UN human rights chief accuses Eritrea of rights abuses

Navi Pillay blasts Asmara after Yishai vows to deport Eritreans.

Navi Pillay 311 R (photo credit: Christian Hartmann / Reuters)
Navi Pillay 311 R
(photo credit: Christian Hartmann / Reuters)
Only a day after Interior Minister Eli Yishai vowed to explore ways to return Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to their home countries, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Monday accused Eritrea of carrying out wide-scale human rights abuses.
Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, Pillay said that in Eritrea “credible sources indicate that violations of human rights include arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions, forced labor, forced conscription and restrictions to freedom of movement, expression, assembly and religion.” Pillay also said there are between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners in the East African country of around six million.
On Sunday, as 123 South Sudanese migrants were being deported to their homeland, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the real problem “is with Eritrea that has 30,000 people [in Israel] and north Sudan with 15,000,” and expressed his hope that “the legal obstacles to this will be lifted soon and we can expel them as well.”
Numbers vary on the size of the Eritrean migrant community in Israel, but they are estimated to account for between 75 and 85 percent of over 60,000 illegal African migrants in the country.
Under international law they cannot be returned to their homeland, due to the likelihood that they could face persecution upon return.
Earlier this month Yishai met with Eritrean ambassador Tesfamariam Tekeste and after the meeting told Ynet: “I met with the Eritrean ambassador to Israel who told me of the situation there, and the situation there is good. Security-wise, it is no more dangerous than Sderot.” Tekeste is scheduled to attend a meeting on June 25 of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, which is expected to discuss the possibility of deporting Eritreans back home.
An April 2011 UN High Commission on Refugees report on Eritrea, titled “UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea” stated: “The climate of intolerance of political dissent in Eritrea has reportedly led to frequent arrests of suspected government critics. Those arrested are often held in incommunicado detention or ‘disappear’ in secret detention facilities, where they are reportedly held in poor conditions and denied access to legal counsel or medical treatment. Severe punishments, torture, starvation and other ill treatment are commonplace.”
The report also states that the GDP per capita for Eritrea in 2010 was less than $423 and that imports account for 40 percent of GDP, meaning that “the cost of living, particularly in urban areas, is steadily increasing beyond the reach of most Eritreans.”
“Social services remain limited and poverty is reportedly widespread. Basic consumer needs, such as food and energy, are increasingly hard to meet,” the report adds.
Sharon Harel of the UNHCR branch in Israel said there were a few cases over the past decade of countries sending Eritreans back home, including Malta in 2004, Libya in 2008 and Egypt in 2010. She said in all those cases a number of the returnees were reportedly tortured following their return.
Harel said in terms of international law and the granting of refugee status for asylum seekers, Eritrea is in a class of its own along with North Korea.
When asked about the feasibility of Yishai finding a legal way to return the Eritreans, Harel said that while Israel and Eritrea have friendly relations, a deportation can only be done legally if the host country can ensure the safety of the deportee upon their return.
“It’s not at all realistic to expect that he will be able to find a legal way to ensure a safe return. This is not the situation in Eritrea,” Harel said.
A request for a response from the Eritrean Embassy in Israel was not answered by press time.