Dutch concern at visit of top Eritrean official

The Hague (AFP) - The Dutch government voiced concern Tuesday over a visit by an Eritrean presidential advisor to The Netherlands, where large numbers of refugees have sought shelter after fleeing the repressive nation.

The visit by Yemane Gebreab, advisor to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, "is awkward," the Dutch cabinet said.

Gebreab is due to address a youth congress of Eritrea's sole political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), taking place from Thursday to Monday, the group said on its Facebook page.

The Dutch government said in a statement that it "is concerned by the situation of human rights in Eritrea and considers the visit by Mr Gebreab to be awkward, since a top Eritrean official will be addressing Eritreans who have left their country".

Eritrean refugees make up the second largest group of refugees taken in by The Netherlands in recent years, after Syrians, and some have voiced fears of being intimidated.

Eritrea researcher Mirjam van Reisen, from the University of Tilberg, told AFP Gebreab had arrived Monday "a day earlier than expected".

"He's organising the youth part of the party and also more generally the long arm which includes the churches, the women's organisations," she said.

"The purpose of these organisations is to spy on anyone who does not agree with the dictatorship."

Isaias's regime is accused of jailing thousands of political prisoners since he came to power in 1993 in the Horn of Africa nation, one of the world's poorest countries.

No general elections have been held since the ex-rebel Marxist leader took power after a three-decade independence war against Ethiopia.

- Intimidation, spying -

In 2016, the Dutch took in some 2,800 Eritreans, some 9 percent of all refugees welcomed into the country, according to the official Dutch asylum-seekers' organisation.

The University of Tilburg said many of the 20,000 Eritreans now living in The Netherlands still feel intimidated.

Eritrean organisations here "report on people who are not loyal to the regime and... make sure that this is known so that measures can be taken," said Van Reisen.

Back home "people are punished. They don't get food vouchers. They are fined. They are put in prison. So their lives are really made impossible and very miserable."

The government said "Gebreab's visit will be treated as a private matter and we will not facilitate it," stressing no top Dutch officials would meet with him.

According to the youth movement of the PFDJ, some 650 people are expected to attend the congress, the 13th such event held in Europe, which aims to persuade "young Eritreans to become more active in serving their communities and the interests of Eritrea".

The UN last year estimated some 5,000 Eritreans were risking their lives every month to flee the country, making them one of the largest contingents of people risking dangerous journeys to seek a new life in Europe.