Media reports on Eritrea continue to headline human rights abuse….

The Eritrean Government has recently been publishing a series of articles in its "Eritrea Profile" reviewing events of the last year and Eritrea's "many successes" during 2015. The first of these articles, on January 20, was entitled "‘Curbing' Migration".  Given the international concern with the flood of refugees and migrants from Eritrea, this was not surprising. The refugee issue has taken center stage in the international media since the tragic drowning of 360 Eritreans off Lampedusa in October 2013, a disaster which highlighted "the truth about the brutal and ugly repression in Eritrea"

 Nor, given the source, was it surprising that the article welcomed the report of the Danish Immigration Service, the earlier report of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration and the subsequent report of the UK Home office. All of these, originally at least, suggested that "claims of political repression and ground realities in Eritrea may have been misinformed and that Eritreans were largely leaving Eritrea due to economic migration rather than repression." The article in "Eritrea Profile" did not mention that the main source of the Danish Report disassociated himself from its conclusions and that two of its three authors resigned from the Immigration Service because of criticism of the methodology and disagreement with the conclusions. The report had been withdrawn from use in immigration cases.

 The report of the UK Home Office has also been the subject of a highly critical and detailed comment by Dr. John Campbell in a report released last month by the British Immigration and Independent Advisory Group on Country Information. The report strongly criticized the UK Home Office's use of "misleading and biased" information to reject Eritrean asylum seekers from the UK. The report says two official documents,  the Country of Origin Information  and the Country Guidance Information, issued by the UK Home Office in March last year, were largely based on the findings of the Danish report despite the fact that it has been largely discredited. In effect, the report claims that the Home Office has distorted evidence in order to reject Eritrean asylum seekers. Dr. Campbell said the Home Office could not rely on the Danish report because its findings are simply "not credible". He noted, in particular, that despite claims in the Danish report, there is still no evidence that a decision to limit national service to 18 months has been decided. Government officials have made statements to this effect in private that the system has been changed, but  nothing has been formally announced by the Government and there has been no indication that any such policy has been implemented. Nor is there any indication that those returning to Eritrea are safe from prosecution or persecution

 Those immigration reports were, of course, wildly at variance with almost all other reports from a wide range of other sources, including the reports of the UN Special Rapporteur and the UN Human Rights Council's Commission of Enquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea which quoted from the testimony of hundreds of those who have fled from Eritrea in the last year or so, as well as a number of detailed media reports over the last year. The amount of media coverage on Eritrea in 2015 showed a considerable increase, as the government allowed some media outlets to visit the country in an apparent attempt to improve its image. If this was the reason, it failed. Eritrea Profile claimed that until 2010 there were "a number of correspondents from foreign newspapers and agencies present in Asmara, including BBC, Deutsche Welle, Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and Reuters" but then, it claimed that they all decided, with the exception of AFP, to leave "of their own accord." In March 2015, a BBC visit was categorized as providing a string of "lies and misrepresentations" over its claims of peoples' reluctance to talk and the amount of "minding" to which the journalists were subject. However, according to Eritrea Profile, the BBC also had "to affirm the positive ground realities in Eritrea, admitting that there was significant health care progress and that there was no censorship of the internet."

 In October,  the Wall Street Journal ("Thousands flee isolated Eritrea to escape life of conscription and poverty," 20.10.2015), noted that more than half a million Eritrean refugees were residing in the neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia, in addition to the hundreds of thousands making their way to Europe. At the center of its story is a boy, Binyam Abraham, turning 16, who made a 19 hour journey to neighboring Ethiopia to escape the "forced conscription that had trapped his father for decades; for as long as I've known, he's been a soldier…. Each year I saw him once, when he was allowed leave". The Government claims the service is limited to only 18 months and the age limit starts at 18, but the fact remains that thousands leave to avoid the indefinite national service characterized by harsh treatment. From 16 on, there is always the possibility of being rounded up in one of the Monday night "gifa", round-ups to catch anyone trying to avoid conscription. The article which quotes  describes Eritrea as "one of the world's fastest-emptying nations: a country of about 4.5 million on the Horn of Africa, governed by a secretive dictatorship accused of human-rights violations, that is playing an outsize role in the biggest global migration crisis since World War II." From the start of 2012 to the middle of this year [2015], it is calculated that 1 in 50 Eritreans sought asylum in Europe, nearly twice the ratio of Syrians. "On the rickety smuggling boats crossing the Mediterranean, Eritreans comfortably outnumber other nationalities...Eritreans accounted for a majority of the 3,000 people who have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, humanitarian agencies say." And the numbers continue to grow. The Wall Street Journal concludes "Eritrea is seeing its future walk away. Relative to its population, Eritrea has the biggest group of refugees who are unaccompanied minors."

 The Council on Foreign Relations published an article "Europe's Migration Crisis," in September. This quotes the International office of Migration, describing the situation of Eritrean refugees, making up on of the three largest groups with Syrians and Afghans, and their main reason for leaving being "fleeing forced labour." Another article "Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis" three months later, concludes that "conscription in the national-service program is the factor most commonly cited by [Eritrean] asylum seekers who have fled their country." The Guardian, in an article "Giving Money to Eritrea to stop refugees is almost Satire" (13.11.2015) , describes what it calls the futile exercise of the EU to provide Eritrea with a quick concession, amounting 200 million Euros. It is based on "a deeply flawed logic" that ignores the reasons behind people fleeing from home. The article suggests that if any meaningful solution is to be achieved, the EU should put pressure on the regime in Asmara to end the indefinite military service, which it notes as characterized by harsh treatments and forced labor.

 A Photograph and Video report "Desperate Crossing", depicting the story of over 700 refugees who had crossed via tiny fish boats to Italy, noted that "most of them were from the impoverished and despotically ruled Northeast African Nation of Eritrea." Dozens of other reports during the year made the same points time and again: those arriving in Europe from Eritrea were refugees and their reasons for leaving were the repression they faced in their home country. It was clear that no amount of money going into Eritrea would curb this movement of people.

 Last year, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea  stated categorically that "systematic, widespread and gross" human rights violations have been and were being committed under the authority of the Eritrean Government. It said that some of these abuses might constitute crimes against humanity. The Commission found that Eritrean citizens live under constant fear in a controlled state and are subject to abuse, exploitation and slavery. Other human rights bodies have documented similar abuses over many years.

This is why the current efforts, as exemplified by the EU's decision to provide 200 million euros of aid will make no difference to the issue that underlines European interest: interrupting the flow of refugees. The aid package is intended to support development endeavors in the energy sector and improve governance. Some will also go on education.  Neven Mimica, the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, said the package would help to tackle the root causes of migration from Eritrea. In fact, it is most unlikely to have any impact on the numbers of refugees, as all the evidence is that they are leaving Eritrea because of political repression. Their exodus will continue. It will not be affected by increased aid for education – all that can do is provide for "more educated refugees", nothing else. It is most unlikely to limit even numbers of migrants, let alone refugees. The flow of refugees will only be reduced when Eritrea actually makes changes in policy and reduces repression, and implements major changes in  policy.

 There have been a number of suggestions, by European ministers and others, that Eritrea is changing policies. However, as all reports from media and others demonstrate, there appears to be no change on the ground in Eritrea. Nor is there any indication of changes in the operation of the Special Military Court under which political prisoners are sentenced, usually without charge or trial. The Government refuses to respond to repeated international demands for news of the G15, arrested in 2001, along with a number of journalists, and held in such atrocious conditions that there are reports that most may well have died. Both the G15 and the journalists used to be a concern of the European Union. They now appear to be forgotten, victims of the refugee crisis. Nor has there been any indication of any change in Eritrea's foreign policies, or the continuing pattern of attempts to destabilization of its neighbors, in particular Ethiopia. The Eritrean regime is still continuing to support armed opposition which makes no secret of its intent to try to overthrow the Ethiopian government by force.    

 Given the  damning report on the human rights situation in Eritrea by the UN Human Rights Council's Commission of Enquiry, and the failure of the regime in Asmara to make any change  in its policies of regional destabilization, it is no surprise that in October last year the

UN Security Council decided to extend the mandate of the Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group, and retain existing sanctions on Eritrea for another year. The Commission's report and the reports of the UN Monitoring Group, both long term and comprehensive accounts of the nature of the government in Asmara, provide authoritative and detailed information based on a wide variety of sources. The UN sanctions resolution imposes an arms embargo on the regime and prescribes assets freeze and travel ban on some of its political and military leaders.

 The Commission's report was accepted by both the UN Human Rights Council in June and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in October 2015.

 Given the poverty in Eritrea and the lack of development, no one can argue against the provision of aid, but if the EU believes that this will limit the flood of refugees, it is certainly mistaken. It is also surprising, given the long history of difficulties that the EU has had with Eritrea's autocratic regime over the last twenty years, marked by abruptly alternating periods of cooperation and confrontation. The EU is fully aware of the lack of justice, democracy or the rule of law. The treatment of the G15 and of journalists arrested and held in solitary confinement under appalling conditions without charge or trial, for example, has frequently been raised by EU officials, and, as frequently, totally ignored by Eritrean Government officials. EU leaders have witnessed time and again that promises, of dialogue and cooperation, of change or reform, made by the regime have been consistently broken. The surprise was that the EU made no effort to ensure that any aid package should include conditions for introducing democratic reforms or respecting human rights or any concrete steps to demonstrate any changes of policy, internal or external. There was not even a demand that the regime should allow the Commission of Enquiry access to Eritrea, something that has been repeatedly requested.