Human Trafficking and the Human Rights Agenda Against Eritrea (Part 2)

By Simon Tesfamariam

Human Trafficking and the Human Rights Agenda Against (Final) (.pdf Acrobat Reader)

History of Migration in Eritrea

When Eritrea gained independence in the 1991, there were approximately 500,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Sudan. [34] At that time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deemed the Eritrean refugee situation in East Sudan as a “protracted refugee situation.” Spanning back to the 1960′s, it was the world’s second longest standing refugee program after Palestine’s. [35] One year after independence, about 70,000 refugees returned home. In subsequent years, repatriation dropped dramatically. By 1995, there were still 282,000 refugees living in the Sudan, despite peace in Eritrea and despite the nation entering the so-called “African Renaissance.” [36] In a surprisingly honest 1996 Inter Press Service article, Arnulv Torbjornsen, UNHCR-Sudan chief at the time, admitted that “we (UNCHR) created a monster in Sudan”and that “we still support 2,000 jobs in the refugee business there, and there are vested interests in keeping the Eritrean refugees. If they repatriate, their refugee empire will collapse. We have to take a lot of responsibility for creating the situation in Sudan.” [37] He then goes on to explain that 80-90% of the refugees want to repatriate in Eritrea. He also said that “UNHCR conducted a survey in the camps in August 1995, and all said they wish to go home. But perhaps only about 50 percent of those spontaneously settled want to return – they have shops, houses, children in school, etc.” Therefore, complete repatriation was impossible, despite peace and development in Eritrea, due to the ineffectiveness of UNHCR and the adoption by refugees of a new cultural and economic life in the diaspora.

In 1998, Eritrea was plunged into a two-year war with Ethiopia, displacing hundreds of thousands once again. By war’s end, there were 50,000 returns and with hostilities over, UNHCR invoked the “cessation clause” (under Article 1. C. (5) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees [38]), which would terminate Eritrean refugee status as of 2002 unless individual refugees could demonstrate a continuing need for international protection. Thus, Eritreans in the Sudan would no longer be considered refugees but rather undocumented “migrants” and incoming refugees would no longer be accepted “prima facie” (i.e. automatically without processing) as they had been for decades. To gain UNHCR recognition and resettle in a wealthier nation, many Eritreans began to seek asylum–whether real or not–on the grounds that they would be persecuted if they returned to Eritrea. Thus, at this point incoming Eritreans transitioned into “asylum-seekers” as opposed to refugees. As one UN report explains “the number of Eritrean asylum seekers entering Sudan has grown quite dramatically, from around 1,000 in 2003 to almost 33,000 in 2008, with a somewhat smaller figure (between 22,000 and 25,000) in 2009 and 2010.” [39] This rise in asylum-seekers stems from the sudden cessation of prima facie recognition, which had been in place for decades and created a continuous pipeline for many Eritreans to resettle in much wealthier nations around the world. Instead of considering this reality, the UNHCR put together a 2004 position paper, taking a reductionist outlook and concluded that there was a rise in Eritrean asylum claims and decreased repatriation because “the human rights situation in Eritrea has seriously deteriorated in the past two years…with regard to the treatment of opposition political groups and movements, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, arbitrary detention…and the treatment of draft evaders.” [40] The paper relied almost entirely on highly biased and politically motivated US State Department annual human rights reports on Eritrea. It also speckled in supposedly “independent investigations” by Amnesty International, which:

1. Did not collect its data from within Eritrea; [41]

2. Relied purely on the questionable personal accounts of nameless asylum-seekers that seek resettlement; and [42]

3. Has historically been used to promote imperial humanitarian intervention in non-western nations. [43]

Notably, the UNHCR paper did not seek or consider the accounts of Eritrean officials or, as some may prefer, the work of independent observers. The paper, which strongly argued that Eritrean asylum-seekers should not be returned to Eritrea, signified a new post-2004 policy direction for UNHCR that would only serve to perpetuate migration out of Eritrea. The “cessation clause” was revoked, meaning undocumented migrants would no longer be carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis but rather en masse. Eritrea is still dealing with the consequences of this decision.

For UNHCR to somehow expect 100% of Eritreans to gleefully return to post-war poverty in the face of a decades long culture of resettling in other countries is quite ludicrous. Many still hadn’t returned in 1996 while the honeymoon of independence was still there. Significantly, the UNHCR position paper–and their many other publications to follow–failed to make the slightest mention of the other etiologies of increased asylum and dwindling repatriation:

1. Natural economic migratory patterns. According to the Harris-Todaro theory of migration, migrants make a rational decision to increase their welfare or utility by moving to another place where they can expect to earn a higher income. [44] This is evident all throughout Africa and is a significant driving factor in “brain drain.” Why is Eritrea, a remarkably poor nation, exempt from this consideration?

2. “No peace no war” situation. Despite the cessation of hostilities in 2000, the threat of a return to war in Eritrea is real and unrelenting. The Ethiopian government not only refused a “final and binding” ruling that would normalize relations but it also encroached on the Temporary Security Zone (buffer), which is now sovereign Eritrean territory [45]. In fact, Ethiopia initiated an attack on Eritrea last spring [46].  The year before that, Ethiopia openly called for the overthrow of the Eritrean government, violating resolution 3314 (XIX)(a) of the UNGA. [47] Thus, the threat is very real today. It was even more real back then. Why was this not considered?

3. Internally displaced people (IDPs). Returning refugees had to compete for resettlement with the 210,000 IDPs that were already present in 2000. This cannot be ignored, considering that there were still 45,000 IDPs in 2005, who would not be fully resettled until mid-2008. [48] Many of them were among the 80,000 forcefully expelled from Ethiopia, after Meles Zenawi infamously stated that his government could “expel anyone even if we don’t like the color of their eyes.” [49]

4. Severed Eritrea-Sudan relations. On account of the ruling National Islamic Front’s support of terrorist groups like the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement that were radicalizing Eritrean refugees in East Sudan during the 1990′s, official diplomatic relations between the nations were terminated in 1995. [50] This made tripartite coordination between UNHCR, Eritrea, and the Sudan difficult. Diplomatic relations were only resumed after 2006.

5. Protracted refugee situation. As alluded to above, the presence of a decades-long UNHCR administered refugee program in East Sudan has created an economy and culture that inhibits its termination. In fact, various refugee camps economies were so successful that they became self-reliant and transformed themselves into villages. [51] In addition, various camps were seen as assets to the Sudanese Government, as large local mechanized farms became dependent on the cheap labor of Eritrean refugees. [52]

6. Reduced UNHCR donor funding. With the war over, donors expected Eritreans to return home and were reluctant to pledge more funds for East Sudan. [53]

7. Recurrent droughts. During periods of drought some Eritrean families would relocate to the Sudan.

8. UNHCR-Sudan’s ineffectiveness. UNHCR ignored the self-criticism of Torbjornsen. It was only in later publications–when the damage was already done–that the organization came to grips with it’s general ineffectiveness:

The internal factors which have visibly affected the operation in eastern Sudan include UNHCR’s recurrent financial crisis; lack of consistent long-term vision compounded by a lack of institutional memory; changes of senior management without effective accountability, bringing about frequent changes of direction … Disregarding the history of the operation has invariably led to repeated reinventions and ultimately the waste of opportunities and resources.  [54]

Following the UNHCR’s change in policy, it was discovered that the UN Peacekeeping Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), which was blanked in Eritrea from 2000 to 2008, had also been involved in the trafficking of Eritreans yet UNCHR reports fail to mention or downplay this key fact. Instead they point the fingers at the Eritrean government, the Rashaidas, or whatever boogeyman fits their agenda.  Let us recall that in a January 18, 2007  wikileaked diplomatic cable entitled “UNMEE: Confronting Sexual Abuse and Exploitation,” the US Chargé d’Affaires in Eritrea,  Jennifer McIntyre, wrote that “since the establishment of the UN Peacekeeping Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2001, there have been few reported incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse and trafficking in persons within Eritrea.” However, she then goes to make the following admission:

What has been an on-going problem is human smuggling, with one highly visible case in fall 2006 of a UN Volunteer who attempted to smuggle several Eritreans to Ethiopia in an UNMEE vehicle. (Refs B&C) Other smuggling cases have predominantly involved local staff crossing the border in UNMEE vehicles. In one case, upon arrival in Ethiopia the local staff called UNMEE headquarters in Asmara to inform UNMEE staff where in Ethiopia they had abandoned the vehicle. [55]

This diplomatic cable validates what Eritrean government officials had been saying for years, despite downplaying or outright denials by UNMEE. In addition to illegally spying on the Eritrean Defense Forces, peacekeepers were accused of trafficking Eritreans, having sex with Eritrean children, and making pornographic films of Eritrean women, contrary to traditional culture. [56, 57] It was only in 2007 that UNHCR finally reported–albeit via passing mention–that “according to the refugees, some members of the United Nations peacekeeping mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) were involved in human trafficking.” [58] And for what reason were they doing this, exactly? In a meeting with a group of Eritreans, a candid Italian UN officer admitted that “peacekeeping is a lucrative business and that is why I am here.” [59] In 2008, Eritrea had seen enough and the “peacekeepers” were eventually kicked out. However, the damage had already been done. A pipeline outside of the country had been created through the work of foreign smugglers. Often times this smuggling leads to exploitation, which then deems it as “human trafficking.” [60] To this day Eritrea is still dealing with this issue.

Another important point illustrated by McIntyre leaked cable is that Eritreans were being smuggled into Ethiopia. Historically, Eritreans have migrated to the Sudan for refuge and hope of resettlement but migration to Ethiopia became somewhat of a new phenomenon that only took place after the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Why is this the case? According to the US government-funded Cultural Orientation Resource Center (COR), which is responsible for “orienting” refugees, the “Eritrean refugees first crossed into Ethiopia in May 2000 after the 1998-2000 border conflict” and “many have fled conscription and come to Shimelba, a refugee camp just 25 kilometers (air distance) from the Eritrean/Ethiopian border.” [61] They claim the camp is made of 60% Tigrinyas and that “roughly speaking, about half the cases in the P2 group [those eligible for group US resettlement] were born in present day Ethiopia, were deported by the Ethiopian Government between 1996-2000, and then later fled back to Ethiopia.” In other words, half of those eligible for US resettlement on the basis that they are Eritrean are actually Ethiopian. The document then states that the second largest group is that of the Kunamas. COR then goes on to explain that “the camp is run by the Ethiopian government with UNHCR oversight. There is a ‘central committee’ that is elected by the camp population, and the committee represents the refugees on various issues, liaising with NGOs and the Ethiopian government.” As we will see, this has led to a new sort of politicized resettlement program of supposedly Eritrean refugees.

In 2007, UNHCR announced that “700 ethnic Kunama refugees from Eritrea” were resettled in America from the Shimelba Refugee Camp. [62] Notice that it doesn’t simply say “Eritreans” but rather takes a divisive turn by singling out one ethnic group from Eritrea. This is uncharacteristic of the highly nationalistic Eritreans (“kulu dihiri hager” or “everything after nation”). So what’s going on here? Well, we learn from COR that “for some Kunama, being in Shimelba is akin to ‘returning home,’ excepting the irony that they now are refugees in their own homeland.” What COR is highlighting is that fact that Kunamas are located on both sides of the border. During the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, many Ethiopian Kunamas were displaced and found refuge at the Shimbela refugee camp. Still, why is it that only Kunamas, whether Ethiopian or Eritrean, were being resettled in the US?

We also learn from the Chargé d’Affaires in Ethiopia, Deborah Malac, in an October 6, 2008 wikileaked diplomatic cable entitled “The View From Inside Ethiopia’s Eritrean Refugee Camps,”  that politicized resettlement was being used in the Shimelba refugee camp to organize an Eritrean opposition:

UNHCR officials declared that they were unaware of any Eritrean opposition activity within Shimelba, though one Protection Officer noted that some Tigrinya refugees had requested urban relocation due to opposition harassment in the camps. ARRA [Ethiopian Administration for Refugee/Returnee Affairs] officials stated that opposition activity within the camps was not permitted, but a handful of Shimelba Kunama refugees insisted that, in fact, the opposition “controlled” activity within camp and moved in and out freely. They also alleged complicity between ARRA and the Tigrinya and Kunama opposition. They said that the Kunama opposition, DMLEK [Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama], ensured that all elected Kunama officials to the refugee council were either DMLEK members or sympathetic to the opposition. [63]

It doesn’t end there:

According to the refugees, DMLEK used intimidation tactics to force compliance from uncooperative refugees by threatening to use DMLEK’s “relationship” with both ARRA and UNHCR to ensure that the offending individual “would never leave the camp.” One refugee, after refusing to join DMLEK, claimed he was arrested by the Ethiopian police on a trumped up charge and held for several weeks. Another refugee, who was a veteran of both the Eritrean liberation struggle and the 1998-2000 border war, said that when he arrived in Shimelba, ARRA offered to send him to Addis Ababa, and provide him with a vehicle, if he agreed to work in the opposition’s radio station. When he refused he was told he would never be allowed to leave, and that he would never be resettled. Another refugee said that the largely Tigrinya “Sedeg’e” opposition group tried to force him to join by telling him that if he did not, he would never leave the camp. (Note: Sedeg’e is also known as the Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERDF), and is one of the three groups that joined together to form the Eritrean National Salvation Front (ENSF). The DMLEK and the ENSF are both members of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA). End note.)

The refugees said that armed persons could often be seen in the camp. They said sometimes the armed persons were local Tigrayan (i.e. Ethiopian) militia, but other times the armed men were opposition. The refugees said that some DMLEK members had family living in the camp and would come and go regularly. (Note: PolOff saw several armed Tigrayan militia walking through the camp at various times.)

(C/NF) PolOff could not find any Tigrinya refugees who would speak as openly as the Kunama, but the Kunama refugees said that the Tigrinya were dominated by Tigrinya opposition groups just as the Kunama were dominated by DMLEK. The Kunama refugees asserted that some Tigrinya refugees regularly left the camp to receive military training for short periods of time, and then would return. At one point during a conversation between PolOff and contacts in the camp, the contacts visibly stiffened, and warned PolOff that they were under observation by what they termed as a “politically active” Tigrinya refugee.

Is this a refugee camp or rebel training camp? It’s sort of hard to tell. This seems very reminscent of the Syrian Free Army organizing in Turkey near the border before they started operating in Syria. Anyway, the cable continues:

(C/NF) The Kunama refugees also said that DMLEK was opposed to resettlement of the Kunama refugees, and therefore, pressuring people not to resettle. The refugees stated that DMLEK wanted the people to stay to be used as a resource, and wanted the young men to join their organization to fight Eritrea. They said that DMLEK was spreading misinformation about life in the United States including showing the movie “Roots,” alleging that the Kunama would be treated like slaves in America. One refugee noted that in the last year, positive reports from Kunama who had already resettled were beginning to counter DMLEK’s negative message.

…The presence of Eritrean opposition activity in the camps was not surprising. The defensive tone in EmbOffs discussions with UNHCR, ARRA, and international NGO officials suggests that they had a vested interest in denying any knowledge of it, otherwise they might be required to address opposition harassment of refugees. The visit was yet another reminder that a priority of ARRA’s refugee program was to address Ethiopia’s national security concerns with Eritrea. Post cannot confirm complicity between ARRA and the opposition groups, but we do note that ARRA, as an organization, falls under the purview of the Ethiopian National Intelligence Security Service. End Comment.

Thus, it comes as no surprise when websites like–that brand themselves as “Eritrean opposition”–write articles with headlines like “Peaceful demonstration in Eritrean refugee camp Ethiopia (Shimelba) 06/12/2009.” [64] Anyway, from reading past US State Department “Proposed Refugee Admissions” reports for successive fiscal years, we learn about the US’s role in bringing the Kunamas to America. The Kunama case was first mentioned in the FY 2003 report (published in 2002), when they explain that “among groups under consideration for possible P-2 designation are…Kuname Eritreans in Walanibhy Camp in Ethiopia.” [65] Explaining why they are receiving P-2 designation, the report states that “these 4,000 Eritreans have no local integration prospects and are viewed with suspicion by Eritrea due to their decision to seek refuge in Ethiopia during the war. We will actively pursue an appropriate P-2 designation for this group during FY 2003.” They were still under consideration in FY 2003 and 2004. [66] In the FY 2005 (published in 2004) we learn something new. The report says “we continue to monitor the situation of the group of Eritrean Kunama in Ethiopia and have urged UNHCR to consider a group resettlement referral of those who do not choose to voluntarily repatriate to Eritrea by the end of 2004.” [67] Thus, we learn that it was the US, and not the UNHCR, that made the request for resettlement. It is usually the other way around: UNHCR makes the referral and the resettling nations choose whether or whether not to resettle them. Why they specifically requested to resettle Kunamas is a mystery. They do the same thing for religious minorities in Iran and Bantus in Somalia. If not for genuine concerns for persecution, one can only suspect an agenda to forge a sub-national identity and foment division. In any case, in the FY 2007 report they finally said that they were processing up to 2,500 Eritrean Kunama in Ethiopia, with the vast majority slated to come to the USA in FY 2007. [68] The rest is history.

Thus, as the above shows, external entities have been using the refugee situations in the Sudan and Ethiopia to drive a politicized migration out of Eritrea.  We have shown how US State Department reports were used by UNHCR to grant Eritreans prima facie status following 2004 to expedite resettlement processing and how they were granted P2 status (group resettlement in US reserved for rare minorities) to resettle them in large groups.

Moving on to more recent times, the US State Department’s “Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2012″ states the following [69]:

For the first time in 20 years, staff representing the Departments of State and Homeland Security began processing Eritrean refugees inside Sudan residing in a remote camp along the eastern border. This initiative is designed to bring hope to individuals who can neither return to Eritrea nor locally integrate in Sudan.

…Eritreans continue to seek asylum in neighboring countries due to political tensions and increasing political repression; many are attempting dangerous onward migration to Europe and the Middle East in search of better economic opportunities.

Thus, they are focusing more on resettling Eritreans living in East Sudan on the basis of political repression. To call them “army defectors” or “work migrants” in search of a better life would mean that they would have to be returned to Eritrea, as practically every nation in Africa–dealing with the same internal problem–has decided to do despite threats from UNHCR (Libya, [70] Egypt, [71] the Sudan[72], Angola [73], Tanzania [74], etc.; see below).

Alas, we arrive at the latest Proposed Refugee Admissions publication. The FY 2013 report states the following:

Both Eritrea and Sudan are currently designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Both Eritrea and Sudan are currently designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The USRAP continues to be available through Priority 1 referrals to Sudanese, Eritrean, and other refugees who are victims of religious intolerance. Refugees from Eritrea and Sudan with refugee or asylee family members in the United States also may have access to the USRAP through Priority 3, subject to its resumption. Certain Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia may have access to the USRAP through Priority 2.

Three countries of origin (Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea) presently account for the vast majority of U.S. admissions from the region. In East Africa, we continue to process P-1 Somalis in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. We are coming closer to completing P-2 processing of Eritreans in Shimelba camp in Ethiopia, but will continue to process P-1 UNHCR referrals after the P-2 group is completed. We were able to conduct the first DHS circuit ride to Sudan in over twenty years to process the first group of a protracted caseload of Eritrean refugees there. [75]

Note that Eritreans and Sudanese are the only groups explicitly named that are granted P1 status ANYWHERE on the grounds that they are undergoing religious persecution. Somalis are restricted to certain refugee camps. What African wouldn’t take advantage of this fact? Is it any surprise that many of them are claiming Eritrean identity (see below). Also, if lack of religious freedom was truly worth P1-status everywhere in the world, then Saudi Arabians would be coming droves. However, we know that’s not the case. In regards to Africa specifically, the report makes the following proposal:

From East and Southern Africa, we expect 9,000 admissions, primarily Somalis in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and South Africa; Eritreans in Ethiopia and in Sudan; and additional small numbers of P-1 referrals of various nationalities in the countries above, as well as in Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

…Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, we anticipate up to 1,500 Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other sub-Saharan African refugees to be processed in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Russia.

A total of 2,032 Eritreans are slated to come to America this year, making them the 6th highest ranking resettlement group. This is amazing when one considers that Eritrea ranks 112th in population size and only contributes 0.079% of the world’s population. Much like the Palestinians and Israeli-Jews, the Eritrean population has a very high proportion of its people living in the diaspora with anecdotal numbers placing the diaspora population at ~1.5 – 2 million versus a domestic population of 6 million. Like the Israelis, Eritreans maintain dual citizenship and actively participate in the Eritrean domestic economy. From the FY 2013 report, we also learn of another concerning piece of information: most of the Eritrean refugees targeted for resettlement are of working age and male. In a section tabulating the age data of the top 20 most resettled groups, Eritrean refugees have the highest percentage of “working age” resettlement in America (84%), suggesting preferential recruitment of youth that would have otherwise been developing their homeland. All the other refugee groups don’t even come close.  This is in line with McMullen’s aforementioned comments on focusing on the youth. Clearly, the United States is set on driving young Eritreans to resettle outside of Eritrea. Finally, it should also be noted that Eritrean refugees are the most predominantly male resettlement group (73.8.7%), beating the next group by almost 13% (the Sudan had 60.8%). In the past, this has made depression a significant issue as males have been unable to find Eritrean mates in the new land [76].

Resettlement in Third Countries

As a result of the actions by the US and its client states to preferentially resettle Eritreans outside of Eritrea, migrants from throughout East Africa have picked-up on this trend and are using it to their advantage. It is well-documented that migrants originating from countries other than Eritrea regularly claim Eritrean identity to increase their chances of acquiring visas and gaining refugee status. Nowhere is this more obvious than in than in the case Israel.

In a March 2008 interview with Haaretz–long before Eritrea was in the human trafficking limelight–the Eritrean Ambassador to Israel, Tesfamariam Tekeste Debbas, said that he sent a letter of protest to the Israeli Foreign ministry explaining that the refugees (referred to as “infiltrators”) were “not political refugees, but rather work migrants or army deserters.” The Haaretz article goes on:

The Eritrean ambassador, Tesfamariam Tekeste, noted…that his letter of protest included several issues of concern to his government. First, he said, at least half of the infiltrators represent themselves as Eritrean while in fact they are from other African states, such as Sudan or Ethiopia. “They know the Eritreans automatically receive a six-month visa, so they pretend to be Eritrean,” he said.

The letter also mentioned the fear that hostile elements helping to smuggle Africans into Israel could exploit them for carrying out terror attacks. “If that happens, the accusing finger will point to Eritrea,” Tekeste said.

“Israel is turning itself into a migration destination for Eritrean citizens fleeing from army service or looking for work,” Tekeste said. “The fact that you issue six-month visas encourages people to come here.” [76]

Unfortunately, comments from Eritrean officials–as opposed to personal accounts in Human Rights Watch reports–often fall on deaf ears. Few believed the ambassador. However, in May of 2011 we learned that he was right all along. According to Haaretz, an “asylum seeker, who can only be identified as Ibrahim, came to Israel from Eritrea in November 2009. He was arrested a month later and held at the Givon prison in Ramle for a year and a half. The prolonged detention resulted from the Population and Immigration Authority insisting that he came, in fact, from Ethiopia.” He was then asked to provide an Eritrean birth certificate or prove his identity. Being unable to do so he was questioned by the Population and Immigration Authority. Ibrahim then “attempted to escape during the interview, and eventually admitted he was Ethiopian, rather than Eritrean, and was therefore immediately returned to custody.”  [77]

It doesn’t end there, however. In October of 2011 we learned from another Haaretz piece that false claims of Eritrean citizenship were so common by Ethiopian “infiltrators” that the Interior Ministry began to seek “documents issued by the Ethiopian consulate…to attest to the fact that asylum seekers in Israel who claim to be Eritreans [were] entitled to Ethiopian citizenship and [were] therefore not eligible for asylum.” Haaretz also “obtained information which shows that the Ethiopian consulate’s documents are routinely issued in almost every case in which the documentation is sought by the Israeli Interior Ministry.” In addition, the newspaper also “obtained minutes of the meeting from a committee that advises Interior Minister Eli Yishai on refugee matters showing that the Ethiopian consulate almost always issues the transit documents for asylum seekers at the Interior Ministry’s request, relying on Israeli authorities’ representation that the person in question is Ethiopian.” [78]

By 2012, 52% of Jewish Israelis (compared to 19% of Arab Israelis) viewed the so-called African infiltrators as a “cancer.” [79] And with more reports of asylum fraud, news of the migrants quickly caught the media’s attention, spurring further investigation by Israeli journalists. One reporter for Ynet decided to go undercover in a predominantly Eritrean and Sudanese neighborhood to shed light on the lives of the refugees. In his article he reports:

My cover story has not been finalized yet, but luckily I run into Jeremiah, who’s been in Israel for three years now. “What do I tell those who ask how I got into Israel?” I ask him. “Lie,” he says. “Don’t tell the whole story. The Israelis, and mostly the non-profit groups working with the infiltrators here, like to be lied to.”

“Say you were a soldier, and that if you return to Eritrea you’ll get a death sentence. Keep in mind that you must be consistent with your story. The bottom line is that everyone uses the story I’m telling you here, and this way they fool everybody,” he says. “Almost none of them arrived on foot from Egypt to Israel. None of us crossed any deserts…it’s all nonsense.” [80]

If Jeremiah is telling the truth, then refugees are regularly exploiting Eritrean identity. With merely the hope of raising their quality of life, who can blame them? It’s simply way to easy given the fact that, according to UN statistics, 90% of Eritrean refugees are eligible for refugee status. [81]

Over time, it became increasingly clear to Israeli officials that practically all the “infiltrators” were not refugees but rather “migrants.” As the Minister for Education, Mr. Gidon Sa’ar, announced, “we need to stop the flooding of this country with immigrants from Eritrea. They are not refugees, but rather labor immigrants.” [82] The former head of the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, Mí. Yaakov Ganot also acknowledged that “in our examinations, I would say that 99.9 percent of them are here for work. They’re not asylum seekers: they are not at any risk.” [83]

The abuse of the asylum system is not only limited to Israel. We see the same thing happening in the United Kingdom. In a 2004, UK comptroller a House of Common commissioned report entitled “Improving the Speed and Quality of Asylum Decisions.” The report went on to state that, “disputed nationality is a key issue in Ethiopian applications. The Directorate generally sought to remove failed applicants to Eritrea irrespective of whether the applicant had ever been there, and adjudicators often disagreed with this approach. The Directorate has taken steps to improve its country information and refusal letters.” [84] Then on June 16, 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that former Miss Ethiopia beauty pageant winner, Jerusalem Mehari, was caught abusing the asylum system by taking on an Eritrean identity. She first “renounced her Ethiopian citizenship in 2007, a few days before her UK student visa expired, and claimed Eritrean nationality.” Her claim was that she “was a Jehovah’s Witness and there was a risk of her suffering persecution in Eritrea.” Sarabjit Singh of United Kingdom’s Home Office said that “the only reason for seeking and maintaining Eritrean nationality is to claim the right to remain in the UK…What the claimant is trying to do is nothing short of an abuse of the asylum system.”

In Toronto last year, a refugee by the name of Nighisti Semret was stabbed to death on her way home from work. She claimed to be of Eritrean origin and was granted asylum in Canada in 2010. According to the Toronto Star, she became a member of the local St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church and “while members of Toronto’s close-knit Eritrean community said Semret was not well-known because she hadn’t been in Canada long, a local Eritrean church offered to pay for her funeral with funds from the community.” Although the article admitted to not knowing why she sought asylum, they were quick to point out that Eritrea “is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world.” [86] As later reported by Sam B of Natna blog (site down), she was later found to be an Ethiopian by the Eritrean community. [87] After learning of this information, the police notified local reporters who did not publish the new information but instead increased their attack on Eritrea. As Sam B notes, Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun even poses that the Eritrean government may have had a motive to kill her. “Could that motive have stemmed from a scam from her former country where refugees are shaken down and threatened to pay a special tax back to their homeland or face retribution?” he asks. [88] In spite of full knowledge of her identity, the Eritrean community “did not interfere in the prayer or vigil held for her. They in fact fully supported it. As one community leader put it; ‘she has no one, Ethiopian or otherwise, she is our sister, too.’” [89] Sadly, stories like these don’t make the headlines.

Asylum fraud under an Eritrean identity also happens regularly in the United States as well. According to an article published in the Oregonian on October 13, 2012, a group of Eritrean and African refugees were resettled in Threemile Canyon Farms in Oregon via the International Rescue Committee [90]. The article states that among the refugees is “Thierry Gasasu, an Eritrean.” Most Eritreans reading this are probably chuckling at this quote. Although there are an array of different ethnic groups in Eritrea, they know that Gasasu is not an Eritrean name. In fact, it is a well known Rwandan name. Honest error? Perhaps. The reality is that this same sort of error keeps happening again and again, often going unchecked by the media or their watchdogs. For instance, back in 2010, the New York Times falsely claimed that an Ethiopian indicted on terror charges was of Eritrean origin. On March 10, 2010, however, Radio Sweden, reported that  “Sabrina Schroff, the man’s lawyer in the United States, says that the Ethiopian native denies all the accusations. The New York Times identifies him as Eritrean, but the Swedish Foreign Minister holds that he is originally from Ethiopia.” [91] Despite the NYT’s error CNN was still calling him a “resident of Sweden originally from Eritrea” almost two entire years later. [92]

The above cases of asylum fraud and false claims of Eritrean identity cannot be taken lightly. Firstly, they only represent the cases of those who were caught. How about the countless others? As illustrated above, many of the false asylum-seekers cases are of Ethiopian origin, which is likely due to the shared cultural, linguistic, and physical features of the sisterly peoples. Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, is 15 times more populous than Eritrea. It also has multiple active insurgencies and multiple reports of genocide in different parts of the country. In fact, post-Meles Zenawi Ethiopia, a ethno-federalist state with a quickly growing Muslim protest movement, [93] is among the top 15 states expected to disintegrate and become ungovernable in the next fifteen years, according to the “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Trends” published by the US National Intelligence Council. [94] Thus, how is it possible that Ethiopia comprises less asylum-seekers than Eritrea (43,400 from Eritrea vs. 42,500 from Ethiopia)? [95] As illustrated in the many cases above, the authorities of resettling nations are reporting of growing numbers of Ethiopians claiming asylum under an Eritrean identity, dating as far back as 2004. If most nations with the exception of the United States get their referrals from the UNHCR, why do no official UNHCR documents make no mention of this trend?

If we also compare the US resettlement data from the department of Health and Human Services website [96], we see that Eritrea has had progressively increasing resettlement numbers while Ethiopian resettlement numbers have waned (Fig. 1). The drop in FY 2002 is due to 9/11. From early 2007 to mid-2009, the US embassy stopped processing non-immigrant visa, which may account for the dip in US resettlement. [97] If that is in fact the case, then that suggests that the issuing of visas by the US Embassy in Eritrea has a significant effect on US resettlement. This is something that should be monitored closely. 2,032 are expected to be resettled  in the US this year.

Figure 1. Refugee Resettlement in the United States since FY 2000.

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Part 1:




3. “Exclusive: Eritrea reduces support for al Shabaab – U.N. report.” Maasho, Aaron. Reuters.  July 16, 2012. link

4. ibid.


6. “Eritrea Calls for Lifting of Sanctions.” Clottey, Peter. Voice of America News.. October 17, 2012.


8. McMullen, Ronald Keith. Economic consequences of African coups d’etat. Diss. University of Iowa, 1985.




12. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-386). Sec. 108-109.

13. “U.S. Expands Human Trafficking Watchlist.” Associated Press. June 16, 2009. link




17. “Exclusive: Eritrea reduces support for al Shabaab – U.N. report” Maasho, Aaron. Reuters. Jul 16, 2012. link



20. “In UN Sanctions Follies, Jim’ale Shifted to Somalia List, Eritrea Report Down, Bryden Spins.” Russell, Matthew Lee. Inner City Press. July 24, 2012. link

21. “Eritrea football team “hiding” in Kenya – official.” Reuters. Jack Oyoo Dec 15, 2009. link


23. “Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of bomb plot.” Reuters. Steve Bloomfield. February 2, 2007.

24. “Trafficking in Persons Report 2012″ US Department of State. June 2012. link

25. “Foreign Affairs Committee. US Congress. 110th Session. Serial No. 110–131. Page 25. October 24, 2007. link

26. “US to suspend issuing visas in Eritrea” Sudan Tribune. Nov 27, 2006. link

27. Humphries, Rachel. “Refugees and the Rashaida: human smuggling and trafficking from Eritrea to Sudan and Egypt.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Research Paper No. 247. November 2012. link


29. “Child Soldiers International, Louder than words – Case Study: Eritrea: Widespread conscription of children goes unchecked.” September 12, 2012. link

30. “Guide to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed.” Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The United Nations Children’s Fund. December 2003. link

31. “AFRICA: Too small to be fighting in anyone’s war”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs News and Analysis. December 2003. link

32. “Explanatory Memorandum on the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Command Paper number: 5759″.  International Committee of the Red Cross. Customary IHL Study Database: United Kingdom: Practice: By Country: United Kingdom: Rule 137. Article 1. Paragraph 9. Updated on December 12, 2012. Accessed on March 15, 2013.  link

33. “UN envoy reports no evidence of ‘child soldiering’ in Ethiopia and Eritrea” United Nations New Centre. March 26, 2002  2002. link

34. “No turning back: A review of UNHCR’s response to the protracted refugee situation in eastern Sudan.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Policy Development and Evaluation Service. November 2011. link

35. “3. Norway’s policy towards UNHCR.” Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. link

36. “Africa Rising” TIME Magazine. March 30, 1998. link



39. “No turning back: A review of UNHCR’s response to the protracted refugee situation in eastern Sudan.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Policy Development and Evaluation Service. November 2011. link

40. “Position on Return of Rejected Asylum Seekers to Eritrea.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. January 2004.




44. “Views on Migration in Sub-Saharan Africa: Proceedings of an African Migration Alliance Workshop.” Catherine Cross, Derik Gelderblom, Niel Roux and Jonathan Mafukidze. Human Sciences Research Council. Apr 1, 2007. Page 104.





49. “Ethiopia’s Ethnic Cleansing.” Calhoun, Craig. Dissent. pg. 47-50. Winter 1999.



52. ibid.

53. Kibreab, Gaim; Ohta, Itaru; Gebre, Yntiso D. “Displacement Risks in Africa: Refugees, Resettlers and Their Host Population.” Trans Pacific Press. Pg. 143-145. Mar 1, 2005.

54. R. Ek. “UNHCR’s operation in eastern Sudan, 1967-2009: lessons learned.” UNHCR, March 2009.


56.  “Regulation of Sexual Conduct in Un Peacekeeping Operations” Simić, Olivera. Springer. Pg. 36. Aug 18, 2012.

57. “Eritrea: UNMEE Dismisses Criticism by Top Military Official.” United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network. May 4, 2004. link

















74. “Tanzania rejects asylum request by Eritrean footballers.” Panapress. Oct 13, 2011.


76. “Eritrea asks Israel to deport ‘deserters.’” Ravid, Barak. Ha’aretz. March 25, 2008.

77. “Israel detains Eritrean refugee for 18 months because he couldn’t prove his identity.” Weiler-Polak, Dana. Ha’aretz. May 24, 2011.

78. “Eritreans turned down for asylum after Ethiopia claims refugees as their own” Nesher, Talila. Ha’aretz. October 24, 2011.  link

79. “The dark side of Tel Aviv.” Ynetnews. Adino Ababa, Danny. June 7, 2012. link

80. “52% of Jewish Israelis say illegal African migrants a ‘cancer.” LA Times. June 8, 2012.



83. “Closing the holes and the loopholes.” Wuraft, Nurit. Ha‘aretz.  June 21, 2009. link

84. “Improving the Speed and Quality of Asylum Decisions.” Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. HC 535, Session 2003-2004: June 23, 2004. link

85. “Former Miss Ethiopia unlawfully held by British immigration.” Daily Telegraph. June 16, 2009.


87. Re-blogged link:


89. Re-blogged link:


91. “Swedish Resident Charged with Terrorism in US Court.” Radio Sweden. March 10, 2010. Re-published link







98. “Tanzania rejects asylum request by Eritrean footballers.” Pana Press. Oct 13, 2011. link

99. “East African soccer team players defect, settle in Houston.” Susan Carroll. Houston Chronicle. May 23, 2012. link



102. “Tanzania rejects asylum request by Eritrean footballers.” Pana Press. Oct 13, 2011. link






108. “Eritrea and European Community: Country Strategy Paper And National Indicative Programme For the period 2009-2013.” Global Forum on Migration and Development. Pg. 59. 2009. link

109. “Eritrean president appears to quash death rumour.” Agence France Presse. April 28, 2012. link









118. ibid.


120. Letter dated February 2008. “Re: Presidency of the UN Human Rights Council” link

121. Letter dated March 31, 2010. “Re: May 2010 UN Human Rights Council elections” link














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