LONDON - Some European countries are rejecting asylum applications from Eritrean refugees, despite evidence they face imprisonment and torture if they are forcibly returned to the country, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Eritreans are the third largest group of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores, after Syrians and Afghans.
Stefan Simanowitz of Amnesty says the vast majority are young men fleeing oppressive national service.
“Children, from the ages of 17 or 16 are forced into conscription, which is meant to last 18 months, but in reality can go on for indefinite periods," he said. "We spoke to people who had left after being in conscription and national service for 10 or 15 years. Others who have had family members conscripted for over two decades.”
A U.N. commission of inquiry earlier this year described Eritrea as one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. The Eritrean government denied the accusations made in the report.
Amnesty says the conscription amounts to forced labor and anyone trying to evade or escape it is detained in appalling conditions.
“If they are seen or caught, they can be shot and killed. They can be arrested, they can be tortured," he said. "Many of them are locked up in cells underground or in shipping containers for long periods as punishment for trying to avoid conscription.”
Amnesty says the same fate would likely face Eritreans who had fled overseas, but then forcibly returned.
Despite this some European countries, including Britain and Denmark, have begun rejecting the majority of Eritrean asylum applications. The British government changed its advice in March, claiming that Eritrea is safe for migrants to return to after leaving illegally. Simanowitz says they must change course.
“The situation for Eritrean asylum seekers is a desperate one and they must be given safe haven,” he said.
Speaking at last month’s EU-Africa Migration summit in Malta, French President Francois Hollande said the Eritrean regime must be confronted. He said the world needs to put maximum pressure on Eritrea, because what is happening is extremely serious. Nobody is talking about it. It is a country that is becoming empty of its own population.
Despite Britain and Denmark’s approach, Eritrean refugees were among the first refugees to be relocated from Germany to Spain under the European Union’s new migrant plan. Each European country sets its own rules on asylum.