The Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea is a campaign ran by Eritrean youth, mostly former recruits of the Eritrean National Service (ENS). The objectives of the campaign are to highlight the abusive nature of the ENS and the fact that the regime commits a wide range of violations that contravene important international conventions on fundamental human rights; in subjecting an entire generation of Eritreans to an indefinite, compulsory military service and forcing them, under the threat of punishment, to be engaged in hard agricultural, mining and construction projects in slave like conditions.
We carried out a successful campaign from January to June this year in the run-up to the UN Human Rights Council’s 26th session that passed the resolution to set up an Inquiry Commission to investigate the wide array of appalling human rights violations being perpetrated by the regime in Eritrea. Indeed many European nations including Denmark gave us the support we were looking for in highlighting the concerns over the ENS.
It is therefore with a sense of disappointment that we are writing this open letter in response to the recent country of origin information report from the Danish Immigration Service, outlining findings that purport to have been based on an extensive research inside Eritrea. We understand the report as an exploratory effort to examine the policies that currently give protection to refugees from Eritrea who have absconded or deserted from the ENS. In the light of the sheer number of young Eritreans fleeing the ENS, we agree with the need for a comprehensive policy evaluation to both make sure that the asylum system is indeed protecting those that have a well-founded fear of persecution as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Additionally, there is also a need to address the situation in Eritrea that is pushing such huge numbers of young people out of their country, taking immense risks to arrive in Europe and other destinations that they deem safe.
Having said that, we would like to point out that far from addressing the above issues the report seems to have looked hard for unlikely pieces of ‘evidence’ (needle in a haystack style) that could be used to support a policy move away from blanket protection. Here we would like to attest our firm belief that, those young Eritreans who do indeed re-establish their links with the regime (or regularise) having sought and often gained asylum should not qualify for protection under the refugee convention as they don’t have any fear of persecution from the regime. We have no problems with Denmark (or any other country) returning such people to Eritrea and would in fact welcome the opportunity to consult any authorities on how to identify such young people based on our experiences of being continually harassed by them as they carry out the regime’s undertakings in the diaspora.
We are however adamant that ignoring the host of other human rights violations being perpetrated in Eritrea and focusing on ‘absconding’ in isolation will not curb the flow of refugees from Eritrea nor will it reduce the numbers coming to Denmark (or any other country). The range of human rights violations taking place in Eritrea is vast and well established both in many reports from reputed human right organisations as well as from the special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. Any comprehensive effort in addressing the outflow of refugees out of Eritrea will also need to address these and many other violations in order to develop a coherent policy on dealing with Eritrean refugees:
1. Violation of religious rights. The report glosses over this, particularly the existence of systematic persecution against minority religious groups, including the banning of the Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.
2. The presence of violation against women in the national service. Many former recruits have given their testimonies through various channels about the sexual abuse and threats of sexual harassment against women in the ENS. Yet, there is not even a cursory attempt in the report to look into this.
3. Arbitrary arrests and disappearances. Sudden disappearances are common, and it is commonly understood that this has to do with their political views or for being considered a challenge to the regime. At the ENS this could be for simply failing to obey the whims of senior officers.
4. The lack of freedom of association or expression and the associated punishments for attempting to exercise those rights. ENS recruits are prohibited from exercising their faith, possessing holy books or digital tools whilst in military training and during service. Yet the report talks about the availability of satellite channels, smart phones and internet connections.
5. Freedom of Movement. The majority of the youth are predominantly conscripts of the military training and thereafter of the national service, and their movement within the country is restricted. Conscripts need temporary pass I.D., which are available, on average, once a year per recruit, and are usually granted for a visit to families or under special circumstances. Yet, the report neglects this, and focuses on ‘people’ not requiring travel permits to move within the country.
Contrary to what the report tries to establish young Eritreans are not absconding from the national service so they could come and enjoy ‘blanket protection’ in Denmark. They are fleeing political persecution and slave-like working conditions which contravenes the ILO convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour. An investigative report intended for asylum policy purpose should comprehensively look into these violations in order to be fair, credible and fit for the purpose.
Looking through the report, it is not difficult to note how objectivity and credibility was sacrificed in an effort to establish a basis for the anticipated policy change. This is disappointing given Denmark’s long standing and proud record of respecting refugee rights. Below we have outlined the major areas that are a cause for concern to us.
Although the report is being sold as a major evidence for potential policy change that affects the lives of potentially thousands of vulnerable refugees, the ‘evidence’ seems to have neglected the very experience and voices of the ENS recruits, former recruits and potential recruits as well as their families.
Given the delegation had access to information inside the country, this ‘extensive’ report should not have failed to address the views of young Eritreans or their parents. We as Eritrean activists are particularly appalled by this and appeal the Department to review the value of the report based on this massive omission of the voices of the main stakeholders here.
Further the report does not include any insight from the major military training facilities in Eritrea. There were no visits to Sawa, Wi’a, Mietir, Kiloma- all key military and detention centres- and many other places from whence many are fleeing. Nor is there an indication of efforts taken to look into the notorious prisons where those accused of absconding or accused of considering absconding are detained. Again these are major omissions that make the report extremely unfit to inform any credible policy change.
2.1 Freedom of movement
If the purpose of the exercise was to establish whether there are restrictions on the movement of Eritreans within the military conscription age or conscripts of the national service, there is nothing to indicate that, that specific question was asked. Nor does what was described by various respondents establish that. We are therefore not sure why this point was included as a finding that affects policy matters relating to recruits of ENS.
2.2 Availability of goods and services
Availability of everyday necessities is reported on. However there is no insight into prices and affordability and particularly for affordability for the national service recruits (and potential recruits) who are forced to live on ERN 450-500 a month (approx. 20-40$).
2.3 Causes of emigration
This section of the report suffers from the most omissions mentioned above. It seems everyone gave their views on the potential reasons, without really seeking the views of the people fleeing. The report failed (or omitted) to delve into the often painful and complicated circumstances underpinned by the well-established patterns of violations of citizen rights that results in people fleeing the ENS.
2.4 National Service
Although there are many claims about Sawa as an institute, and particularly as an institute of education, all this is based on second hand reports. A visit to Sawa would have established the exact nature of the institute and its administration. But that crucial visit did not happen. If the place is, as claimed, an education facility, and the delegation was able to travel to Adi Keyih and Adi Quala, then, why not to Sawa? Diaspora based supporters go there for a festival every year; there are transport and other logistical facilities already geared up for such visits.
As mentioned above an interview with ‘students’, ‘prospective students’ and parents would have established conclusively the nature of the education received. Given the report talks about someone who failed to turn up for Sawa, it would have been natural to ask ‘why would anyone not avail himself or herself to free education?’
- Length of Service
The report fully established the arbitrary nature of the length of service and this is established by the fact that there wasn’t a single policy document that actually supports any coherent approach to demobilisation or the ‘change’ in policy that is mentioned and/or alluded to. The arbitrary nature of the ENS is abusive in itself and a major contributory cause for the mass exodus. In the absence of a clear understanding of rights and obligations (a concern often repeated by many former recruits), it is not simply the length but the not knowing that is a cause for disillusionment. The arbitrary administration of procedures is also a perfect recipe for nepotism and corruption.
- Consequences of desertion
The main finding here that should be a cause for major concern to anyone contemplating a policy that includes sending anyone back to Eritrea is the lack of clarity about the fate of returnees or the rules regarding their rehabilitation.
Whilst there is a mention in the report about authorities labelling returnees as ‘a bad apple’ or ‘bad influence’ there is no consideration given to the implications of this and particularly for future prospects and opportunities.
- Return to Eritrea
5.1 Eritreans regularising relations with the regime
As mentioned above if people are doing this willingly, then, these people are clearly not eligible for protection under the refugee convention and should not be offered it.
However this system should not be considered as a legitimate approach to reinstating relations with the homeland. For those forced to pay the 2% tax, this is extortion and is also condemned under the terms of the UN sanctions 2023.
Further the ‘regret’ form actually forces people to admit that they have committed an offence and hence self-incriminate, the text on the form actually states that the ‘crime’ committed is not actually absolved and hence an action can be taken at any time.
We are, therefore extremely concerned about an implied message to immigration authorities and policy makers about there being possibilities of ‘regularizing’ relationships for those who are against PFDJ.
There is also the difference between those who are returning for a brief visit as opposed to those who return permanently. To draw conclusions on the possibilities of return there needs to be a longer-term analysis of the fate of those who have returned permanently (including the possibilities of punishment by denying them opportunities).
- Recent developments
Although there are various changes mentioned and alluded to, however, none of the stated ‘changes’ can be supported by any official policy or procedural changes announced by the government, and therefore cannot be relied upon to sustain a policy change for determining the fate of returned asylum seekers.
The report highlights the arbitrary nature of Eritrean regime; indicative of how the government’s actions are based on the arbitrary wishes and whims of the dictator and the few people around him. There are no indications of policy developments or changes. Instead, as has time and again been established by former recruits (now refugees), the nature and length of the service are arbitrary. The conditions of the training and ‘education’ facilities are unknown. The treatment and attitude towards absconders is also arbitrary, and particularly so for those who are for political reasons unable to fill in the ‘regret’ forms and/or pay the 2% tax.
No one can, based on this report, safely conclude what the fate of returnees would be. Nor is there an established practice base to make an educated guess over how the government would react to them.
The reason for the mass exodus is multi-layered and complicated, but, it is underpinned by the fact that there is no respect for the rule of law in the country. And, the report has fully established this very fact.
The report failed extremely short in establishing beyond reasonable doubt, what the fate of returned asylum seekers who fled the national service would be. Most of this failure emerges from the failure to engage recruits and their parents or visit any of the training facilities that they are forced to go to and flee from.
We recommend that:
i. Those who willingly ‘regularise’ their relationship with the regime should not be considered asylum seekers as they do not have a well-founded fear of the regime in Eritrea and their situation should not be confused with the vast majority of asylum seekers who qualify for protection under the refugee convention.
ii. Prior to using this report to inform immigration policy, Danish Authorities should make an effort to gain an insight from the main stakeholders i.e. the Eritrean youth.