Thursday, August 2, 2012

UN report backs Eritrean refugees' claims - Winnipeg Free Press

ERITREAN refugees in Winnipeg who complained they were shaken down for money to send the government they fled now have a UN report backing them up.
"I feel vindicated, and it proves without a shade of doubt what the Eritrean consulate and its satellite communities -- like the one in Winnipeg -- have been up to so far, unchecked," said Winnipegger Ghirmay Yeibio.
In 2010, Canada adopted a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting anyone from providing money to Eritrea for military activities. It's funding extremist groups destabilizing the Horn of Africa region with a two per cent tax it levies on Eritreans in North America, Europe, east Africa and the Middle East.
"The monitoring group has confirmed that the collection of such taxes routinely involves threats, harassment and intimidation against the individual concerned or relatives in Eritrea," the report released this summer said.
In Canada, paying a two per cent income tax is a prerequisite for getting any kind of Eritrean government service, such as a visitors visa to see family back home, the report said. Family members in Eritrea may be denied services if the family member abroad hasn't paid the tax, it said.
Or worse, said Yeibio, whose relatives have been locked up by the regime for his criticism of the government. He's been asked for thousands of dollars to have them freed. Yeibio wants the Eritrean consulate in Canada shut down and its officials deported.
"No one can speak about what's going on in Eritrea," said Daniel Awshek, a public health nurse and community educator who works with refugees in Winnipeg. "People are scared because they have lots of connections back home."
Awshek, a refugee from Eritrea, which is one of the top source countries for refugees, remembers the first Eritrean Community of Winnipeg Inc. event he attended. It was at the University of Winnipeg and people were asked to donate $500 to a campaign called Popular Challenge for the Eritrean defence forces.
"I couldn't believe it," said Awshek. "We're refugees... What we need here is to have peace and for people to focus on their education." Instead, they were expected to donate to the regime they'd just fled, said Awshek.
Eritrean refugees in Canada are discovering a situation similar to the one they left behind, said Bereketab Mebrahtu, the vice-chairman of the Eritrean Canadian Human Rights Group.
They're offered a helping hand in exchange for loyalty and support, "otherwise they are outcast from the community," said the human rights activist.
"The government of Manitoba and the Canadian government need to look at the activities of the so-called community groups," said Mebrahtu.
The Eritrean Community of Winnipeg Inc. receives provincial funding for some of its community and after-school programs but has also organized Eritrean government fundraisers, he said.
Ironically, it's also a major sponsor of refugees fleeing the regime it supports.
The Eritrean Community of Winnipeg Inc. said the UN report's allegation it has been collecting taxes are "absurd," and their books are open to Canadian authorities. President Lambros Kyriakakos said in a prepared statement UN sanctions against Eritrea are "unjust and unfair." The report uses "not well-evidenced work" and defames Eritrean-Canadians, he said.
His organization staged a protest in front of the Free Press in January. It was one of many held in cities where newspapers reported on complaints about Eritrean government activities.
"I am happy at least the UN report has brought things to light," said Awshek.
"(That's what) the Eritrean regime and its operating agents are the most scared of."

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