Britain downplays Eritrea abuses to avoid accepting refugees

Britain downplays Eritrea abuses to avoid accepting refugees
Comment: Thousands of Eritrean refugees, from Calais to Cairo, have been put at risk because the UK government wants to avoid resettling asylum seekers, writes Monique Bouffe.
4 min read
26 Jan, 2017
Many Eritreans were deported from Britain after the risks of returning were downplayed [Getty]

At the beginning of this week, the Public Law Project revealed that the British government intentionally misrepresented human rights abuses committed by the Eritrean government in order to reduce the number of Eritrean asylum seekers being recognised as refugees in the UK.

The UK's Home Office Country Information and Guidance report on Eritrea is intended to provide objective and reliable information to assist immigration officers in determining which asylum seekers should be granted refugee status and subsequent residency.

Information in the report therefore has a direct impact on the life of every asylum seeker who seeks protection in the UK.

Internal Foreign Office documents now demonstrate that in December 2014, senior British government officials met with their Eritrean counterparts to discuss how to reduce the number of Eritreans granted asylum in the UK. The result of this meeting was the production of a biased and softened analysis of the Eritrean government, described by an Independent Advisor as "totally lacking in credibility", and resulting in the recognition rate of Eritrean refugees falling from 85 percent to 48 percent over a two-year period, forcibly deporting hundreds of people.

The Guidance Reports are not only used by staff in the UK Home Office, but are generally seen as a credible tool by refugee status determination officers around the world

This approach by the UK government, aside from being politically, legally and morally reprehensible, has far wider implications for Eritrean refugees around the world and for governments in the Middle East.

The Guidance Reports are not only used by staff in the UK Home Office, but are generally seen as a credible tool by refugee status determination officers around the world, comparable to the documents produced by the CIA.

They are used most notably by officers at UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to determine which asylum seekers should be recognised as refugees and thereafter resettled to third countries such as the US and Germany, and which asylum seekers' claims should be rejected.

By producing this report, the UK has directly aggravated the situation for governments in the Middle East. It is well known that most refugees are hosted by countries in the region such as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt, who are struggling to host refugees, and, given the EU's abject failure to welcome refugees, the only option is to try and send refugees back to their country.

Although refugee determination officers at UNHCR country offices are supposed to act independently of their host states, they are not immune from their host's immigration agendas. In needing to exist and to work in the country, senior UNHCR staff need to compromise with the governments that allow them to be there.

These compromises inevitably take place in the form of lower recognition rates of asylum seekers who may otherwise have genuine refugee claims, in the hope that they will return home. In order to do this, officers need to utilise available information that shows that asylum seekers are not at risk from the government of their home country.

When the UK government produces a report that states that large groups of Eritrean asylum seekers - including all and any women - are not at risk from their government, it enables immigration officers throughout the Middle East to refuse the asylum claims of thousands of Eritrean people.

In doing so, they devalue their struggle and simultaneously put them at very real risk of returning to a country that at best will place them in lifelong military conscription and at worst immediately execute them upon their return.

As an asylum seeker, you still fear returning to your country, regardless of whether your claim is rejected

As an asylum seeker, you still fear returning to your country, regardless of whether your claim is rejected. Governments in the Middle East do not have the capacity to deport every single asylum seeker who is rejected. The result is that millions of asylum seekers who are rejected for refugee status are stuck in the region, not able to return home, and not able to move forward through resettlement programmes.

It is because of this policy that thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean, many others have continually crossed borders within the region in search of somewhere new to call home. Most are forced to stay in countries such as Lebanon and Egypt, that cannot provide for them, and are yet struggling with their presence.

In pursuing a policy to pander to the Eritrean government, the report's authors are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Eritrean citizens and the persecution of countless others. They have furthered the UK's growing reputation as a country that is governed by far-right nationalism and intolerance.

Moreover, they are now answerable to the governments that are hosting the majority of asylum seekers without a choice or ability to provide for them.

Was it worth it?

Monique Bouffé is a legal scholar and advocate with a focus on Public International Law.

She has worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt and is currently working with vulnerable and gang affected young people in London. Her work focuses on the impact of European immigration policy on the current refugee crisis.

Follow her on Twitter: @moniquebouffe