The situation facing refugees and the prospects for building solidarity networks

* Introduction by Rudi Friedrich

DictorshipOn 19 and 20 October 2017, we met up with other organisations in Brussels for a one-day conference entitled “Eritrea and the ongoing refugee crisis”.

The next day we continued the discussions in a strategy meeting of groups and initiatives engaged in the topic of refugees from Eritrea.


The full Booklet can be downloaded at

The conference certainly was unique, in that it was the first time there had been a platform for Eritrean and international experts on the country to shed light on the refugees’ predicament before a well-informed audience of EU parliamentarians, representatives from EU member states as well as refugees themselves. The conference attracted more than 100 participants from over 40 international organisations, while the strategy meeting was attended by around 40 individuals.

Eritrea – a country where arbitrariness is commonplace

Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 after waging decades of armed conflict against Ethiopia. Since then, this state in eastern Africa has been ruled by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice(PFDJ), the successor to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front(EPLF), an armed organisation which fought for the country’s independence from Ethiopia. Party chairman Isaias Afwerki has been the country’s president and head of its national assembly ever since Eritrea became an independent country.

The country’s constitution, though adopted by the constitutive national assembly shortly after independence, has never entered into force. Instead, President Afwerki ordered the drafting of an alternative constitution which has never been made public. The president and his government are not elected – elections have never been held. In fact, there has never even been an assembly of the ruling party. One of the speakers at the Brussels conference, Martin Plaut, an expert on the Horn of Africa and for a long time Africa editor for BBC World Service News, wrote in an article: “Eritrea is run in an arbitrary manner by the president and his closest associates, with many of the normal administrative functions of a state almost completely absent. For example, Eritrea has no annual budget and the revenues from the mines are not publicly accounted for. The country has a bifurcated economy, with much of its economic activity controlled by the party, or held offshore. The normal checks and balances that exist in most nations around the world are absent.”1

Arbitrariness and human rights abuses are widespread. Mike Smith, chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, reported on 6 June 2016: “Eritrea is an authoritarian State. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions in Eritrea. This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century. These crimes are still occurring today.”2

The war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 left Eritrea highly militarised. Human rights organisations and the United Nations have condemned the arbitrary arrests and killings, torture, political persecution, inhuman detention conditions, forced labour, and clampdown on the freedom of movement, opinion, belief and religion. Since the war with Ethiopia, all men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 have been required to perform military service, which is supposed to be limited to 18 months but is usually extended for years. Conscripts are often forced to work in agriculture or the administrative sector and are subject to abuse. Military service is the main reason, but not the only reason, that Eritreans leave the country.

Eritrean emigrant Gaim Kibreab, a research professor at London’s South Bank University who published a book in 2017 on Eritrean national service, used the Brussels conference to explain the main reasons why many Eritreans decide to flee the country: “One of the significant drivers of displacement is the indefinite and open-ended national service and its negative consequences on the social fabric of Eritrean society and household livelihoods” he said. “The indefinite national service has prompted the collapse of the livelihood systems throughout the country as exacerbated by the unfavourable economic policy which is hostile to private property and enterprise. The situation is severely exacerbated by the arbitrary governance and punishment regime that permeate the national service reflected in the total absence of rules that regulate important issues such as annual leave, what kind of punishment should be meted out for a particular wrongdoing as well as the relationship between commanders and conscripts. This has given the commanders free rein or a licence to do whatever they want, including administering inhumane and degrading punishments, exploiting the conscripts’ labour power for personal gain and perpetuating sexual violence against female conscripts.”3

Another speaker at the conference, Asia Abdulkadir, a Nairobi-based gender expert engaged in the Network of Eritrean Women(NEW), highlighted the many different ways in which women are exposed to violence. “Today, women in Eritrea remain discriminated in all areas of life. There are a number of legal reforms aimed at formalizing gender equality; however, they are not upheld in practice.”4Female genital mutilation is widespread, affecting 89% of women. Rape victims often have no option but to marry their rapist. “The everyday practice of sexual abuse of women,” Asia Abdulkadir continued, “and general harsh conditions within the national service causes many young women to opt for early marriage, unwanted pregnancy and interruption of educations.”

The conference concluded with a debate on whether the arbitrary system prevailing in Eritrea is solely the result of inadequate governance or whether it is not a wider, systematic phenomenon. Martin Plaut observed that the Eritrean government operates systematically and is turning the current situation to its own advantage. One example he noted was the exploitation of mines in cooperation with the Canadian firm Nevsun Resources Limitedin an arrangement where conscripts are used as forced labour in the mining of gold.5

Another example is the collection of exile taxes, a topic which the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands addressed in a study dated June 2017. Mirjam van Reisen, who worked on the study, told conference participants that consulates and embassies, acting on behalf of the Eritrean government, charge individuals requiring consular services a 2% tax on their total income. The university’s study found that the levying of this tax is arbitrary, has no clear objectives and is mandatory.6As long ago as 2011, the UN Security Councilnoted that “Eritrea is using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means” to levy taxes from its own citizens outside the country.7Eritrea also puts pressure on family members still living in Eritrea, or even goes so far as to arrest them, as a way of forcing Eritreans in the diaspora to pay this exile tax. Migrants’ money is thus becoming a major source of income for the Eritrean regime.

One particularly cynical example is the way in which the Eritrean regime is benefiting from the flight of its citizens. “The Eritrean government controls its borders rigorously, including implementing a policy of ‘shoot to kill’ for anyone attempting an unauthorised crossing. At the same time there is mounting evidence that the same government not only controls the illicit flight of its own citizens but profits from it. Eritrean nationals are the key traffickers in the smuggling operation. Eritreans were directly involved in the supervision and torture of their countrymen and women held captive in the Sinai. They used their skills to extract the highest ransoms. The evidence therefore points to a highly organised network of senior officers and officials, who, together with Eritrean nationals abroad, control human trafficking of Eritreans for profit.”8

What this means in practice was explained in vivid terms by Filmon Debru, whom we had invited to the conference to share his personal experiences as a refugee. “I was kidnapped from a Sudanese refugee camp and taken to the north of Egypt in chains, where I was imprisoned and tortured,” he explained. “In the end, my family and friends managed to raise the ransom money needed to secure my release.” However, due to the sepsis brought on by the wounds he had sustained, he had to have a number of fingers on both hands amputated. The conference participants were full of admiration for the way he was overcoming his disability and carrying on with his life in Germany with fresh resolve.

Thousands take flight every month

Sheila Keetharuth, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, opened the conference with a speech which touched upon her June 2017 report to the Human Rights Council9, stating: “I have found that Eritrean citizens continue to suffer arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, death in custody, enforced disappearance, suppression of religious freedom and a national service system that in effect, amounts to enslavement, that women in national service continue to be subjected to harassment and sexual abuse.”

Her report also contained the latest data on refugees. “Since the beginning of 2017 (till mid-March 2017), the International Organisationfor Migration(IOM) has noted a recent surge with over 4,500 people crossing into Ethiopia.” But that is just one of the neighbouring countries to which Eritreans flee, alongside Sudan, Djibouti or even Yemen. It is thought that 5,000 people, out of a population of four million, flee the country every month.10

Eritreans were the fifth-largest group of refugees who reached Europe via the Mediterranean in 2016 – a figure of 21,253 individuals, or 6%. And yet Eritrea was the only one of the top five countries which was not affected by armed conflict. In Germany, a total of 12,291 Eritreans applied for asylum in 2016.11

For the most part, Eritrean refugees stay in one of Eritrea’s neighbouring countries, but there are many who risk their lives by trying to make their way to Europe. For a number of destinations, Eritrea ranks as one of the main sources of refugees. Some European countries including Switzerland, Germany and Denmark do their utmost to downplay the catastrophic human rights situation and the risk of persecution which refugees face. In Germany, this has already led to a situation where a dwindling number of Eritreans gain full refugee status, with refugees being granted the weaker legal status of “subsidiary protection” instead. As recently as the beginning of 2016, almost every Eritrean was recognised as a refugee; but the figure slumped to just 54% in 2017.12Given that conditions under Eritrea’s military dictatorship are as grim as they ever were, that is a development which cannot be justified.

Restricting refugee flows and the Khartoum process

“Eritreans come to Europe primarily for the social benefits.” That comment was sent to us shortly after our conference report came out from someone who had been inspired by Dominik Langenbacher, former Swiss ambassador to Ethiopia and Somalia, and his enthusiasm about a migration policy that makes economic potency and working ability the sole acceptable criteria for migration. The human rights situation in the countries refugees are fleeing, it would appear, no longer has any bearing13– that is a cynical attitude to take towards people at the mercy of those inhumane conditions.

The downplaying of catastrophic human rights conditions and the risk of persecution people face in various countries is commonplace among politicians in Europe these days, and Eritrea is a good case in point. Switzerland and Germany conducted fact-finding missions in Eritrea in February and March 2016, and the subsequent report by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migrationwas taken on board, practically unchanged, by the European Asylum Support Office(EASO).14The EASO is an EU authority, and adopting a report from a non-EU state in itself is a novelty.

What is special about this report is that downplays the situation in Eritrea by offering a detailed account of the Eritrean government’s position. The Swiss Refugee Councilcommented on this as follows: “For the most part, the migration authorities conducting fact-finding missions in Eritrea were only able to conduct interviews with Eritrean government officials and foreign diplomats, and with other actors that were directly or indirectly dependent on the Eritrean government. Procuring country information in this manner renders it impossible to comply with key international standards. Information provided by the Eritrean government cannot be checked against independent local sources.”15And yet, ever since the report was published, it has been used in a wide variety of court cases to assess the situation in Eritrea and pass decisions in asylum proceedings. This one-sided, interests-driven report, is thus becoming a point of reference for enforcing a more repressive approach in asylum proceedings.

Besides taking a more restrictive approach to asylum proceedings, the European Union and other European countries are also looking to stem migration flows. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, was established in 2004 to coordinate uniform border management throughout the EU. The aim is to block the potential migratory routes and prevent refugees from leaving transit countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. The EU’s efforts to do this rely on cooperative arrangements with governments and despots in these countries. Take Libya, for example, where the EU cooperates with leaders from the various militias. The academic journal Foreign Policy’stake on this is as follows: “Visits to five different detention centers and interviews with dozens of Libyan militia leaders, government officials, migrants, and local NGO officials indicate that it is the consequence of hundreds of millions of dollars in pledged and anticipated support from European nations as they try to stem the flow of unwanted migrants toward their shores. The European Union has so far pledged roughly $160 million for new detention facilities to warehouse migrants before they can be deported back to their home countries and to train and equip the Libyan coast guard so that it can intercept migrant boats at sea.”16

This policy tallies with proposals tabled by Antonio Tajani, president of the European parliament, who called on the EU to open refugee reception centres in Libya.17Martin Plaut’s response to this is that: “Libyan centres should not become ‘concentration camps’, (Tajani) is quoted as saying, but should have adequate equipment to ensure refugees live in dignified conditions with access to sufficient medical care. In reality, the detention centres are little short of the ‘concentration camps’ Tanjani describes. The atrocious conditions have been well documented and are known to the European authorities.”18The conference coincided with a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels at which it was decided to offer stronger support for Italy’s work with the Libyan authorities. “We have a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said afterwards. This prompted spontaneous remarks from participants at the post-conference strategy meeting: “The EU is already working with Libyan coastguards to forcibly return Africans to Libyan detention camps in which rape, torture and slavery are routinely practiced. Finally, closing the Central Mediterranean route for refugees desperate to escape Africa’s notorious dictatorships will have a disastrous impact on people – many of them children – who have risked all to flee from repression.”19

The Khartoum process, as it is known, adds another dimension to efforts to repel refugees. “It aims to prevent people from leaving their country of origin in the first place, no matter whether it is plagued with civil war or authoritarian regimes are in power,”20writes Maria Oshana in Luxemburgmagazine.

EU interior and foreign ministers convened in Rome on 28 November 2014 to adopt the “Khartoum Declaration”. Representatives from 58 European and African countries took part in negotiations. The Khartoum process aims to tackle irregular migration flows and criminal networks by intensifying cooperation between the EU and the countries of origin and transit. Cooperation arrangements are to be established with the countries of origin Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya and with the transit countries Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. Germany will play a leading role in this regard, reports Amnesty International,21which adds: “The Foreign Ministry and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation will attend management committee meetings, while the German development agency GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) will chair the controversial ‘Better Migration Management’ project. This project, which runs from April 2016 until March 2019, is a border protection scheme designed to support criminal prosecution authorities and border officials in east African countries. The aim is to standardise migration policies in east African countries and build up a regional migration management system.”22

If we take Eritrea as an example, we can see how far-reaching the implications are. The Plan of Action comprises a project to “strengthen the human and institutional capacity of the [Eritrean] government in the fight against human trafficking and smuggling.”23Under the pretext of “Better Migration Management” this means to “strengthen the fight against irregular migration.”24Amnesty Internationalwrote in August 2017 that “training courses are planned under the programme in Eritrea to raise awareness among national authorities and judicial officers about human trafficking and smuggling.”25

In light of the situation in Eritrea and knowing that the majority of Eritrean refugees will be granted at least subsidiary protection, “strengthening the human and institutional capacity of the Eritrean government” can only mean supporting the regime’s efforts to repress its own population. “The idea behind that,” Maria Oshana says, is to “keep them away from protection under asylum law in the EU and Germany.”26But what it also means is that the regime is being given carte blancheto carry on exploiting its own people.

Conference and strategy meeting

This was the political backdrop against which Connection e.V., the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, the Eritrean Law Society, War Resisters’ International,Pro Asyland Europe External Policy Advisors(EEPA) organised the conference and the strategy meeting. We achieved our declared aim of learning as much as we could from the experts and refugees about the situation in Eritrea.

In the run-up to the conference one cause of concern for the group preparing the event was that the Eritrean government might seek to influence proceedings. At earlier meetings of other opposition groups the Eritrean regime had attempted to use pro-government organisations and individuals to hijack or disrupt the agenda. There is also evidence that critics of Eritrean government policy are threatened and that their relatives still living in Eritrea might also be put under pressure. Supporters of the Eritrean government party, the PFDJ, did indeed come to our Brussels conference, and some of them threatened the refugees who spoke about their experiences. Strict rules of assembly allowed us to put an end to this behaviour. After the conference the Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the United Nations in Geneva published a declaration denouncing the organisations as subversive and especially taking a sharp approach to the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea. The reality is being denied, all critics are accused of betrayal. This also shows how tense the situation in the diaspora is.

During the preparation phase we had the idea of following up the conference with a strategy meeting. Seeing as everyone had made their way to Brussels, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to meet up with the groups and organisations who stand up for Eritrean refugees around the world. That plan worked out. A brainstorming session and various working groups on day two yielded a number of ways in which the groups could take their cooperation to the next level:

Already online is a website at with many background information and updates about activities.

There could be evolved a better worldwide communication of activists for justice and democracy in Eritrea. One example are the activities against the planned deportations of Eritrean refugees in Israel to Rwanda and Uganda. End of April 2018 the Israelian government had to pull back the plan.

The work of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea should be supported more intensively. The Special Rapporteur will present her next report in 2018.

All this should be complemented by lobby work, regular meetings and more. We dearly hope that the fruitful and productive atmosphere of the conference and strategy meeting will have a lasting impact on our work for Eritrean refugees.


1    Martin Plaut: Eritrea: a mafia state? Review of African Political Economy. 13 September 2017.

2    UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2016

3    Gaim Kibreab: Reflections on the causes of displacement in post-independence Eritrea. 19 October 2017. See page ***

4    Dr Asia Abdulkadir: The situation of women and girls in Eritrea, 19 October 2017. See page ***

5    See Canadian Centre for International Justice: Appeal court confirms slave labour lawsuit against Canadian mining company can go to trial. 21 November 2017.

6    EEPA: New study confirms concerns over Eritrean diaspora tax in Europe. 20 September 2017.

7    Security Council Resolution 2023 (2011), section 11

8    Martin Plaut: Eritrea: a mafia state? Review of African Political Economy. 13 September 2017.

9    Report of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, to the Human Rights Council. 7 June 2017. A/HRC/35/39

10  Nicole Hirt: Flucht vor der Versklavung. Die Zeit, 14 June 2016

11  BAMF asylum statistics 12 / 2016

12  Last updated 30.09.2017, adjusted protection rates, ie only purely substantive decisions are included. Source: Pro Asyl

13 “Afrika geht es viel besser, als wir glauben”. Interview with former ambassador Dominik Langenbacher. 7 October 2017.

14  European Asylum Support Office. EASO Country of Origin Report – Eritrea: national service and illegal exit.

15  Swiss Refugee Council: Eritrea: national service, Swiss Refugee Council country analysis paper. 30 June 2017.

16, accessed on 12 October 2017

17, accessed on 11 October 2017

18  Martin Plaut: The European Union and Eritrea. 19.10.2017. One paper he refers to here is The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, The Human Conveyor Belt: trends in human trafficking and smuggling in post-revolution Libya,, accessed on 13 October 2017

19  European Union condemned for attempting to close Mediterranean to refugees. 20 October 2017. See page ***

20  Maria Oshana: Wie die EU ihre Außengrenzen in Eritrea schützt. In: Luxemburg – Gesellschaftsanalyse und Linke Praxis, Issue 1/2016, April 2016

21  Amnesty International: Europäische Migrations­politik: Der Khartum-Prozess, updated August 2017., accessed on 9.12.2017

22  Ibid.

23  Council of the European Union: Meeting Document 27 April 2015, DS 1250/15

24 Valetta Summit, 11-12 November 2015, Action Plan,

25  Amnesty International, August 2017

26        Maria Oshana, ibid.

* Rudi Friedrich: A Country Under the Sway of a Dictatorship. May 2018

Rudi Friedrich is General Secretary of Connection e.V. in Germany. He is engaged in achieving recognition of the human rights of conscientious objectors, and acknowledgement of the persecution which conscientious objectors and deserters face as a reason for asylum.

Eritrea – A Country Under the Sway of a Dictatorship

This booklet is based in large part on the contributions of the conference “Eritrea and the Ongoing Refugee Crisis”, which took place in Brussels on 19 October 2017.

Some of the speeches were written and edited by the editors. Other contributions were provided by the speakers themselves. The editors have supplemented this with up-to-date information and articles in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the situation in Eritrea, the situation of Eritrean refugees and initiatives and activities.

The conference was organized by the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), PRO ASYL e.V., Connection e.V., War Resisters’ International and the Eritrean Law Society.

The pdf-file could be downloaded at


Published by Connection e.V. ELS, EMDHR, EEPA, Pro Asyl and WRI, July 2018, 72 pages A4



Rudi Friedrich: Eritrea: A Country Under the Sway of a Dictatorship

Publication: Mining and Repression in Eritrea

Eritrea: Factsheet and Map

Conference Participants: EU Condemned for Refugee Policy


Hotline for Refugees and Migrants: Ruling: Major Victory for Eritrean Asylum Seekers

Mirjam van Reisen and Gilad Liberman: Thousands are Threatened by Deportation

Europe External Policy Advisor (EEPA): African Migrants in Israel will Not be Deported, Government Says

United Nations and Eritrea

Sheila B. Keetharuth: Crimes Against Humanity Continue to be Perpetrated by Eritrea

Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the UN: Reaction to the Conference

PRO ASYL: Numbers about Eritrean Refugees

Personal Story of an Eritrean Refugee

Filmon Debru: My Personal Story

Eritrea: State, Government and Causes of Displacement

Gaim Kibreab: Reflection on the Causes of Displacement

Dawit Mesfin: Government in Perpetual Crisis

European Union: Eritrea and Asylum Regime

Daniel Mekonnen: Understanding the EU Asylum Regime

Swiss Refugee Council: Difficult Situation for Fact Finding Mission

European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE): Switzerland: Eritreans Face Possible Deportation

Martin Plaut: The European Union and Eritrea

Project of the Conference: Eritrea Hub – A New Blog

  1. Nastranis: Security Council Back Dutch Sanctions Against Eritrean and Libyan Traffickers

Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA): Adressing Criminalisation of Refugees and Impunity of Human Trafficking

Europe External Policy Advisor (EEPA): Head of Eritrean Embassy Office in The Hague declared ‘Persona non Grata’

Europe External Policy Advisor (EEPA): Sweden: Eritreans No Longer Required to Go to Eritrean Authorities for Family Reunion

Europe External Policy Advisor (EEPA): Eritreans March Peacefully outside UNHCR Office in Cairo

Naomi Stocker: Ethiopia ‘Fully Accepts Peace Deal’ to End Eritrea Border War

Situation of Women

Asia Abdulkadir: The Situation of Women and Girls in Eritrea

Selam Kidane: Military Service and Women

Martin Plaut: Eritrean Women: “Take Human Rights Abusers to International Criminal Court!”

Human Rights

Alex Jackson: Human Rights Abuses and Religious Persecution

Sarah Ogbay: The Eritreans’ unaccompanied Child Migrants

Eritrean Refugees in African Countries

Adane Ghebremeskel; Precarious State of Eritrean Refugees in Selected African Countries

Publisher and Organizers of the Conference



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Connection e.V., Von-Behring-Str. 110, 63075 Offenbach
ph: +49-(0)69-82375534, fax: +49-(0)69-8237 5535


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