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ICER Report to UNOHCHR on Eritrean Refugees in North Africa and Middle East

ICER Report to UNOHCHR on Eritrean Refugees in North Africa and Middle East

Wednesday, 10 August 2011 19:51 ICER


International Commission on Eritrean Refugees
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Seventeenth session
Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil,
Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The thrust of this brief report is to bring to the attention of the United Nations Office Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Council (UNOHCHR) the problem of Eritrean refugees all over the world, in particular those found in North Africa. Professor Tricia R. Redeker reports that, in 2008 refugees seeking asylum from Eritrea surpassed that of Iraq and the number is increasing. It is reported that an estimated 2,000 Eritreans per month leave clandestinely to Ethiopia and Sudan. There are also those who crossed the Red Sea to request asylum in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Recently, a member of ICER Ms. Sigal Rozen reported that in June 2011, the number of  refugees  who entered Israel passing through Sudanese and Egyptian territories was 1,214 while in the first half month of July 2011 alone, the number of the ‘infiltrators’, as they are commonly called by Israeli authorities,  was  575.

Today except for the United States and the European countries none of the nations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel, consider the Eritreans as refugees fleeing from persecution. The majority of the young women and men are victims of human rights abuses and political intimidation by the Government of Eritrea thus deserving international protection. They need and deserve protection according to the internationally recognized conventions and standards of the protection of refugees.  Depriving refugee status to the Eritreans complicates their relocation to a third country. As it is, most of them have already been exposed to random extortion, imprisonment, and death. Lately, the Government of Sudan, which has traditionally been an exemplary nation regarding the protection of Eritrean refugees, has sadly adopted a hostile posture, especially against those deemed dangerous to the Eritrean government.

International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER) was founded on a mission to highlight, advocate and address the plight of Eritrean refugees everywhere.  Since its founding, it has received numerous reports about the condition of Eritreans in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other countries in turmoil.  Many of these have been well documented by ICER as well as major international media outlets.  Refugees from Sub Saharan African countries who were already under extremely unfavorable living conditions before the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East found themselves caught in the cross-fire between opposing forces.  ICER as well as numerous individuals had sent appeals to UNHCR for enervation and to bring much needed attention to these needs.

ICER found it pertinent to prepare this brief report in the hope that the UHHRC recognizes the legitimate fear and concern of the Eritrean refugees caught up in the unprecedented social upheaval currently underway in North Africa and the Middle East. We also appeal to the UN body to call for their protection in the host countries in accordance to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and other relevant international protocols and agreements. It is equally important to prevail upon the UNHCR to accord the refugees a protective status as victims of political oppression and human rights abuse.

The crisis of refugees in Eritrea traces its root to the war of independence fought between Ethiopia and the Eritrean Liberation movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The thirty year war that begun in 1960 did not only produce more refugees than any conflict in the Horn of Africa at the time but tragically the solution to the problem persisted long after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia. When hostilities with Ethiopia broke out again in 1998-2000 more Eritreans became internally displaced with substantial number of them leaving the country. This time the refuges did not only swarm the already crowded campus in the Sudan but also found their way to Ethiopia to the tune of, 50,000 men, women and children.

The refugee crisis that attracted relative attention than the ones that existed since the late 1960s was the exodus of mostly young, literate and urban people that begun in mid 2000s.  What makes the refugee situation today peculiar is the continuous trek of children aged 10 to 15 years to Ethiopia for protection, the kidnapping and subsequent long imprisonment of those forcefully returned from Sudan, the shoot to kill policy of the governments of Eritrea and Egypt, the human trafficking and the resultant rape and harvest of human organs in the Egyptian Sinai. In addition there are thousands with undetermined status in Israel and the tragic loss of lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

3.0  The CAUSE
Unlike the assertion by the North African governments including the state of Israel that Eritreans passing through their lands on their futile attempt to enter Europe and North America are not economic refugees but people escaping abuse and violation of their human rights. Given the dire situation in their country the people of Eritrea and in particular the young are left with no option but to leave Eritrea for their safety. What is the reality of Eritrea today?

3.1 The Reality of Eritrean refugees

3.1.1  Military conscription  
The open ended military service that the young and the not so young are forced to undergo is the primary source of the refugee crisis we are witnessing today. As prescribed by government decree of 1994 individual Eritreans aged between 18 to 30 years are required to serve in the military for a period not exceeding 18 months. In reality, however, once called upon to join the national service there is no means of getting out of it except and unless one is deemed unfit physically or turn into invalid in the course of his service. We have today young men and women who begun serving in the army since the beginning of the war with Ethiopia in 1998 still mobilized earning 450 Nakfa (10 USD) a month. Among those in the service are young peasants and educated people who would do better in their respective professions. This indefinite military conscription has also resulted in dire economic hardships for the families of those who are in the compulsory national service – as most of these were male and bread winners of their families. The decline in agricultural output in Eritrea is partly due to the fact that the young are unproductively tied up in the unlimited national service sponsored by the Government in Eritrea. It is also worth mentioning here that some of the children and women who fled to Ethiopia or the Sudan are families of those who are in service fleeing famine and starvation.

3.1.2  Arbitrary detention  
Many keen observers of the situation in Eritrea considered the country as an open prison where dissenters are not only confined in prison cells, underground dungeons and in containers placed in open fields with oppressive heat but are forbidden to travel without so-called movement papers popularly known as menkesakesi. Violators of such standing order are either kept in prison or forcibly sent to primitive gold mine fields such as Zara. There is no platform were people can air their grievances or express their views peacefully. The regime is notoriously known for jailing prominent government officials, journalists and religious figures.

Arbitrary detention has been common in Eritrea ever since Eritrea’s independence. Although, in the first ten years of independence acts of arbitrary detention were often widespread among prominent personalities, this time the totalitarian regime is engaged in indiscriminate mass arrests. The Eritrean legal system is almost dead and prosecutors have no mandate to deal with such cases. Besides, there are various cases of disappearances, as people are taken at night from their homes to unknown places.
Arbitrary detention is a deliberate policy introduced to instill fear and terror among the Eritrean people and in return to make the people loyal to the government.  .

3.1.3  Shoot to kill policy
Any person found crossing to the Sudan or Ethiopia is shot on sight and at times shot point blank after being apprehended. Despite this cruel policy and the thousands of mine fields in the boarder area over 2,000 people per month cross to Ethiopia. Similar if not greater numbers also cross to the Sudan every month.

3.1.4  Extortion
The Eritrean government is also in the business of making money out of those who dare to challenge it by crossing to the neighboring countries for safety. We have concrete evidence showing that parents of those deserting its open ended military conscription are forced to pay 50,000 Nakfa or risk imprisonments.  In almost all cases, those unable to pay are required to do forced labor for unlimited time and are denied social services. In the case of farmers their farmlands are usurped for at least two to three cropping seasons, in addition to the above stated punishment. It should also be noted that in the detention centers, detainees are obliged to feed themselves and there is no government food ration issued to them.
The Eritrean Government is suspected of running a web of human trafficking  operaton with agents in Cairo, Egypt. Recently released UN Secuiryt cancel report indicat to that effect

3.1.5  Religious Persecution
As the result of the systematic persecution of religious persons in Eritrea many have left home clandestinely to end up in refugee camps of Sudan and Ethiopia. Earlier, the Eritrean government begun persecuting the Jehovah Witnesses sect on the account that they did not vote in the referendum that enabled Eritrea to secede from Ethiopia. In 1994, it rounded up hundreds of Muslims accusing them of conspiring with the Islamic regime of the Sudan. All those 150 persons picked up that faithful night were executed . The persecution of religious groups is not limited to Moslems and the Jehovah Witnesses alone but extend to the Pentecostal of which the famous gospel singer Helen Berhane and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church his Holiness Abuna Atnatios, Dr. Pastor Fitsum Ghebrenegus, Medical director of Saint Mary psychiatrist Hospital, Dr, Pastor Kiflu, Mathematics professor at the University of Asmara, Dr.Tecleab Mengisteab, Dr, Teklemariam of Halibet Hospital,  Pastor Ghebremedhin Ghebregiorgis, meri-geta Yitbarek Berhe and many others stands high. The case of the imprisoned most senior government officials and prominent journals in the beginning of 2000 has been widely publicized to dwell on it here.

3.2  The state of Refugees in North Africa and Littoral Arab States

3.2.1  The Sudan
In the past Sudan has been regarded as safe haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing war and famine. In fact the highest number of Eritrean refugees then and now is in the Sudan. However, since the internal troubles in the Sudan begun to spread, the Eritrean government took advantage of the situation by kidnapping many high valued refugees under the nose of the Sudanese security forces. It is actually rumored that the security forces in the border town of Kessela are in cahoots with the Eritrean government sponsored kidnappers to facilitate their snatch and eventual transport to Eritrea where they face certain imprisonment and sometimes death (Attachment 1. Personal account by a victim found in ICER document section). At times those already in the camps are lured for jobs where they leave their camps to work in the agricultural fields and instead transported to Sinai, Egypt and kept as hostages until their families pay ransom money for their release. The Israeli police have documented cases to that effect.

3.2.2  Egypt
Many refugees on their way to Israel find themselves stranded in Egypt. The majority of them stay anonymous with few reporting to UNHCR or government agencies for help. Those unfortunate ones are picked up by the Egyptian police and thrown to jail with no due process. Most often Egypt regards Eritrean refugees as persons driven by economic more than political or human rights reasons. Accordingly, it deported planeload of Eritreans in 2008 where most of them were thrown to jail in one of the hottest regions of Eritrea. To date more than 200 persons are in prisons at El Arish, Ismailia and Cairo prison centers. Egypt does not allow the UNHCR or any human right group to visit the prisoners. In contravention to the UN human rights conventions and other regional instruments, there are a total of 400 plus Eritrean prisoners in Egypt. These kidnapped victims are brought from Sudan by Bedouin human traffickers in the hope of extracting ransom money from their relatives residing in the west. The condition of the hostages in Sinai is horrible to relate. The refugees are kept in the dark tied to their feet, with meager food at their disposal but subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment and torture. Many are young who served in the army for several years and some with serious trouble with the government. Their tragic story was told by Meron Estifanos who personally conducted an interview with some Bedouin hostage takers including the hostages in May 2011. .

Beginning in 2010, Eritrean refugees are kidnapped from Eastern Sudan’s Agricultural fields and taken to the Egyptian Sinai without their free will. Strangely, some of the victims are kidnapped from the UNHCR run camps in Eastern Sudan and are asked to pay ransom money in which an average Eritrean could never afford. Although, unfortunately this issue did not get enough attention in the global media, it is beyond doubt this is one of the worst humanitarian violations.

3.2.3  Libya
Many Eritrean refugees cross the vast desert to reach Libya. The geographic location of that country is suitable for persons wishing to enter Europe illegally. In Libya rickety boats are hired by the refugees for the purpose of crossing the treacherous Mediterranean Sea often resulting in drowning.   AgenziaHabeshia in an SOS dispatch in April 4, 2011 made it known to the world “ still missing [are] more than 400 people, [who]started from Tripoli in two different dates, the first party the night between 22 and 23 March, a barge with 335 people of all nationalities Eritrea, the[second] boat load of 68 persons of Eritrean and Ethiopian , which started in the evening around 22:00 pm March 25 on Saturday launched the call for help, who said ‘to be hungry and thirsty with little fuel was running out’.” (Attachment 2. SOS by AgenziaHabeshia, Don MussieZerai). In this as in other unfortunate incidents before it, all were drowned while waiting help from the merchant and war ships unmindfully passing by. It is sad to relate here the close encounter with a coast guard helicopter hovering over the distressed boats but unable to save the lives of the Africans who were wondering aimlessly in the belly of the vast sea for sixteen days    This is of course in contravention with the international Law of the Sea convention 1982 (LOSC), the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) of 1974 and Search and Rescue (SAR) convention agreed upon in 1979  . Libya like Egypt never accorded the status of refugee for Eritreans fleeing oppression and political persecution. To the contrary the government sends back plane loads of them to Eritrea where they were subjected to imprisonment and death. The Libyans are unsympathetic to the lot of the refugees and sometimes abuse women sexually.

The Libyan authorities are notoriously known for imprisoning refugees for months and even years and are inhuman to deny access to UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations. The situation for Refugees in Libya has gone from bad to worst especially after the recent upheaval which falsely accused Africans as mercenaries supporting this or that group in the ongoing conflict.

3.2.4   Yemen
Yemen is a state on the verge of collapse. The country which constitutes the core of the Sana Forum established in 2006 in response to Eritrea’s veiled threat and sometimes open aggression to countries in Red Sea rim has never been particularly sympathetic to refugees from Eritrea. When the UNHCR attempted to provide temporary shelter for those caught in the chaos, prominent tribal sheiks wrote to both the UNHCR and to officials of the Yemeni government of their displeasure to the plan. Their emphatic refusal to accept ‘any African refugee in their region’ was clearly demonstrated in the  the letter they sent to concerned officials. (Attachment 3. Letter of Yemeni tribal chiefs). It should be noted here that the UNHCR up to the time of writing this report continued to treat Eritrean nationals as economic rather than political refugees. In a bid of attracting the attention of the agency and world opinion, men, women and children decided to camp inside the UNHCR compound for over a month before been forcefully ejected by the Yemeni security forces in the behest of the agency. In the mayhem a two year old infant was suffocated to death and many victims of smoke inhalation and club beating were sent to the hospital (Attachment 4. Picture of shooting victim and the gas bullet in Yemen). In addition, six were arrested of which three are out while the rest remains in prison.

3.2.5  Israel
Outside Sudan and Ethiopia Israel hosts the largest refugee population in the region. It is estimated that there are about 22,000  Eritreans currently living in Israel. Their status is still undetermined but openly referred to as infiltrators who came to Israel for economic reasons. They are neither accepted as genuine refugees nor driven out from Israel. None of the refugees is allowed to work; however, as they are not provided with residence permit to qualify them as guest workers. Recently the country is building a holding lot for 10,000 people where refugee will be confined throughout their stay in Israel.

3.2.6   Ethiopia
The situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is also dire in spite of the fact that Ethiopian government has taken some measures aimed at improving their conditions. At the moment, there are about 48,000 Eritrean refugees in refugee camps set in northern part of Ethiopia and the number is staggeringly increasing. According to Erika Feller, UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, who recently visited the area, there is a silent crisis looming in the Eritrean refugees Camps in Ethiopia while the world is focusing its attention to the famine in Daadab refugee camp in Kenya. She has also expressed her deep concerns on the number of unaccompanied children and minors in the camp.  She said she was alarmed and shocked to see “a sea of young faces”  Feller reported that “Frustrated by the difficulties of camp life and the limited opportunities for self-reliance and post-secondary education, thousands of Eritrean refugees are moving on to third countries such as Sudan and Egypt en route to Europe or the Middle East, on often-dangerous journeys arranged by smugglers.”  She implored the international community to “ assist Ethiopia and international agencies like UNHCR to provide a real alternative to these people so that they don’t put themselves at risk in the hands of smugglers.” ICER would like to emphasis on the rights of unaccompanied and minor children especially women and girls. It also calls for the improvement of the socio- economic conditions of these refugees while they stay in the camps .

Therefore, ICER call the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to

  • investigate incidents of human rights violation against Eritrean refugees and hold all those responsible for their illegal acts;
  • call all governments, including the rebel groups in Libya, hosting Eritrean refugees to uphold their responsibility to protect the rights of Eritrean refugees and take actions to improve their living conditions
  • urge all countries to offer need refugee protection for those who deserve international protection and stop from deporting them to Eritrea where they could face persecution, torture and inhumane treatment
  • call the UNHCR to monitor states protect the rights of Eritrean refugees and work with the international community to implement projects that improve their living conditions in where they are and find a lasting solutions to their plights.


[1]Tricia RedekerHepner, Human Tsunamis: Refugees and the Failure of Forced Migration Policy (24 April, 2011) available online at: (last visited on August 2, 2011).

[2].UNHCR Press Release  July 26, 2011 – UNHCR deeply concerned by deportation of Eritreans from Sudan

[3] , State of Denial: Religious Persecution in Eritrea. Prof. HabtuGhebre-Ab – Aug 30,


[5], March 13, 2001

[6] Brief report by Robinson and Rozen to ICER documentation section

[7] Eritrea 20 Years after Independence: The Largest Refugee Producing Country in the World  20 May 2011 MeronEstefanos)

[8] ‘This Aircraft carrier left us to die, say migrants’. Jack Shenker May 8 2011

[9]Dr.EfthymiosPapastavridis, “Rescuing ‘Boat People’ in the Mediterranean Sea: The Responsibility of States under the Law of the Sea”. EJIL Analysis  TuesdayMay 31,2011  available online at: (Last visited on August  2, 2011).

[10] Young Eritreans in Ethiopia face future in limbo;

Additional Sources

1-A Letter from Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz: Mission to Iraq, Israel, and the West Bank. July 01, 2011

2-Press Release – For Immediate Distribution June 28th, 2011

US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report:

Israel Must Refrain From Binding Migrant Workers to Their Employers

3-Amnesty Alert

UA:175/11 Index:AFR 54/019/2011 Sudan

( June 2011


Asylum Seekers and Refugees Risk Forcible Return to Eritrea……………………………………………………………………………………..


Attachment # 1


Sent: Friday, June 17, 2011 8:47 AM

Dear Tricia RedekerHepner,

First of all I would like to thank you for all the endeavors you are doing to help Eritrean refugees.

My name is Mr. X. I graduated from the University of Asmara, Law program in 2001.Since the year 2000 I worked as a prosecutor. In 2004 I was appointed to be Chief Public Prosecutor ofthe Southern Region of Eritrea. However, in Eritrea it is life threatening to be a professional lawyer at present.

One is supposed just to advocate their brutal policies or face harsh punishments. Due to this reasons and the animosity I had with Minister Fowzia Hashim, the minister of justice, and Mustofa Nurhusen, the administrator of the Southern region I could not continue work. As a result I fled to the Sudan in 2006. Unfortunately after I got the refugee card and went to Kassala to work I was kidnapped by the Eritrean Security and was held in a solitary confinement for about a year. I was verbally and bodily tortured. I was even once emersed in a barrel full of prisoner’s urine and feces.

Dear Tricia, my story is a long one. I will try to shorten it.

Again in April 2010 I managed to safely arrive in Sudan. Fearing a second kidnap I applied to the UNHCR protection section. But to my utter dismay they turned a deaf ear to my request. For more than a year they just say “we will call you!”. They have never ever called me. They say that my file (of 2006) has not come from the east (camp) yet.

This camp is just few Kilometers away from Khartoum. It is surprising why they cannot bring my file for more than a year. The Eritrean government’s saying goes” eid shaebya newaheya” meaning we can apprehend any one regardless how far he goes. Thus they can apprehend any one they want, let alone I am here in Khartoum, very near to them.
It is really hard to live by hiding and using fictitious names for longer times.
And the Eritrean agents’ ability to easily infiltrate this country exacerbates the matter.

So Dear Tricia, I beseech you to help me get an urgent protection and resettlement in a third country and save my life. Would you please keep this information only for you except for purposes of protection?

Waiting for you kind reply soon.

Thank you.


Attachment # 2

AgenziaHabeshia, April 14, 2011

I am amazed because 90% of the press in general has opted for silence in the face of an act so extreme, cruel and inhumane that we are complaining? What is the value of human life? The international maritime law that requires you to save those in danger of a life worth today?

The boat departed from Tripoli on March 25 with 72 people on board, then lost tracks from the late afternoon on March 26, have been located for the last time about 60 miles from Tripoli and then nothing. We have repeatedly reported their disappearance, and were told that there have not been found. In these days we have been contacted by 9 people lived on the tragedy, after two weeks at sea are returned to Tripoli, say they survived in 11 people, two men, 9 women, the current of the sea that led to where the military ZelatienGhedafi of him taken to jail, two people die in prison a boy and a girl, because they were not rescued and cared for, after a day 7 of the above experiences have been transferred to prison in Tripoli Tuweshia, while two were taken Zelatien in hospital. They recount how they were abandoned by “other military vessels, one of them was Italian naval vessels also approached and even a helicopter provided by drink” but 63 people die leaving women and children. Inhumane act that has not seen the boat rescue, wrongful death by all those military ships and fishing boats that have crossed the helicopter which has also provided water, has photographed, but did not send the relief. These nine people are witnesses to the tragedy; I spoke with someone who has lost his wife from hunger and thirst. Their boat was stopped because the finished fuel, the migrant who was driving the boat a man from Ghana who could not even use the GPS satellite that was on the phone, but asked for help, tried to talk with the Italian coast guard but not have understood.

We demand that NATO make a full investigation of this matter, because these 63 people have been left to die? Of who was the helicopter that was limited to providing water to the refugees and then not send rescue? What are the naval vessels that have seen this boat in recent days between March 25 to 30? These people died because someone decided not to rescue them. We want to know who this choice was. The survivors who are now in Tripoli with the wind were driven to the shores of Tripoli


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