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15 May 2015

Economic migrants or refugees?

Economic migrants or refugees?

The Home Secretary Theresa May has distinguished between those refugees fleeing Syria and those from Africa during an interview on the growing numbers of people accessing Europe via the Mediterranean.

Eritrea was cited as an example of the latter, the implication being that while those fleeing Syria are genuine refugees, Eritreans and other Africans are primarily economic migrants who can safely be returned to their countries. 

In reality, Eritreans are fleeing one of the most repressive governments in the world, whose atrocities receive insufficient attention. Fundamental freedoms are non-existent; there is no opposition or free press; democratic elections are long overdue and a constitution containing extensive rights remains unimplemented.

Arbitrary arrest and indefinite and/or incommunicado detention without trial or charge occur regularly. In an interim report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March, the chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea described detention as “an ordinary fact of life, experienced by an inordinate number of individuals - men and women, old and young, including children.” 

Tens of thousands of Eritreans are detained in appalling, life-threatening conditions. The detention facilities are arbitrary: among other things, people are held for months or even years in open air areas surrounded by thorns or barbed wire, holes in the ground covered by trapdoors, or metal shipping containers.

Among the multitude of Eritreans languishing in detention centres are upwards of 1,000 Christians. Open and severe persecution began in 2002, when the government banned every denomination except Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Lutheranism, and ended all other religious practices except Sunni Islam. Several from permitted denominations are also detained, the most high profile being the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

From the age of 17, young Eritreans are obliged to undertake military service, receiving minimum wage. The legally stipulated term of service is 18 months; however, it can continue indefinitely. One man is still serving at the age of 68. Conscripts are used as forced labour in development projects and farms owned by officials. Female conscripts face sexual violence and harassment from officers. 

Thousands flee their homeland each month, seeking a refuge many never find. Eritreans are bought and sold like a commodity. Some are kidnapped from camps in Sudan and held for ransom by local tribes. Those reaching cities must avoid the clutches of Eritrean government agents in Sudan. Others have faced kidnapping and torture in the Sinai by Bedouin trafficking gangs who extort money from their friends and family. Still others have fallen into the hands of Daesh (IS); at least four Eritreans were identified in the film released on 19 April depicting the executions of “worshippers of the cross”.  

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 18 per cent of the 200,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 were Eritreans. The numbers that died can only be guessed at. The growing numbers arriving in Europe have spawned efforts to justify the circumvention of a UNHCR recommendation for Eritreans to receive asylum automatically. Disingenuously disregarding the role of repression in generating refugees, some European countries are choosing to treat the symptoms - traffickers and those risking their lives to escape increasingly lawless Libya. The exodus has been reattributed to unemployment, and in the saddest of ironies, a violent regime lacking in transparency will receive monies from the European Union to generate jobs.

Many in Europe appear ready to accept this redefinition of Eritreans as “economic migrants”, and use it to determine their response to their plight.

From its earliest books, the Bible insists on caring for strangers, orphans and widows. As Christians, we must speak up on their behalf, firstly, by supporting the UN Commission in denouncing ongoing repression in Eritrea, and objecting to the release of EU aid until the human rights climate improves.

Secondly, we must insist on a humane system of protection and sanctuary for refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing for their lives, and for the genuine root causes to be addressed.

Khataza Gondwe is team leader for Africa and the Middle East for Christian Solidarity Worldwide