Outrage over Government mistreatment of Eritrean asylum claims

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22 Jan 2016

An explosive new independent report has slammed guidelines used by the Government as the basis for decision making on asylum claims from Eritreans as ‘misleading and biased’.

Home Office officials who make decisions on asylum claims rely on Country of Origin Information (COI) and Country Guidance Information (CGI) in order to help them assess whether or not people are in need of refugee protection.

The Government’s new guidelines for Eritrea, published in March 2015 and then nominally revised in September 2015, were widely criticised as much of the information is based on a discredited report by Denmark.

Despite this condemnation, the Government continues to use the guidance to decide the validity of Eritrean claims, leading to the refusal of an increasing number of Eritrean claims for protection.

Read: UK paves the way for returning asylum seekers to Eritrea

Last summer, a UN report condemned the country for its human rights violations which could be tantamount to crimes against humanity. The UN report strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations, and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission.

Last year the Independent Advisory Group on Country of Origin Information (IAGCI), which reports to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, also highlighted the guidelines’ failings but the Home Office refused to accept their recommendations.

In October 2015, as part of its remit, the IAGCI commissioned a recognised country expert, Dr Campbell, to review Home Office policy on Eritrea. Dr Campbell’s report strongly denounced the Home Office’s report for its selective and misleading use of evidence and he found that the Danish Government’s report lacked credibility and should not be relied upon. He also found that the Home Office report is completely at odds with current UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office reports on Eritrea.

Much of the controversy is centred on whether or not it is safe for people who have fled Eritrea to be returned there. Dr Campbell’s report argues that in view of human rights abuses in Eritrea, the Home Office cannot rely upon private assurances of Eritrean Government officials that it is now safe to return asylum applicants as there is no clear and verifiable evidence of policy changes and changing practices on the ground in Eritrea.

Dr Campbell’s report was discussed with IAGCI and the Home Office in early December 2015 but the Home Office refused to accept the majority of its conclusions.

The British judiciary is proving to be equally sceptical about the Government’s decision making on Eritrean asylum claims. The most recent statistics show a staggering 86% of appeals on refusals of Eritrean claims have been overturned by the courts.

Dr John Campbell, the author of the report commissioned by the Independent Advisory Group on Country of Origin Information, works at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He said: "The Home Office report does not conform to the professional standards which country information reports are expected to meet. Instead it is based on a highly selective use of information and it deliberately distorts information to support its own conclusions, namely that it is now safe for the UK to return Eritrean asylum seekers to their home country.

"Since political conditions in Eritrea have not suddenly changed, the only possible explanation for the conclusions reached in this report is that the Home Office wants to block Eritreans – who are among the largest group of individuals seeking asylum here – from acquiring asylum.”

Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said: "It’s both dangerous and disturbing that the British Government is prepared to accept the Eritrean Government’s assurances that people can be safely returned there, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

"Making decisions about whether or not to grant refugee protection is often a matter of life or death, yet the Government’s own statistics reveal it gets a staggering number of decisions on Eritrean cases wrong.

"The Government should not let its obsession with controlling immigration override its legal and moral responsibility to protect refugees.”

The UN estimates that thousands of Eritreans are fleeing the country every month, driven by the prospect of indefinite national service. Everyone from the age of 17 can be conscripted into the military, and UN investigators say "slavery-like practices" are widespread in Eritrea, with conscripts subjected to hard labour, with poor food, bad hygiene and wretched pay.

Most Eritreans are unable to get the visas they need to leave the country legally. Once they have fled, those who return risk being arrested as ‘traitors’. The UN documented some Eritrean returnees suffering detention years and being mistreated “to the point of torture”.

Eritreans are one of the largest groups risking their lives to reach safety crossing the Mediterranean along with Syrians and Afghans. Eritreans are currently the top nationality of people seeking safety in Britain.