worked on Eritrea describe similar situations. Sanne Terlingen, journalist at OneWorld, says an avalanche of Twitter-messages rolls down whenever someone is critical of Eritrea.
UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, has experienced being followed in the Netherlands. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council made a special announcement that members of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea had been harassed and intimidated in their hotel after publishing a damning report on the human rights situation in Eritrea, outlining possible crimes against humanity.
In the Dutch programme ‘Nieuwsuur’, Dutch parliamentarian Attje Kuiken said that a large-scale investigation was urgently needed. “We cannot let this continue,” she stated. She also expressed surprise that reports like this had been surfacing for years, yet nothing had been done to protect the Eritrean refugees and the people that reported on Eritrea.
The decision of the court case against Prof Van Reisen will be announcdd on February 10. The same day the court will hear a case Bahlbi has filed against the Director of the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). Bahlbi has sued the IND arguing that it wrongly linked YPFDJ to the Eritrean regime. Also several media in The Netherlands have received court summons. “YPFDJ seems to be using the Dutch rule of law to defend its views, a rule of law which is denied to Eritreans in their own country,” said Selam Kidane. [IDN-InDepthNews – 9 February 2016]
IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea Sheila B. Keetharuth introducing New UN report detailing litany of human rights violations, ‘rule by fear’ in Eritrea in June 2015. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard