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According to United Nations figures, Syrians have made up roughly half of the migrants trying to reach Europe by sea this year. They're followed by Afghans and Eritreans.
Thousands are believed to be fleeing the country in the Horn of Africa every month, even though the country is not at war, nor in famine, and its population size is just a fraction that of Syria and Afghanistan.
Eritrean human rights lawyer Daniel Mekonnen spoke with Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd about what's going on.
- UN Human Rights Council: 2015 report on human rights in Eritrea
Why is there such an influx of migrants from Eritrea?
“Gross human rights violations are taking place in Eritrea, and some of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity, according to United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. And when we say crimes against humanity, remember these are one of three major categories of crimes prohibited by international criminal law and are punishable only by International Criminal Court.”
So are you saying the government of Eritrea is killing citizens?
“Killing citizens, arresting, torturing, abusing and committing all sorts of human rights violations. The victims of these human rights violations are in the thousands so that’s why we have this large number of refugees coming to Europe and other places throughout the world.”
What is the background of Eritrea?
“Eritrea is a new country in Africa, the second-newest after the Republic of South Sudan. Eritrea emerged as independent state in 1991 after winning a long war of liberation against Ethiopia, so since formal independence the country has been ruled by only one political party, and led by President Isaias Afwerki who has never seen elections since de facto independence in 1991. We don’t have any written or unwritten implemented sort of constitution, there is no functioning parliament, there is no independent judiciary and there is no free press whatsoever. I would say he is one of the most brutal dictators in the world.”
Who is he targeting?
“There are two major grounds in Eritrea for persecution. You must be either politically or religiously different from what the government thinks is their own. In the political context, if you have a dissenting opinion you become a target, in the religious target, if you are not within the four officially recognized religious groups, you become a target. We have the Roman Catholic Church, we have the Eritrean Orthodox Church, we have Islam and we have the Eritrean Evangelical Church. Any other religions outside of these four groups is severely persecuted in Eritrea. I belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church. By religion maybe I may not be a target but by political opinion I am one of the major targets of the Eritrean government.”
If you were to go back what would happen?
“The least that could happen is detention without trial. But a person in my position can even be extrajudicially executed if they go back to Eritrea. And we have many examples like that of people who went back to Eritrea, who were made to disappear or were tortured, or arbitrarily arrested. So the situation is very bad and Eritrean citizens are fleeing the country in a max exodus and all member states of the U.N. have an obligation to provide protection to these people because they are not economic migrants.”
What do you want to have happen?
“We have worked a lot towards the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Many Eritreans and friends of Eritrea have worked towards that end. And the Commission of Inquiry has now come with a report which says some of the violations in Eritrea might constitute crimes against humanity. We want the commission to go beyond this to say boldly, in a definitive conclusion, that these violations indeed constitute crimes against humanity.”
This segment aired on September 17, 2015.
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