Eritrean lives risked in civil service scandal

After an influx of asylum seekers from Eritrea, the government last year published a report arguing that they don't need automatic protection. The report was discredited and Eritreans were once again granted asylum. But in the UK the discredited report was picked up and is now being used to justify a return of Eritreans

This article was published in the January 2015 issue of The Murmur. This week it was revealed that the British government was using the discredited report to support returning Eritrean asylum seekers. Given the latest developments, we have chosen to republish the article.

In the small African country Eritrea, men can expect to be forced to join the military and never leave. The simmering hostilities with Ethiopia, following their two year war between 1998 and 2000, are used as justification for the single-party government’s total control over the country. There are no independent NGOs or privately owned media, while forced labour and torture are widely reported.

Of the 37,000 Eritrean asylum seekers that fled to Europe this year, 2,200 arrived in Denmark. Normally, they would be automatically granted asylum, as the Eritrean government’s standard practice is to jail and torture citizens who flee the country illegally.

In November, however, the Danish government released a report, written by the Immigration Service, which argued that the situation in Eritrea had improved so much that automatic asylum would no longer be granted to Eritreans. The decision shocked the international community and human rights organisations, who swiftly condemned the government.

At the time of publication, the parliamentary ombudsman had not yet decided whether to launch an investigation. As it stands, the chief suspects are civil servants who ignored facts, misrepresented key sources and fashioned conclusions to suit the political agenda of their ministerial superiors.

Asylum boom
The story of the scandal is still unfolding and all the facts have yet to be compiled in a simple timeline. But from reading dozens of news articles, The Murmur understands the story like this.

During the summer, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark jumped dramatically. In the first three months of 2014, only ten asylum seekers from Eritrea arrived in Denmark. In July, 514 arrived and in August another 606.

On August 13, Minister of Justice Karen Hækkerup stated in a press release that the Immigration Service was going to conduct a fact-finding mission to understand the increase in Eritrean asylum seekers and examine whether they are really in need of blanket protection.

After sending representatives to Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Immigration Service published a report on November 25.

“Based on the updated information, the Immigration Service does not find that, in themselves, the conditions in Eritrea regarding national service and illegal emigration constitute persecution or fulfil the necessary demand for protection,” the Ministry of Justice stated in a press release at the time.

To justify their claim, the Immigration Service noted that Eritreans have the option of avoiding jail upon return to the country if they sign a letter of regret and pay two percent of all their future salary to the government.

This information was provided by professor Gaim Kibreab from London South Bank University. However, after thoroughly reading the report, he asked to have his name removed.

“I am in no doubt that if [asylum seekers] are returned before they are granted Danish citizenship, they will be imprisoned,” he told Politiken newspaper. “Some have been imprisoned for five years. Some forced to perform labour. The hard conditions in prison mean they don’t get enough food and water. There are poor sanitary conditions and they will be tortured to discover who helped them out of the county.”

Kibreab says he only knows of a few cases of people avoiding prison by paying a fine. He also criticised the use of testimony from anonymous organisations in Eritrea. One is quoted in the report stating that the allegations of torture and imprisonment in Eritrea were blown out of proportion. But according to Kibreab, these statements cannot be trusted, as all NGOs operating in Eritrea are loyal to the government.

Kibreab was most upset by the impression that the authors only selected pieces of his testimony that suited a particular agenda.

“They have taken what they liked and used it to support their case, ignoring the other information I gave them,” he told Politiken newspaper, adding, “The report is not worth the paper it is written on.”

Kibreab was not alone in his criticism. In early December a second source in the report, Tamrat Kedebe from the Inter African Group and former Ethiopian ambassador to the US, condemned the report’s conclusions. So too did Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The Danish report seems more like a political effort to stem migration than an honest assessment of Eritrea’s human rights situation,” said deputy director for HRW’s Africa Division, Leslie Lefkow, in a press release.

HRW argue that parts of the report use contradictory and speculative statements. They add that the report’s anonymous sources even acknowledge that, “there is no independent access to detention centers, that the fate of people returned to Eritrea is unclear, and that government reforms of the national service conscription are rumored, but not confirmed. There is no indication that the authors of the report interviewed victims or witnesses of human rights violations in Eritrea.”

Disgruntled employees
Of all the evidence against the legitimacy of the report, the most damning is that the two individuals who went on the fact-finding missions did not support the report’s conclusions. Both had even taken sick leave from the Immigration Service prior to the report’s publication.

“During and after the mission, it was my impression that my head of department was focussed not on collecting information, but rather on how the information was to be used,” chief consultant Jens Weise Olsen told Politiko.

Olsen and his colleague Jan Olsen are some of the most experienced fact finders in the Immigration Service and have visited Rwanda, Burundi and Nigeria over the past 20 years. Olsen says their report on Eritrea deviated markedly from their standard methodological practice.

For example, when they were in the field, the head of department was reluctant to let them conduct interviews to fact check claims made by sources. The head of department also insisted on writing the report, which was very unusual according to Olsen, who says he and his colleague tended to write these reports themselves.

Most importantly, he agrees with Kibreab’s criticism that the report contains cherry-picked information that suits a particular outcome, namely that it will not endanger the lives or Eritrean refugees if they are sent home.

This suspicion is supported by something his head of department told him after they learned that Eritreans could just pay a fine and apologise to avoid jail, which would make it possible to reject their application for asylum and send them back to Eritrea.

“His words were, ‘If the board agrees there could be a pay rise lads,'” said Olsen, referring to the Refugee Appeals Board that automatically appeals rejected asylum applications.

The circumstances surrounding the report suggest that the government, or certain officials therein, sought justification for rejecting Eritrean asylum seekers. The high number of asylum seekers in Denmark this year has made the government vulnerable to attack from right-wing parties who have blamed policies that improved the standard of living for asylum seekers for the massive influx of refugees arriving in Denmark. 14,000 had arrived by the end of November, compared to 7,557 in all of 2013. However, similar increases have been witnessed across Europe and are more likely the result of the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The centre-left coalition is losing voters, particularly to the anti-immigration Dansk Folkeparti. This autumn, the government introduced new restrictions on Syrian asylum seekers, which was largely seen as a symbolic move to appease anxious voters.

There is no evidence, however, that the Ministry of Justice instructed the Immigration Service to provide a report with a specific conclusion. And while it was unusual that the Minister of Justice took credit for launching the fact-finding missions, the Immigration Service has since explained that the missions were planned already in June and not shared with the ministry until August.

The scandal has been most damaging to the Immigration Service, which announced that, given the criticisms of the report, they will give the benefit of the doubt to Eritrean asylum seekers fleeing from forced military service. Olsen is worried that the scandal will discourage experts like Kibreab from cooperating with Danish authorities in the future – a scandal that Olsen blames on a civil service culture where providing results, whatever the cost, will push you up the career ladder.

“Civil servants are rewarded for achieving certain results that the sitting government wants. Our head of department knew that if he managed to change the practice, it would consolidate his position. It would be a big deal,” Olsen said, adding that he hopes to return to work soon. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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