Over the past years, I have been mulling whether or not I should approach the Eritrean Embassy in regards to renewing my passport. In the light of the egregious human right violations committed by the regime, it runs counter to my conscience to lend it any leeway in its salacious reports on the politico-economic situation of the country. But by so doing, I am also cognizant that I would be causing unnecessary hiccups to my residence permit in the UK.
And for this, I consulted an immigration solicitor for an expert advice whereby I was advised to fill FormTD112BRP Certificate of Travel and explain to the Home Office, in writing, that the Eritrean Embassy would withhold my application unreasonably. I thought this option would not help me either, as it would only lead to unaffordable immigration-related correspondence with the Home Office. And it poignantly dawned to me that looking again, eye-to-eye with the errands of a regime that has become an aberration to human rights was the only choice. In all political-legal fairness, the sanctity of one’s rights to nationality and hence possess valid passport are inalienable and should not be gauged by one’s political views regardless of their conformity to incumbent political narratives.
In April 2010, I left Eritrea, a country that has become like a hot political potato-bottled up and boiling from inside and where hopes of a normal life are gripped by the regime’s siege mentality. For the last 19 years, PFDJ has created a militarized society in which the rule of fear, not the rule of law governs, as the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights in Eritrea reported in June 2015.
The story of my ordeal goes back to the summer of 2010 when I received some good, but equally challenging, news from a university in the United States. I was offered a place for a graduate course on the condition that I meet the language requirements for admission. To prove my language capability, therefore, I had to sit for Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or its equivalent, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). And I went to the American Centre in Khartoum to register for the test but I was turned away mainly because I could not produce an Eritrean passport or residence permit in Sudan. Then, I tried the British Council but I was told that I was inadmissible for the same reasons.
According to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 22 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, I should have been accorded the same treatment and rights as those of Sudanese nationals and other legal residents to try to fulfill what the Norwegian Sociologist Johan Galtung calls ‘actual somatic and mental realizations’ by accessing education. Article 26 (1&2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
‘higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit’ and it ‘shall be directed to the full development of human personality.’
Similarly, Article 22 (2) of the 1951 Convention obliges a contracting state to:
‘refugees treatment as favourable as possible, and, in any event, no less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, with respect to education other than elementary education.’
As a contracting state, one would expect the government of Sudan to facilitate and ensure that refugees exercise their rights to education and/or employment. Sadly, however, the reality is that the Sudanese government is determined to contain Eritrean refugees in the desolate refugee camps and reception centers in the periphery where education and employment opportunities are nonexistent.
And one cannot but wonder about the politics of collusion between Sudan as transit country, the Eritrean regime and some Western Embassies in warehousing Eritrean refugees in their first country of asylum. When we were interviewed in Shegerab Refugee Camp in April 2010, there was implicit demand from Sudanese ‘immigration’ (security) officials that we should state to UNHCR interviewers of leaving Eritrea solely because of economic reasons. This was usually whispered within asylum seeking groups in the camp.
In hindsight, it was a cynically designed ploy that would enable the Sudanese government to treat us as mere economic migrants and therefore less deserving in the form of refugee rights one of which is residence permit. This would also play favourably into the shameless propaganda of the Eritrean regime that its citizens are fleeing in droves because of external pull factors. It is true that PFDJY’s Dmsti Hafash (a euphemism for the Voice of Hysteria) claims there is a conceit western conspiracy to drain Eritrea of its productive manpower by promises of a golden west with the magic money tree and a garden of paradise. That is a cheap propaganda, typical of the politically deplorable stooges in the PFDJY circles.
Factor the role of the UHHCR into this, and one only gets a hopeless picture of an invisible refugee in Sudan. Depending almost entirely on voluntary donations and good-will funds from the Global North, the UNHCR has become more of a refugees-policing agency premised to the containment of Europe bound refugees. Donor states have begun outsourcing the responsibility of increased engagement with pariah states and dictatorial regimes in the region as a substitute to their moral responsibilities to the protection of refugees fleeing persecution, making the UNHCR in the process, indispensable partner.
This policy was perceptively captured by Milner (2009:54) when he stated:
‘EU (European Union) member states and institutions have presented an array of initiatives with one common theme: instead of receiving asylum seekers on EU territory, they propose to deal with them abroad.’
As a result of a combination of the above factors, therefore, I was not able to obtain residence permit in Khartoum and by extension, rendered ineligible to sit for exams as I was unable to provide any form of acceptable ID. This was a blessing in disguise to some Western Embassies that are determined on containing Eritrean refugees in Horn of Africa region. Article 40 of the 1951 Refugee Convention stipulates that a contracting state should ‘extend to all or any of the territories for the international relations of which it is responsible’. Even though this clause may seem unrelated to the particular situation I was in, I am tempted to think that it can be contextualized and/or interpreted to reflect the global dynamics in international migration-relations. If anyone can seek refuge and asylum in a third country’s embassy, why cannot a UNHCR recognized refugee take exams in the test centres? The test centres might not form the physical part of the diplomatic premises per se, but they are very much part of their home governments’ foreign mission departments.
In addition to this, one would also expect countries like the United States and the UK to abide by international norms that oblige countries to show solidarity with refugees. Otherwise, purporting to be the bastion of liberal values in and of itself will not be enough without the deeds to substantiate it.
‘Alas! What a pity it is to be a refugee’, I would wail and whine to myself. Such was the permanent limbo that made me feel undesirable and an anomaly to a global society of states (if one exists) in a manner of what educational theorist Paulo Freire (1970) would describe as ‘pathology to the healthy society’.
It was therefore in light of such a tapestry of challenges that I decided to go back to the Eritrean Embassy in Khartoum. I hope someone would one day tell adequately, the humiliating treatment and experience of Eritrean refugees at the hands of the notoriously corrupt Embassy staff. With Sudanese security wardens in sight, the staff are never hesitant to insult and escort to the gate, anyone who frowns at their unprofessionalism. Please do not whisper any criticism of the staff unless you are conspiring for another three weeks’ appointment for a stroke of an ink that you get from the Embassy! Escaping Eritrea and going back to the Eritrean Embassy was like jumping from one inferno to another. The insults, contemptuous glances, intimidations, unnecessary delays and unjustifiable procrastinations are all typical characteristics of the notorious kebabyawi mmhdar and kebelietat that have crippled Eritrea at all levels. In exchange of an Eritrean passport that I should be permitted to hold by virtue of my nationality, I was made to sign the regret from, denouncing my decision to escape the country. When refugees sign that form, all ground for political anger and outrage is taken away and they are turned into tellable silhouettes. Not a good sign for a country!!
Perhaps people (and rightly so) will think that I am trying to excuse a lapse of moral judgment by signing the regret form and lending force to the propaganda of the regime. Far from that, I am arguing that to support or oppose the regime has nothing to do with me having the inalienable rights to possess a national passport. That should be my birthright so long as I do not commit national treason with such seriousness that legitimizes revocation of that right. I understand that the issue of national treason may operate on a spectrum of degrees and there are many regime supporters who view the regime and the state as one and indivisible entity. What that means is therefore, any form of political resentment is no less than a national treason for many supporters.
When I went to the Embassy in London to renew my passport, I was asked by the Head of Consular Affairs, a series of questions that were unrelated to my passport renewal. But one question stood out and made me uncomfortable. He asked me if I have a martyred family member(s) and, not knowing what to make of it at that moment, I said; ‘Emmm…no.’ But having digested that question, I believe that there is a strategy behind asking the question. By categorizing people into families of the fallen heroes versus those who have not lost loved ones, the regime tries to create a hierarchy of place in the history of the country the consequence of which will be gulfing oppositional ideations in the society.
Having not lost a family member in the liberation should not determine one’s place and value in any society. A country is for everyone no matter who led its independence and paid the highest price for it. Of course, we are all (well, I am) eternally grateful to those who lost their lives for the liberation of the country; but this does not justify a two-tier system in citizenship and national rights. But with many small minded political provincials to whom criticizing the regime is no less than a national treason, the country has a long way to go before it reconciles with itself and charts out a democratic path.
In Eritrea today, laws are to be followed as if they were canonical orders while public debate of any sort is unthinkable. And I have got my Passport renewed but I wonder if it is any different from what the Senegalese Philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diange, said of his as ‘a passport that does not pass ports’? Welcome to my world all Eritrean passport bearers and remember Theresa May’s views on the illusion of globalism when she said; ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated Ramos, M. B. New York: Continuum.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research 6 (3),Pp. 167-191.
L. S. W. (2017) What is the Difference between nationality and citizenship? The Economist, 10th July. https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/07/economist-explains-4. Accessed 20 August 2017.
Milner, J. (2009). Refugees, the State and the Politics of Asylum in Africa. Hampshire: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.
UNHCR Refugee Agency (2010). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. UNHCR Refugee Agency. http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf. Accessed 30th August 2017.
United Nations (2015). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. http://www.un.org/en/udhrbook/pdf/udhr_booklet_en_web.pdf. Accessed 30th August 2017.