Swiss Parliament Urged To Treat Eritrean “Military Deserters” Fairly
In an open letter addressed to members of the Swiss National Council, human rights and democracy activists have urged the Swiss legislators to desist from hardening their refugee laws with the intention of discouraging mainly Eritrean asylum seekers from entering Switzerland.
Drafted by three initiators, who included two scholars active in defense of refugee rights and the EPDP head of foreign relations, the open letter was sent today, 13 June, to members of the Swiss Parliament as well as to politicians and human rights lobbyists in the country. The Parliament is discussing the draft modification of the refugee law on 13 and 14 June 2012. This is the 10th revision in 10 years of the Swiss laws on refugees. The draft law is supported by the right-wing parties in the country and opposed mainly by the Social Democratic Party, second largest party in the country. There are fears that the revised law, strongly denounced by the Swiss Commission Against Racism, would obtain majority vote in the Swiss lower house (Conseil National).
The open letter was endorsed by a good number of civil society groups and prominent scholars. Following is the full text of the Open Letter.
Eritreans Fleeing under Fire from Repressive Regime Are Genuine Refugees in Need of Protection: An Open Letter to Swiss Parliamentarians:
An Open Letter to Swiss Parliamentarians
Eritreans Fleeing under Fire from Repressive
Regime Are Genuine Refugees in Need of Protection
We, the undersigned friends of Eritrea and its citizens opposed to the current Eritrean government, are writing this open letter to appeal to the conscience of Swiss legislators and urge them to be fair to genuine refugees by desisting support for the draft bill that mainly intends to deny refugee status to Eritrean “deserters”.
We understand that the intended revision will make the granting of asylum nearly impossible to military deserters and conscientious objectors arriving in Switzerland, almost all of whom in the past six years have been Eritreans.. According to this revision, temporary permits will be granted to asylum seekers that for political or humanitarian situations cannot be deported.
It is to be recalled that Switzerland has recognised through the 2005 decision of its Federal Administrative Tribunal that Eritreans exposed to serious risks at home because of their conscientious objection or their desertion of an existing national service imposed by a repressive regime can be considered as political refugees (JICRA 2006/3). This decision by the Tribunal was taken in accordance of international jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (CEDH 2345/02).
In reverse, the key argument today of the parties intending to modify this jurisdiction is that any citizen anywhere has the obligation to render national and/or military service to his/her country, and that “desertion” alone is not a sufficient reason to justify one’s claim to a refugee status. The modification wants further justifications such as claims and evidence of persecution because of one’s race, nationality, religion or political views as it is the case for Eritreans. The paragraphs below will attempt to show how Eritrea’s “national service” constitutes persecution, and how distinct it is from any description of other forms of national service known anywhere in the world.
Eritrea’s “Deserters” Are Bona Fide Refugees
The so-called National Service in Eritrea, from which people are currently fleeing in large numbers, was introduced in 1994 and required 6 months of military training followed by 12 months of service for men and women aged 18 to 45. However, that time limit was never observed by the government and the “service” became de facto forced labour with little or no remuneration for indefinite periods Some of the earliest conscripts have been held for up to 18 years now. However, the vast majority of Eritreans, who continue to flee their country would have proudly served under normal circumstances.
The vast majority of the conscripts are also young men and women who had no opportunity to acquire sufficient education, and had no time or money to establish their own families or help their ageing parents. These conscripts are subjected to harsh discipline in military camps that cannot be differentiated from the international definition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Hard labour for all and rape for young women has been and remains part of their ordeal.
National Service in Eritrea cannot be compared to any common military/civilian service known elsewhere. Such forced labour of indefinite duration is the backbone of military control of all social activities and the implementation of a command economy entirely controlled by the Party and the government. This program of total mobilisation violates fundamental human rights conventions and laws. Accordingly, conscription in National Service gives ground to claim asylum; most conscripts have been subjected to “disproportionately severe punishment”, as the Swiss refugee provisions rightly put it. In a word, the well-known political repression in Eritrea cannot be separated from the harsh social and economic deprivation of the people under an authoritarian regime. Mobilised Individuals are fleeing an inhumane situation characterised by endemic human rights abuses. In other words, Eritrean conscription cannot to be classified as “national service”.
Moreover, anyone who tries to escape conscription or runs away from service is classified as a political dissident and tortured, humiliated and imprisoned for long periods of time in deplorable prison conditions. Those who have fled are at risk of disproportionate penalties if deported back in Eritrea, as many cases documented by international human rights organisations have shown during recent years. For example, people recently deported unlawfully from the Sudan have disappeared and might have been executed. Escapees are not only treated as draft dodgers or "deserters" in Eritrea – they are considered political opponents who must be punished, “re-educated,” or eliminated. Lack of compliance with unsustainable policies, including National Service, is considered a form of betrayal, and “traitors” are persecuted on the basis of imputed political opinion. No protection exists for them in Eritrea.
For these reasons, the Swiss Administrative Court (similarly to other authorities across the globe) have considered that "penalties are unrelated to the seriousness of the offences under military law and go well beyond legitimate penal purposes. This suggests that the disproportionately severe punishment inflicted on deserters and draft evaders are the result of political persecution" (translation of: JICRA 2006/3). For years, most countries have acknowledged the risk incurred and have upheld the obligation of non-refoulement, refraining from deporting Eritreans back in their country.
Therefore, it is correct to conclude that Eritreans fleeing today’s situation in their country -- which constitutes persecution -- are NOT economic migrants. They are NOT draft dodgers or military “deserters” in the correct sense of the term. They are bona fide asylum seekers who very well deserve political protection and basic rights under international law that has been denied them by their own government in Eritrea.
Provisional Permits Not Dissuasive to Eritrean Refugees
The proposed modification of refugee laws in Switzerland is partly intended to dissuade the arrival of refugees to the country by not granting refugee status to deserters, in this case, mainly Eritreans. But the estimated 5,000 young men and women leaving the country every month are not escaping from Eritrea to come to Switzerland. They leave their homes and loved ones behind them because the situation has become humanly unbearable. And once they are out, these refugees try to reach any country that can provide them with shelter or the minimum protection possible – no matter whether it is temporary or permanent. Therefore, Switzerland will, like Israel and other countries, continue witnessing the arrival of many more Eritreans until the situation in Eritrea is changed for the better. The proposed revision of existing laws will not, therefore, be able to stop the flow of Eritrean refugees to this country as long as it is provides them with “temporary” permits because they are refugees that cannot be returned to Eritrea by the advice of UNHCR and many others.
Adverse Consequences of Provisional Permit
Eritrean asylum seekers will remain indefinitely in Switzerland and will be able by the law to claim permanent residence after 5 years. Granting temporary permits to Eritreans does nothing but interfere with their social and economic integration in Switzerland, thus creating more problems and distress than facilitating integration. As proud and hardworking people, Eritreans wish to begin their lives anew and contribute effectively to their new societies. Asylum seekers who are granted provisional permits face major difficulties in their individual lives because they lack opportunities that could help them succeed and advance. In addition, they are prevented from developing into effective world citizens - either for their country of origin, if they return to it, or to the host country where they eventually settle.
This provision would thus be inimical to the basic rights of Eritrean asylum seekers who fulfil the definition of genuine refugees. Almost all new Eritrean asylum seekers are young boys and girls who lost part of their youth under harsh forced labour and who need further education and support to grow into productive citizens. Acceptance of the draft bill on refugees and the imposition of temporary permits will be more harmful to Eritreans than anything else; it will delay their start of new lives and foster ill-will towards their new environment.
In conclusion, we reiterate our appeal to the Swiss National Council to resist the winds of xenophobia blowing across the country and the continent of Europe as a whole, and prove to the world once more that it remains the Switzerland whom the world knew as a leader in respecting human rights, as a country that always welcomed those who came to its embrace fleeing oppressors at home. We urge you, Honourable Swiss Legislators, to reject the proposed asylum draft bill which effectively denies refugee rights to asylum seekers like those from Eritrea who have fled the inhumane and criminal system misnamed “national service”.
Dr. David Bozzini, Anthropologist and Swiss citizen, Postdoc in the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands, has extensive research experience on National Service in Eritrea (PhD, University of Neuchâtel, 2011). His current research is about mobilization and surveillance in Eritrean communities in Europe.
Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, USA Eritrea country specialist, Amnesty International USA. Country of Origin Information Officer, Fahamu Refugee Network Executive Commissioner, International Commission for Eritrean Refugees
Mr. Wolde-Yesus Ammar, Activist for democratic change in Eritrea and head for foreign relations office of the Eritrean People's Democratic Party (EPDP)
Prof Dr Mirjam van Reisen, Professor International Social Responsibility, Tilburg University, Tilburg and Director Europe External Policy Advisor, Brussels, Belgium
Prof. Gaim Kibreab, Director of Refugee Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, London South Bank University, UK
Dr. Yebio Woldemariam, Professor, City University of New York, York College and President, International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, USA
Dr. David O'Kane, Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
Selam Kidane, Human rights activist and director of Release Eritrea; a human rights charity registered in the UK
Meron Estefanos from Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, Sweden
Fissehaye Hagos, President of the Eritrean Democratic Association (EDA), USA
Ahmed Surur, President of Eritreans for Peace and Democracy, Switzerland
Goitom Kuflom, President of Democratic Organization of Bilin Nation of Eritrea
Suleiman A. Hussein, Chairman of Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea (CDRiE)
Sennai Fessahaie, Secretary of Erihelpnet, The Netherlands
Toelgyes-Solla Cornelia Isabel, Founder of Per la liberazione dei prigionieri nel Sinai, Italy
Michael Andegeorgis, Executive Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS), USA
Noel M Joseph, Human Rights Activist - Eritreans for Human & Democratic Rights - UK (EHDR-UK)
Isayas Sium for the Eritrean Youth for Change (EYC), USA
Said Saleh for the Eritrean Youth for Democratic Change (EYDC), Switzerland
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