Though marked by great, new challenges, the year 2015 was one of many successes for the Eritrean people. In order for us to usher in 2016 with greater clarity and vigor, making final pushes towards the next stages of Eritrean development, it is first necessary for us to gain the prerequisite perspective by briefly reviewing and contemplating on our history and lessons learned over this past year. This “2015 in Review” series will do exactly this.
We begin our story on Eritrea in 2015 with the chapter on migration. Though much can and will be said of other matters, few issues have loomed so heavily on the minds of the Eritrean people and international observers of Eritrea than that of migration.
As every new year starts with the reverberations of the one before it, such was the case in January 2015, rocked by the aftershocks of the Danish Immigration Service’s (DIS) fact-finding mission report on Eritrea.
Following similar efforts by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration in June 2014, the DIS mission, commissioned by the Danish Justice Minister Karen Hækkerup to investigate the causes of Eritrean migration, visited Eritrea, in addition to Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, and provided facts and testimony derived from many different persons, officials, Western embassies, UN agencies, international NGOs and local NGOs.
The report 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.
So why was the report so shocking and so hotly contested if it only gave mere observations? For the first time ever—and in bold fashion—a credible Western source revealed significant internal dissent among Western nations on the migration narrative on Eritrea through the official testimonies of Western embassies and UN agencies. One might even compare this report to a “leak” by discontented yet anonymous Western nations and EU-member states subordinated by US coercion, drawing new media narratives, debates and policies on Eritrean migration.
It must be understood that states, particularly nations of the EU, fraught by record numbers of African and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, design their asylum policies towards national groups like Eritreans by following “country guidance” given to their immigration services in official position papers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the case of Eritrea, UNHCR’s last position on Eritrean asylum-seekers was published in the 2011 Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea.
However, when UNHCR fails to give adequate guidance through their position papers, which are non-binding upon states, the immigration services of some states may choose to further investigate countries and issue guidance to guide their own asylum policies. Such was the case with Denmark.
One can hardly blame the Danes, or the Norwegians before them, or the Brits after them. Any rational and objective observer would have no qualms about the claim that UNHCR’s country guidance has been a monumental failure. Make no mistake about the fact that the Guidelines, published first in 2009 and updated in 2011, have effectively served to drive emigration out of Eritrea by taking the unprecedented and totally exceptional position that the “risk of persecution emanates from the State and its agents” (i.e. the entire State of Eritrea is “the persecutor”).
Equally as extraordinary, was their declaration of prima facie status for situation of Eritrean migrants on the basis of political repression rather than conflict notwithstanding the fact that Eritrea remains at war with an increasingly bellicose Ethiopian military that currently occupies its territories and continues to occasionally attack the Eritrean Defense Forces along the border. Let us repeat the fact that asylum is issued on the basis of repression. Unlike conflict, how can one assess overt repression en masse (i.e. on the whole; affecting the entire population)?
Never has such an exceptional position by UNHCR ever been taken towards any national group at any point in its history, allowing Eritreans anywhere on the planet to receive virtually guaranteed asylum and creating the ‘moral hazard’ of opportunistic transnational migration.
Imagine we have a young Eritrean and that seeks to live the best life possible, to provide for one’s family and make the most of one’s limited time on earth.
Then imagine that they are told that they are 99.9% guaranteed, via UNHCR’s unprecedented position on Eritreans, to secure asylum in any of the world’s wealthiest nations of their choosing; that they would earn a minimum wage almost 50 times greater that at home in addition to access to libraries, education, high-speed internet, electricity, and social welfare programs that took many decades and centuries of socioeconomic political development.
Compared to earning a much lower wage in a protracted war situation at home, why should anyone be surprised about such a young person emigrating from Eritrea?
According to the long accepted Harris-Todaro model of migration, migrants make a rational decision to increase their welfare or utility by moving to another place where they can expect to earn a higher income. Does this not apply to Eritrea? Or are we to seriously believe that everyone leaves because they are politically repressed?
When we also factor in the slew of egregious factual errors and methodologies of UNHCR’s Guidelines, it comes as little surprise to see the official critique of those position papers by the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs lambasting their contents in detail. The Guidelines are rife with sources that are biased, subjective, unqualified, unverifiable and even plagiarist. One reference cites a Norwegian study by Cecilia M. Bailliet that, in turn, cited an article on mass rape in Sawa that was actually plagiarized from a BBC article on rape in South Africa.
If, perhaps, some do express relative surprise at the denunciations listed out in the Ministry’s recent critique of UNHCR’s Eligibility Guidelines (EGs), let us be absolutely clear that this official government response was actually rather modest in its denunciations, as this is often the approach of the government in its international and diplomatic affairs.
Perhaps out of fear of shaming them, the government reserved mentioning the nasty skid of hostilities and non-objective posturings of UNHCR. Let it also be known to all that, around a few weeks before we celebrated the start of 2015, UNHCR headquarters quietly sent an impassioned letter to the DIS in response to their factfinding mission’s report, entitled “UNHCR’s perspective”.
Instead of listing the report as official country-of-origin information (or COI; country guidance) like they would for all reports issued by state immigration services and letting international observers judge the integrity of the country guidance for themselves, UNHCR chose instead to rear its ugly head of subjectivity and attack the report, claiming that the presence of “a number of concerns as regards the methodology used by DIS in the report”.
While on the one hand playing coy and conceding, “UNHCR welcomes efforts by State asylum services and others to ensure that States and other stakeholders in asylum procedures have access to high quality country-of-origin information” the letter laments, “the report ascribes statements to interlocutors that cannot, however, be traced to these interlocutors’ statements as reviewed and cleared by them” and “does not include any reflections on the reliability of specific sources of information”.
Boohoo. Tear drops. Spare us the violins.
UNHCR’s assertion seems outrageous and hypocritical given its inclusion of other reports on Eritrea as official country guidance, catalogued on UNHCR’s RefWorld online database, which presents an onslaught of anonymous, unverifiable claims on ground realities despite–unlike the DIS investigative team-having never even visited Eritrea, much less doing so in an official investigational capacity.
These official country guidance listings include human rights reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and the UK Home Office, which are held to no such standard.
And if anyone is still sitting on the fence in regards to UNHCR’s bias in promoting one, subjective narrative on Eritrea, how can that person explain the unjustifiable decision of UNHCR to not only exclude the DIS report from the RefWorld database but to then turn around and also include responses by NGOs like Amnesty International that contested that very same report on that very same database.
Is that not audacity? How can such a brazenly biased position by justified? Why not at least pretend to be neutral? How can UNHCR be seen as unbiased in crafting asylum policies towards Eritrea? In 2015, the world finally started to recognize what European and African ambassadors sitting in their Asmara have long noticed: the largely American funded UNHCR is shilling on behalf of Americanled politicized migration efforts that have wreaked havoc on asylum nations.
It is within this backdrop that the DIS report was published and, in one fell swoop, the report debunked UNHCR’s official position on Eritrea and led to an immediate groundswell of states looking to reassess the narratives and policies on Eritrean migration.
Most notably among these states was the United Kingdom.
By April 2015, following a tandem visit in December to Eritrea by the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Home
Office, which even made time for an open roundtable discussion with Eritrean youth at Asmara’s very own Pyramid Restaurant in Geza Banda, the Home Office published its Country Information and Guidance report on Eritrea. Interestingly, these efforts are still ongoing, and even expanding, in 2016.
If history is any lesson, then we must heed, with healthy reservation, the consistent observation over the last half-century that sudden, violent Western media reactions to Eritrean issues or their impulsive breaks of silence on Eritrea are among the surest signs of impending Eritrean success towards consummating goals unpalatable to Western patrons of that media.
In the wake of the DIS report, we saw, almost instantaneously, the liberal British media, which represents international finance rather than the popular British left, scale up vitriol and redouble antagonism towards the government and state of Eritrea so as to reverse the decision of the Home Office. It was certainly a valiant effort. However, the Home Office stood its ground.
Citing the DIS report, the Home Office country guidance report surprisingly concluded, “Therefore, a requirement to undergo compulsory national/ military service – or punishment for failing to complete this duty – does not, in itself, constitute persecution.”
Like the Danish report, the enormity and significance of the Home Office decision on Eritrea’s future cannot be overlooked or understated.
To truly understand the implications and gravity of this watershed event, we must first understand the current geopolitical situation of Eritrea, which we shall cover in the next article in this series.