"The plight of Eritrean refugees
Last week, Abrehale Misghina, a 28-year-old Eritrean refugee, committed suicide in broad daylight in a public park in Tel Aviv. He had snatched a mobile phone from a young boy and, after a desperate attempt to make a call, collapsed in tears. He then returned the phone to its owner, dragged a dustbin to a nearby tree, climbed on top of it, threw a rope over a branch, placed a noose around his neck and hanged himself.
Misghina's story is typical of the suffering of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers. Increasing numbers Eritreans have fled their country since President Isaias Afewerki came to power in 1993. Afewerki was initially hailed as a model leader, but is now seen as one of the worst dictators in Africa.
Meetings of more than seven people require permission in Eritrea. Internet use is monitored. There is no free press, independent judiciary or political opposition. Citizens, tourists and diplomats require permission to travel from one town to another. Military service conscripts are used as forced labour in development projects and, despite the failure of successive rains and imminent famine, food aid was outlawed in favour of a "work for food" programme, ostensibly designed to promote self-reliance, but which in reality ensures compliance.
The suppression of the press and of political opposition in September 2001 provided early indications of the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. Then, in 2002, the government in effect outlawed every religious practice except Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Sunni Islam, and increasingly detained practitioners of proscribed religious persuasions indefinitely without trial. Authorised groups face repression. Almost 3,000 of the estimated 20,000 Eritrean prisoners of conscience are Christians, detained pending denial of their faith. The ordained Orthodox patriarch was illegally deposed and placed under house arrest. Catholic property has been seized. About 40 Muslim clerics were indefinitely detained.
I have interviewed former prisoners of all faiths and none. They describe a myriad of inhumane punishments, including beatings, rape, people blinded by the sun after months/years imprisoned underground, prisoners bound for so long in contorted positions that limbs atrophy and are amputated, imprisonment in shipping containers, extra-judicial executions, and inadequate food, water and medical treatment.
Small wonder that thousands flee, despite a shoot-to-kill policy for escapees. Some pick their way through the mined and patrolled border with Ethiopia. Others cross the Sahara on foot to Sudan, but have found little hope of sanctuary since the country's rapprochement with Eritrea. Putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers, they try to escape to Libya, where they face severe mistreatment, racial discrimination and harsh detention. Some subsequently cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels hoping for refuge in Europe, where asylum is far from assured. Others enter Egypt, risking fines for illegal entry, harsh imprisonment and, worse still, forcible return to Eritrea. Those who cross into Israel run into the harsh reality of the modern state, where an anti-infiltration law may soon criminalise asylum seeking, and where they are either imprisoned or forced to live in slums.
The search for refuge has resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of Eritreans in the Sahara, the Mediterranean or, like Misghina, through suicide in foreign cities.
Human rights organisations recently pointed out that a European Union decision to release development aid to Eritrea is effect an economic lifeline for a repressive regime that will manipulate its distribution. Perhaps the EU would act differently if it considered the increase in the flow of refugees to its borders, and in their appalling suffering en route."