The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is debating a report on human rights abuses in Eritrea. Each month, 5,000 Eritreans flee their country.
A recent report by a three-member panel from the United Nations alleged that the Eritrean government was responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations on an almost unprecedented scale. These abuses are driving thousands of Eritreans out of their country. Many of them end up making the perilous sea journey to Europe – Eritrean migrants are the second largest group after Syrian refugees.
DW spoke to Barbara Lochbihler, vice chairperson of the subcommittee on human rights at the European parliament.
DW: What should the European parliament be doing in order to help put an end to these abuses in Eritrea?
Barbara Lochbihler: Already in March we had a debate in our human rights subcommittee. It is quite difficult to influence the Eritrean government to change its policy. We have to think about the possibilities how we can do this. Since they [Eritrea] got independence in 1991, there are no political parties, there is no independent media, there have not been any elections and, as stated in the UN inquiry report, the country is run not by law but by fear. This is very widespread and so I think we should view the migrants who come to Europe from Eritrea with the knowledge that they are coming with a political background; they cannot continue to stay there. They have this abusive military and national service which on paper says it is only for 18 months, but de facto they can go on to spend their whole working life in such service. When we discussed this on the human rights committee, we can say this is some sort of slavery-like practice.
Are those Eritrean refugees who arrive in Europe getting the asylum to which they are entitled?
Not always. But to my understanding, at least from my country [Germany], they are not being sent back. We know from many individual cases they are very poor, they take the little money they have and escape by taking very dangerous routes through the desert and also perhaps staying in other neighboring war-torn countries. We have examples, years ago when they were stuck in the Sinai, they were treated like kidnapped people and some had their organs taken away. They are subjected to all kinds of cruelty. We have to see their desperate situation and give them some form of preferential status that can allow them to come to Europe and receive asylum status.
The European Union finances development programs in Eritrea which it enacts together with the Eritrean government, do you think those programs ought to be stopped or at least reviewed?
I think we should review them and we should clearly state that if we want to continue, then the human rights situation has to change.
The UN inquiry report also says that some of the human rights violations documented may constitute crimes against humanity. This is not a term you use easily. All things together, disappearances, killings, this permanent surveillance, no freedom of movement and all these abuses at the national and military services, all this together, these are very serious human rights violations.
I think the European Union should not continue with their development aid as it is. They have to make a special effort to influence the Eritrean government and perhaps demand that what is on paper concerning the 18 months of military service will then definitely be implemented.
Do you think the Eritrean government will be susceptible to that kind of pressure?
It's very difficult. What we heard is that no foreign government has influence there but we have to give it a try. Eritrea is also part of other consultation forums like the Khartoum process, where the European Union and member states are discussing with the Eritrean government how to fight the spread of human trafficking and also terrorism. In all those occasions where we have the possibility of direct dialogue with them, we should let the Eritrean government know. Perhaps also in the future in the European parliament we have to make our own resolution.
Barbara Lochbihler is the vice chairperson of the subcommittee on human rights at the European parliament
Interview: Mark Caldwell