The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) published a new Country of Origin report on Eritrea. The report is a key document in relation to decisions on the asylum claims of Eritrean refugees. The report looks at the changes that have taken place since its last report in 2016, mainly in relation to the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea that has since occurred. It finds that broadly, the situation of human rights has not changed in the country. Below are a few of the key findings.
Changes after peace
The report opens with a short description of the whirlpool of changes that occurred after Ethiopia and Eritrea made peace mid-2018. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa re-opened, flights resumed and Eritrea benefited from the lifting of UN Security Council sanctions. It also joined the UN Human Rights Council. However, the EASO report states that nothing has changed in terms of internal politics, including the restrictive policies put in place, which had been justified by the ‘no war no peace’ situation with Ethiopia. This includes the continuation and indefinite nature of the national service.
The report covers the continuing arrests of critics such as former finance minister Berhane Abrehe, and the closure of religious institutions, as well as the continuing arrests of religious people.
On the national service, the report remarks that “[m]ost notably, President Isaias did not concretely address the issue [of national service limitation] in any of his public speeches and media interviews since signing the peace declaration.” Recruitment continues, including in the form of Giffas to round up any youth that is trying to avoid service. Such Giffas also sometimes swoop up people who have been previously exempted (such as, in some cases, mothers, disabled people, etc.), as exempted persons get no proof of exemption. Minors are also rounded up.
The compensation within the national service has gone up, through a scheme announced in 2015, although the implementation is still ongoing. However, at the same time, a series of deductions, including for taxes, retirement and food, have been implemented, which have kept the net wages at around the same level as before. Especially at the military component of the national service, conscripts suffer human rights abuses such as harsh and arbitrary punishment, imprisonment and (sexual) abuse, which EASO finds has been “credibly documented”. Arbitrary punishment for deserters and draft evaders also remains in place, and this punishment can be extended to family members, in order to put pressure on the evader.
Exit from Eritrea
The status of travel for Eritreans within the country and exiting the country have changed since the peace; for a short space of time, no checks were in place between Asmara and the border of Ethiopia. Since the border crossings have closed, some reports state that travel permits are needed in some cases. Exit visas were de facto not needed between September and December 2018, after that, controls gradually got stricter again until in April 2019, the last border crossings were closed. Crossing the Ethiopia border is now again illegal and Eritrea’s policies remain in place, however EASO reports that it has become easier to cross as the border is less militarised. An increasing number of women and minors have made use of this, whereas before the peace agreement, it was mainly young men that crossed. People that cross risk punishment, often imprisonment where torture practices are common. ccording to Ethiopian officials, 250-300 people cross the border every day as of June 2019.
Treatment of voluntary and forced returnees
The treatment of returnees in Eritrea also remains unchanged, according to EASO. People who fled Eritrea to avoid the national service face five years of imprisonment if they do not return to complete their service by the age of 40; this is the case for both legal and illegal exits. For the treatment of returnees, a host of other factors are often arbitrarily taken into account when deciding punishment for returnees, among which their activities abroad, payment of 2% tax, legal or illegal exit, and relevant contacts among authorities. People who wish to return voluntary have to meet the conditions of paying 2% tax, signing a regret form if they have not completed the national service, and, de facto, be at least minimally loyal to the government. Any missing documents or suspicion can lead to arrest and questioning. Eritreans loyal to the government may obtain ‘diaspora status’, enabling them to visit the country (previous conditions mentioned also apply to them). “Meeting these conditions is, however, no guarantee against persecution”, EASO states. Returnees who have not yet fulfilled their national service duty will – eventually – be recalled and can then face punishment for desertion, draft evasion or illegal exit. One source mentioned by EASO states that returnees from Libya, Egypt and other countries have been detained, tortured and sent to the military; a part of them is said to have fled again.
On forced return, the report only has anecdotal evidence that suggests treatment may be less lenient than for voluntary returns. “SEM observed that the fate of most deported persons upon arrival in Eritrea is unknown and undocumented. Information is available only regarding persons repatriated across the land borders from Sudan, and it is anecdotal. The available accounts describe that after arrival in Eritrea, most returnees were put in an underground prison near Tesseney, where the authorities screened and profiled them. Torture is reported from this prison.”