Recent UK guidance that Eritrean asylum seekers can now safely go home comes under scrutiny as commission finds signs of crimes against humanity
The UK is to “carefully consider” the findings of a UN inquiry that concluded the Eritrean government may be subjecting its citizens to crimes against humanity, contradicting British guidance that has deemed Eritrea safe for migrants to return to after leaving illegally.
The Home Office updated its country guidance for Eritrea in March to advise that Eritreans are no longer at risk of persecution if they return home after leaving the country without official permission. This guidance is used by UK immigration officials to determine the legitimacy of asylum applications.
As long as Eritreans have paid income taxes and sign a letter of apology for leaving the country illegally, they will not face persecution or harm if they return,the guidance from the Home Office said. “Previous country guidance indicated that those who had left illegally were at risk on return to Eritrea. However, up-to-date information from inside Eritrea suggests this is no longer the case,” it said.
But the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea painted a much bleaker picture for Eritrean returnees in a report published on Monday. It said that Eritreans who fled the country illegally are regarded as “traitors”. They are usually arrested when they return and are detained in harsh conditions. “Returnees who spoke to the commission were held in prison between eight months to three years,” the report said. “[They] are systematically ill-treated to the point of torture.”
The UN report also said the Eritrean government is carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, indefinite national service and forced labour “on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere”. The Eritrean government dismissed the UN’s allegations as “unfounded and devoid of all merit”. Eritrea has said that huge numbers of Ethiopian asylum seekers, pretending to be Eritrean to increase their chances of gaining asylum, have distorted the actual number of Eritreans arriving in Europe.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We will carefully consider the findings of the UN report.” She did not specify whether the current Home Office guidance would be changed. She added: “Our country information and guidance is based on a careful and objective assessment of the situation in Eritrea using evidence taken from a range of sources including media outlets, local, national and international organisations, including human rights organisations, and information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
European countries are struggling to deal with the arrival of record numbers of migrants and refugees, notably from Syria and Eritrea. Fleeing civil war, persecution and seeking better job prospects, thousands have braved dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, in the hope of gaining asylum in Europe.
Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, reported that 36,925 Eritrean migrants applied for asylum in Europe last year, a 155% increase from 2013. The UK received 3,552 asylum applications from Eritreans in the year to March, more than from any other nationality, according to the Home Office.
Even more migrants are expected to arrive during the summer months, when the Mediterranean is calmer and crossings are less risky. Last month, the EU announced plans to take in 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean migrants, but this was met with opposition from some member states.
Denmark and Norway have also issued new asylum guidance in the past year, making it easier for immigration services to reject Eritrean applications. These moves have been condemned by human rights groups. Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said: “In the absence of tangible human rights reforms by Eritrea’s government, host countries, particularly in the EU, should not close the door on Eritrean asylum seekers or send them back to almost certain abuse.”
The Home Office’s March guidance included dozens of citations from a heavily criticised report by the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) used to determine asylum applications to Denmark.
The Danish report, published in December, has been criticised as inaccurate and misleading by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch and a group of 23 academics, activists and journalists.
Jens Weise Olesen, a chief immigration adviser at DIS and co-author of the Danish report, has been suspended for speaking out about the production of the study.
Olesen said the report had been rushed out after a huge increase in the number of Eritreans applying for asylum in Denmark. He said the report has deterred Eritreans from seeking asylum in Denmark since it was published.
“Our head of office was very eager to publish the report extremely quickly,” he said. “You could see the number of Eritrean asylum applications to Denmark going down, because they knew the report was out there and it could be used to reject their application.” A DIS spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying the matter had been closed.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We are aware of, and have taken into account, criticism of parts of the Danish report, which is only used alongside a range of other sources to produce the guidance.”
Eritrea’s indefinite national service, which requires men and women over 18 to serve in the military or work for the government, is cited as the most common reason that people flee the country. EU officials have said that Eritrea has committed to reducing its national service requirement to 18 months, but HRW said there is no sign this commitment has been made.
When the new guidance was issued in March, HRW said there was no evidence of any change of policy regarding illegal exits in Eritrea and it urged the Home Office to reconsider its conclusions.