A mixed crowd of policy makers, experts, lawyers and other interested people came together last Thursday, 19th of October, in Brussels for the Conference ‘Eritrea and the Ongoing Refugee Crisis’. The conference, which was the result of long preparation, was organised by EMDHR, EEPA, pro-asyl, Connection E.v., War Resisters’ International, and Eritrean Law Society. It was hosted by the representation of the state of Hessen to the European Union.
Among many other topics, a main discussion topic during the summit was the need to end the Eritrean Government’s impunity over the crimes against humanity, which the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea has reasonable grounds to believe to have been committed and continue to be committed by Eritrean officials. This human rights situation has given rise to a large number of Eritrean refugees, many of them very young, who are faced with inhumane conditions as refugees in Africa and on the road to Europe. One of the main reasons that the conference was organised, is to counter the changing attitude of some European Member States towards Eritrea, seeking more engagement with the regime and challenging the severity of the human rights situation.
The conference was opened by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth. Through her speech, Ms. Keetharuth shared some key details of the experience gained during her mandate as UN Special Rapporteur and concluded by emphasising that on the key indicators, the situation of human rights in Eritrea has not improved. She advocated for the continuation of her mandate when her legal term as Special Rapporteur ends after 6 years, in 2018.
After the opening speech, the meeting was structured in three different panels. The first panel focused on the challenges that Eritrean refugees are facing in Europe. One of the main themes was the worrying data regarding the decrease in the number of Eritrean asylum seekers’ acceptance rates or the downgrading of their status in some European countries. During the second panel, issues such as the indefinite national service, religious persecution, gender based violence and other ‘in country’ atrocities were addressed. The last panel’s emphasis was on the need for protection of Eritrean refugees, including outside of Eritrea – panelists mentioned the ‘long arm of the Eritrean regime’, which aims to control and intimidate the diaspora communities. An example of this control can be seen in the recent report commissioned by the Dutch government on the 2% Diaspora Tax that is collected, in many cases, through coercive tactics.
Each of the panels included many notable Eritrean and non-Eritrean people of diverse backgrounds – including academics, civil society organisations and refugees (see the official program for more details). The conference did not avoid the interest of the Eritrean Government as it was reported that some supporters of the PFDJ, the Eritrean leading party, were present.
The second day, a closed strategy meeting, took a more action-oriented approach. It included the agreement of a prompt answer to the comments made by the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, about the funds promised by the Council in order to close the Central Mediterranean Route. The members of the Eritrea Conference that were present on the second day condemn those statements, believing that closing the Mediterranean Route would be a thoughtless act which would force lot of migrants and refugees into Libyan detention camps where torture and abuse are well documented.