Eritrea’s top diplomat to the United Nations says the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has committed a “conceptual mistake” in a report, which stated that in the past 37 days more than 6,000 Eritreans had claimed asylum in neighboring Ethiopia.
The U.N. refugee agency said Eritrea’s renewed conscription drive was to blame for the sharp increase in the number of youths fleeing the country.
But Eritrea's U.N. ambassador, Girma Asmerom, dismissed the report as a calculated effort to undermine the government by creating disaffection among its population. He said Eritrean citizens migrate just like other nationals, which he said is a global phenomenon.
“The U.N. has to do its bit of homework, because there are no asylum-seekers in Ethiopia,” said Asmerom. “We do not understand why they are concocting certain terminologies of asylum-seekers, and [a] refugee kind of concept does not really fit into the Eritrean picture,” he said.
Rights record, oppression
Some human rights groups argue the Eritrean government's poor human rights record, its policy of oppression and its forced military service are to blame for the increase in Eritreans running away to seek asylum, in countries including neighboring Ethiopia.
Asmerom said the accusations were aimed at tarnishing the country’s image. He contended that residents in the East African region often use Kenya, Uganda and other countries as transit points during their migration.
“This is part of defamation and misinformation campaign, and it is a PR [public relations] exercise by the Ethiopian government and the UNHCR, which are looking for funding," he said. "You know they have to have a poster child in order to get the funding. It’s also an agenda to weaken ... the capacity of the Eritrean army to defend its sovereignty.”
Critics say the government in Asmara is intolerant of dissent, refuses to embrace democracy, and continues to intimidate, arrest and imprison citizens seen as opposing the administration.
'Insult' to government
Asmerom said such accusations were unfounded.
“This is a country where there is peace. You don’t find any of the ministers having bodyguards. ... Except the airport, you don't even see electronic metal detectors, including the president’s office. You don’t get really searched, you just go in,” said Asmerom.
“This is an insult to the government. The Eritrean people know who they are, what they want [and] how they live. So, this should be left to the people of Eritrea.”