Calais, France – Away from the forced conscriptions, enforced disappearances, torture and religious repression of their homeland, hundreds of Eritreans, mostly men, remain stuck in Calais’ ever-shrinking “Jungle” refugee camp. French authorities have bulldozed their settlements in the camp’s southern zone.
Those who have made it across the English Channel face continual roadblocks from the UK Home Office in their requests for asylum.
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Eritreans make up the largest group of people applying for asylum in the UK, with 3,729 applications in 2015. But in March 2015, the UK government began dramatically slashing approvals for applicants from Eritrea, with success rates plummeting to 48 percent in 2015 from 87 percent the previous year.
This shift in policy is based upon advice issued by the Home Office from a now heavily discredited report by the Danish Immigration Services (DIS).
Jens Weise Olesen and Jan Olsen, who travelled to Eritrea as the report’s principal researchers, have fiercely declaimed it as simplistic and distorted. After its publication in November 2014, they both resigned from DIS.
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On March 10, the European Parliament spoke out on human rights abuses in Eritrea. Last June, a UN human rights investigation found that the country’s use of torture, forced labour, extrajudicial executions and national service as a form of slavery may constitute crimes against humanity.
Al Jazeera travelled to Calais to ask those fleeing Eritrea’s dictatorship what they thought about the publication’s key assertions and the UK government’s decision to base its asylum policy on this report, which concludes that Eritrea is “unique in the Horn of Africa region in that it is safe, with no crime to speak of and no corruption – in clear difference from most other capitals in Africa.”
“The government of England knows exactly what’s going on,” says 21-year-old Aman, whose name has been changed at his request out of concern for safety. He stands in the now demolished Eritrean part of the camp, leafing through a printed copy of the report given to him by Al Jazeera.
“If our country was at peace, why are we forced to go on a dangerous trip through Sudan and through Libya? It’s a huge life risk. On the ocean, so many people drown. In Libya, so many people are slaughtered.”
Strung up and tortured for days
Aman lays the report on a battered stool beside him, as he prepares a group meal of spaghetti and tinned beef over an open fire.
Originally from a small rural village outside the capital, Asmara, Aman is one of an entire generation of young Eritreans whose forced conscription into the army for national service is a primary reason for escaping to Europe. The DIS report claims that Eritrea’s national service “is not really indefinite, but when it ends is arbitrary.” For many – this means a lifetime.
A Human Rights Watch 2015 report on Eritrea condemned the country for its “continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights,” indefinite conscription, prolonged detention and use of torture.
In stark contrast, the DIS report continuously emphasises how “people in the National Service are not overworked or working under slave-like conditions, not beaten, subjected to torture or suffering from malnutrition.” And how “it is definitely not government policy to retaliate against relatives of National Service evaders or deserters.” Reassuring the reader that, “If such treatment occurred, relatives would tell about it.”
“Once you are interned [in the army] the situations are extreme,” says Adam, 23, who did not want to reveal his real name, as he reads from the report. His conversational English is competent, though he frequently asks for clarification of words and meanings while reading.
He puts down the report and begins to speak about life in the Eritrean military, turning his back to shield the fire from a long, snaking gust of wind.
“You can’t take it. You run away from the military to your home and they send people to bring you back.”
“I ran away from SAWA (Eritrea’s military training academy) when I was 16 because it was too hard,” he says.
“They came to my village and imprisoned my mother for not bringing me back. I didn’t have an option. They blackmailed me because I wanted my mother to be freed. When I returned, they strung me up for days and tortured me.
“They do many things to you when they catch you,” Adam continues.
“They tell you that it’s OK, that you are not the first one, that you should accept your mistake. They will try to trick you into admitting you were trying to escape. If not, they will use a more forceful mechanism,” he says, staring down at the dust and rolling a stone under the blue plastic sole of one of his volunteer-donated Crocs.
“They may put you underground in a prison. You never see light, you never go out. Maybe they will string you up for a long period of time so your veins will be cut off from circulation. Some people lose hands like this or bleed to death.
“They put your legs up and hit you under the back of them or on the soles of your feet – anything to pressure you into admitting you planned to escape… Some people can’t have children because they have reproductive difficulties after the torture. Most people eventually confess simply because they can’t take it.”
Military deserters: shoot-to-kill policy
The wind picks up a little. A mass of torn plastic bags and detritus tumbles across the demolition zone. The boys form a close huddle around the fire.
John, who only wanted to give his first name, a young man covered in crude, hand-poked tattoos, shields his face from the camera, nervous that his published image could bring harm to his family back home.
Many Eritreans in Calais share the same fear and because of this, are unwilling to speak out against the country’s regime.
John’s testimony goes against the DIS report’s claim that there isn’t a shoot-to-kill policy for military deserters caught trying to escape via Eritrea’s long, semi-porous land borders with Sudan and Ethiopia.
“I was 74th division – artillery on the Ethiopian front during the 2000 war,” he says, wiping cutlery with a bright, white napkin.
“Near the border there were four [Eritrean] soldiers trying to escape into Ethiopia. They were 61st ground army, not our division. My superiors told me to gun them down, but I said, ‘I will not do that to my people’,” he says, clenching his fists as he recalls the memory.
“After rejecting a direct order from my superiors I was hung up for two days with my arms in the air and my abdomen on the ground. I was beaten on my backside.
“After 23 days they were trying to send me to an underground prison, but I managed to escape,” he says.
On his nightly trip to the outdoor toilet, a group of four men had agreed among themselves to attempt an escape and run in separate directions across the area’s unfortified open ground to confuse the lone guard accompanying them.
“I reached a city called Manda [in Ethiopia]. From there, I paid an agent £1,220 ($1,760) to reach Khartoum in Sudan. From there, Libya, Italy and then here: Calais.”
The fact that all Eritrean sources (comprised of Western embassies in Asmara, UN agencies, local NGOs and “a well-known Eritrean intellectual”) which contributed to the DIS report “required varying degrees of anonymity” gives further cause for concern when trying to validate its claims, which, according to Human Rights Watch shows “no indication that the authors of the report interviewed victims or witnesses of human rights violations in Eritrea.”
The report’s one named source, Professor Gaim Kibreab, director of Refugee Studies at London’s South Bank University, has also distanced himself from its findings. In an email to DIS which he made public, Kibreab said: “The way you have chosen to quote me contradicts the findings of the studies I have been conducting on the Eritrean National Service and the full information I provided you in our oral communication and in the edited version of the draft you sent to me for comments and approval.”
He also told The Guardian: “They distorted what I said, quoted me out of context.
“One example: they quoted me saying that I knew people who had returned back to Eritrea without problems. What I told them was I know of a few who returned who are connected to the government, who are naturalised and have English passports and Danish passports – they didn’t mention that I was talking about a few who were connected. They left out so many things. The way they did it, there was an unnamed anonymous source and then they brought in my name to support their views.”
‘Eritrea is one big prison’
The crux of Britain’s decision to slash Eritrean asylum approvals is the report’s central claim that it is safe for Eritreans and Eritrean military deserters who’ve exited illegally, to return home after signing a formal letter of apology and paying a 2 percent tax fine.
When Al Jazeera presented this claim to the men at the camp, they all let out a long chorus of squawks and whoops, throwing their hands in the air.
“You know the reality,” Adam says. “We can be put in prison for life or shot for betrayal. I’d like more to get crushed under a train or to drown in the ocean trying to reach freedom. I’d prefer that to what the [Eritrean] government would do.”
“It’s worse for military,” John says. “When a person comes [back] to the country and he is a civilian, he may go to prison for three, four, five years. But for example, a mechanised soldier in the artillery, it’s a lifetime. Or, they’ll just take your life.”
Internal travel without pre-approved documentation in Eritrea is also forbidden. The DIS report comments repeatedly on the “general freedom of movement throughout Eritrea for nationals” outside Asmara with ‘no real checkpoints in the country except for sensitive areas’. But the reality as told by these young men paints a different picture.
“It’s impossible,” says Aman, as he wedges another stick of kindling under the now boiling pot, warming his hands next to the flames. “You will be caught and sent to prison. If you are military they’ll automatically assume you are trying to get out of the country.
“If you’re moving, you need a paper from your division. If you don’t get that paper then [the government will suspect] you are trying to escape. You’ll be sent to the special intelligence service and they will torture you and ask you cross questions for weeks, in case you say contradicting things.”
Aman says obtaining a passport to exit the country legally is impossible.
“Only the children of the authorities are allowed to get passports… They think that we will use them to get out of the country. Everything is blocked. Eritrea is one big prison. Simple.”
‘You suffer your whole life – for nothing’
It’s a desolate scene in the Calais refugee camp. The wind lashes and the crude shelters which once housed an entire community have been reduced to a barren roll of discarded clothes, shredded tarpaulins and burnt wood.
With many Eritreans now packed nose-to-nose alongside other communities in the camp’s northern sector, it may only be a matter of time before the French government resumes demolition and forces many to adopt an increasingly nomadic existence along the French coastline.
“I want to live in Eritrea with my family,” says Adam, after piling huge forkfuls of spaghetti on to plastic plates before drowning each in thick, red sauce and handing them to John, Aman and two other Eritreans who’ve come to sit with the group.
“But I can’t. We are not human – we are like equipment there … the government is not trying to be democratic. It doesn’t want to have constitutions and it’s always denying the rights of its own people.
“The people are people who love their country very much and are the people who fought to get independence. And after doing all this, the way the government pays its people back is ruthless. They make you suffer your whole life – for nothing.”