Three young Eritrean men recently told me about their journey from Eritrea to the UK, across the Mediterranean, through Calais and on to Scotland where they now live. All had fled forced conscription and random, repeated detention.
During the conversation one of them pushed an article across the table. It explained the April announcement that the Home Office was going to use ”new and ‘up-to-date’ guidelines that policy makers should adhere on handling claims made by Eritrean asylum seekers.”
The article reported that the new Home Office policy is a result of a UK delegation’s visit to Eritrea in December 2014, but is also heavily influenced by a 2014 Danish report on the situation in Eritrea.
As a Danish citizen aware of the heavy criticism the Danish report has received in Denmark, including controversy at the highest political level, I was surprised to hear the Home Office is basing its new policy guidelines on such a disputed report. I was not up to speed with everything that happens in Denmark day to day, so I decided to find out more.
It turns out that the Danish report was found to be so questionable that is has been dropped by the Danish government and is no longer used to influence policy there. So why, months later, is it being used in the UK?
I am not the first to be puzzled. In April, a Danish journalist expressed bewilderment at the UK Home office’s use of a report that is now not used in Denmark. The Home Office report refers to the Danish report 48 times and says the Danish report provides by far the most “up-to-date information” on Eritrea. The Home Office said the Danish report was more reliable because previous reports had been influenced by rights groups using information from asylum seekers or from groups politically opposed to the Eritrean government.
After its own delegation to Eritrea in December, the Home Office says it “confirms first-hand that the report made by the Danish fact finding mission indeed reflects the current realities on the ground. It therefore tacitly endorsed the report almost entirely.”
According to an article in The Guardian in June the Danish report has been criticised as inaccurate and misleading by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch and a group of 23 academics, activists and journalists.
By looking back at Danish news coverage, I find that the Danish report has not only been accused of being inaccurate and misleading, but that two high-level civil servants involved in its preparation have resigned from Udlændingestyrelsen, the Danish Immigration Office; and two of the sources who contributed to the report have said that the report’s conclusions have no relation to what they told the researchers. The saga also includes allegations of financial incentives for civil servants to come to certain conclusions in their report, and questions from the then opposition about whether the Minister of Justice put political pressure on the Immigration Office for the same reason, and a formal investigation into the making of the report by the Minister of Justice.
Yet this contested report, no longer used in Denmark, forms a large part of the basis of the UK Home Office guidelines on processing asylum applications from Eritrea.
So what do the new guidelines mean for Eritreans seeking asylum in the UK?
The Home Office guidelines include instructions that national service in Eritrea is not indefinite; and that: “Conscripts or draft evaders who exit [the country] illegally either to avoid conscription or to desert from the National Service will not be granted refugee status.”
The guidelines also claim that Eritreans face no risk from leaving military service or from refusing to undertake it. It sounds lovely. It sounds like with one small step, the UK and Denmark have discovered that Eritrea is now a safe country and nothing is seriously wrong there.
However, this is completely at odds with the findings of a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council (Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea) published in early June and formally presented to the Council on June 23 in Geneva. This report finds that the Eritrean Government is responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere, and strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees. It describes the violations as so severe that they may constitute crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, the report confirms widespread use of torture, arbitrary detention for indefinite periods, with many detainees simply disappearing, and specifically confirms that national service either in the military or civil service, is for an indefinite period, with individuals often subjected to harsh and inhumane conditions.
It reports that thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that exploits and enslaves them for years. The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea, it says, that “all sectors of the economy rely on it and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at one point in their lives.”
It finds that Eritreans who flee the country are regarded as “traitors”, and if they return are usually arrested and detained in harsh conditions.
A Home Office spokesperson has since stated: “We are aware of, and have taken into account, criticism of parts of the Danish report, which is only used alongside a range of other sources to produce the guidance.”
But the Home Office has not stated whether its new guidance will be changed. On the other hand, Denmark has changed its processing procedures after the criticism of the report and does now consider desertion from the Eritrean army as grounds for seeking asylum.
In late June, the UK Independent Advisory Group on Country Information (IAGCI) criticised the Home Office for basing its guidelines on the controversial Danish report. It said the findings of the Danish inquiry “should not be taken as indisputable facts relating to the current situation in Eritrea”. The IAGCI also noted that the two [Home Office country information and guidance reports] “are marred by serious methodological concerns.”
Gerry Simpson, Human Rights Watch’s refugee researcher and advocate, commented: “The IAGCI report clearly exposes how the Home Office has tried, but failed, to justify rejecting greater numbers of Eritrean asylum claims.”
Nevertheless, at present, more Eritrean asylum seekers are being rejected, due to the new guidance. The BBC reported in April that while 87% of the 3,552 Eritreans who applied for asylumin the UK in 2014 were given the right to stay, the new guidance from March is already leading to rejections.
So, as it stands, the Home office is still using the flawed Danish report in its asylum case processing. There has been loud criticism by the Independent Advisory Group on Country Information (IAGCI) and others, and the Home Office has said it is investigating. But decisions are being made on the basis of discredited criteria.
Is anyone going to challenge this?