Asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa have been the focus of recent press scare-mongering after three of the suspects in the attempted bombings in London on 21 July were revealed to be refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Now a new report, available to download from IRR News, sheds light on the reality of Eritrea and its refugees.
The report Refugees and the Development of Africa: Eritrean refugees in the UK has been written by Petros Tesfagiorgios, who has worked with Eritrean refugees in Britain since the 1970s and is currently active with the Eritrean Elders Welfare Association. Based on interviews with over 400 Eritreans whose asylum claims have been rejected by the Home Office, the report documents the destitution and despair of an entire community.
Prevented from working legally or accessing benefits, these rejected asylum seekers live a hand-to-mouth existence in the UK. Twenty-two per cent have been without permission to work for more than five years, leading to boredom, depression and a dependence on the charity of family or community organisations. The report includes case studies of six asylum seekers in this situation. In one case, a pregnant Eritrean asylum seeker was imprisoned for arriving in the UK without the required documentation. She will give birth to her child in prison.
The causes of refugee flight from Eritrea are also looked at in the report. Eritrea was plagued by four decades of violent conflict from 1950, when it was ‘federated’ into neighbouring Ethiopia by a UN resolution against the will of its population, to 1991, when it won independence. During this time, it was also caught in the proxy wars played out in the Horn of Africa during the Cold War, as the USA and USSR sought to control the region through military backing for regimes in Ethiopia and Somalia. In 1998, conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted again over a border dispute and tension prevails to this day. As well as flight from war, refugees have also sought to escape the political repression and militarisation of Eritrean society which has accompanied the border conflict over the last decade.
The main recommendation made by the report is that all asylum seekers should be allowed to work in the UK. It points out that: ‘Whatever happens to African asylum seekers in the UK affects the people of Africa. Thus, policies … such as “Make Poverty History”… [based on] a commitment to build Africa must be extended to those African nationals who are arriving in the UK as refugees and asylum seekers.’
The report records that before the ideology of ‘Fortress Europe’ took hold in the 1990s, Eritrean refugees were free to work and study in the UK. These refugees, who came to Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, were able to return to Eritrea in the optimistic post-1991 period with skills and experience acquired in the UK that were useful to Eritrea’s development. Should today’s Eritrean asylum seekers find it safe to return home, they will instead be leaving Britain with nothing but anger and bitterness. The loss will be felt by all Eritrea, not just those who have sought asylum.