Call for Southern Africa to open its arms to Eritreans

Child soldiers in Eritrea. The repression of citizens is causing them to flee the country. (AFP)

Child soldiers in Eritrea. The repression of citizens is causing them to flee the country. (AFP)

Stop Eritreans from dying on the high seas and grant them political asylum. 

This was the call by the Southern African Development Community Council of Nongovernmental Organisations (SADC-CNGOs) that met with representatives from Eritrea in Johannesburg last week.

Figures show that Eritreans make up the highest number of Africans who die while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in fateful attempts to flee the repressive regime in their county.

A study by the International Organisation for Migration, titled “Fatal Journeys: Tracking lives lost during migration”, estimates that more than 3 000 people have died this year trying to cross over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Eritreans are the biggest group from Africa and second only to Syrians as a percentage of the total number of migrants dying in the sea.

Speaking at the end of a two-day workshop with representatives of the Eritrean diaspora, Abie Dithlake, executive director of the SADC-CNGOs, said countries in Southern Africa should reach out to support those suffering elsewhere on the continent.

Well-documented repression
SADC member states such as South Africa, which plays an important role in the African Union (AU), should also put pressure on the AU to adhere to sanctions against the Asmara regime. 

Repression in the Horn of Africa country has been well documented in numerous United Nations reports and those from human rights organisations.

Human Rights Watch, for example, states that “torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and religious freedom remain routine in Eritrea”.

Eritrea has ranked last in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for the past seven years.

“We are aware of resolutions by the AU, but leaders are not making the necessary efforts to enforce them,” said Dithlake.

He said NGOs should put pressure on governments to grant political asylum to Eritreans to enable them to organise in countries like South Africa.

Kuluberhan Abraham, a member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, who lives in South Africa, says there are between 5 000 and 6 000 Eritreans living in South Africa, but only a small percentage of them have managed to obtain refugee status.

According to figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees, 821 Eritreans were granted refugees status in South Africa last year. This is compared with up to 24 000 Somalis with refugee status and 15 000 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the estimated figures.

Activists at the SADC-CNGOs meeting said Eritreans are increasingly being considered as “economic refugees” in the same category as those from poor African countries, but whose lives aren’t necessarily in danger back home. This is especially true in Europe where Eritreans have been arriving in large numbers.

Not economic refugees
Andebrhan Giorgis, a former Eritrean ambassador who now lives in Belgium and heads an NGO called Revival Africa Initiative, says this is a wrong perception of Eritreans. “They are not economic refugees but political refugees. As soon as the situation improves they will return home.”

One of the main issues that drives young Eritrean males out of the country is compulsory military service, which was initially restricted to 18 months, but has been gradually prolonged and “amounts to indentured labour”, says Giorgis.

Boys from the age of 15 and 16 are called up for this military duty and the final school year, grade 12, is completed in the military camps, according to a statement by the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights.

The organisation says there are many documented cases of Eritrean refugees who have fled to other countries but were sent back home from places such as Malta, Sudan or Libya. Upon their return they were held in harsh detention centres and mistreated.

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