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Germany and Eritrea: human rights or migration?

Daniel Pelz / so
September 7, 2016

Eritrea is often called the North Korea of Africa. Tens of thousands of people flee the country each year. This week an Eritrean delegation is set to visit Berlin for political talks.

Mittelmeer Rettung von Flüchtlingen
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/E. Morenatti

The trip to Germany is important to Eritrea's government. Two ministers and the influential presidential advisor, Yemane Gebreab, are part of the delegation. The agenda: an economic forum, a panel discussion and a meeting with German parliamentarians.

"The visit is the result of talks that were held in December 2015 when a delegation from the German development ministry, headed by minister Gerd Muller, visited Asmara," a spokesperson from the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development told DW.

Eritrea has been politically isolated for years. The small state was once a beacon of hope in the Horn of Africa. In the early 1990s, after a 30-year-long war, it declared itself independent from Ethiopia. In 2007, Germany stopped its remaining development aid to Eritrea. The United Nations have repeatedly accused Eritrea's government of committing crimes against humanity in its detention camps and military facilities, including torture, enslavement, rape and murder. "Eritrea is an authoritarian State. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions," said Mike Smith, chair of the UN's Commission of Inquiry, in June.

Eritrea Hauptstadt Asmara Bushalotestelle
Eritrea was once a beacon of hope for the Horn of Africa. Today many young people want to leaveImage: Reuters/T. Mukoya

Stopping the exodus

All that has, however, not deterred Germany from extending its feelers towards the north African country. In December 2015, development minister Muller set the ground for political dialogue. The Eritrean government needs to improve its human rights situation and start political reforms, Muller said during his visit. "We can support Eritrea in stopping the exodus of its youths, by improving living conditions for the people on the ground," he added.

Germany has felt the consequences of the mass exodus from Eritrea. Just last year, 25,000 Eritreans sought aslyum in Germany. Approximately 200,000 refugees are currently estimated to be in neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia. Many young people flee because of the infamous compulsory "national service". Officially, the service is branded a military service, but human rights organizations have compared it to forced labor because the recruits have to work in state run companies for several years.

"We have to take care that the talks between Germany and Eritrea don't just prevent the migration to Europe and change nothing about the human rights situation in Eritrea, warned the German Green Party parliamentarian, Kordula Schulz-Asche. The German government needs to be clear about that, added the lawmaker who is also the deputy chairperson of the German-East African group in the Bundestag.

"What is important, is that the Eritrean government allows an investigation into the human rights situation before the two governments speak to each other," argued Schulz-Asche. To date, Eritrea has not let independent observers into the country. The UN report, for instance, relies on testimonies from Eritreans who have fled the country.

Eritrea Kinder im Flüchtlingslager in der Region Tigrai Äthiopien
Ethiopia and Sudan receive many of Eritrea's refugees. Human rights groups have, however, also complained about the deplorable conditions in some of the campsImage: Reuters/T. Negeri

'The approach is naive'

Experts, however, fear that precisely this issue could be undermined in the current talks between Europe and Eritrea. "From the European side, there is the hope that if they invest money in the country, people will no longer be forced into this long military service and as a result, will not want to flee. That is simply naive," argued Nicole Hirt, an expert on Eritrea at the GIGA institute in Hamburg. "I don't see any motivation from the Eritrean side to change their policies. I think that Europe should rather put more pressure on Eritrea before putting money into it."

The European Union's recent actions, however, point to a different approach. In May and June, media reports suggested that the EU was seeking a stronger "border protection" cooperation with eight African states. Eritrea was one of them. Additionally, Brussels promised to pour 40 million euros ($44.9 million) over the next three years into its Trust Fund for Africa.

In Eritrea itself, a policy change in its national service sector has not been a topic of discussion. And the most recent tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia, make a change in Asmara's forced recruitment policy very unlikely.

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