Image: Sheila Keetharuth, UN rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea

Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, reports on a ground-breaking conference on the plight of Eritrean refugees. It was a meeting of minds that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

On 19 and 20 October delegates from across Europe, representing more than 30 organisations, sat and discussed the plight of Eritrean refugees in the EU.

It has been a really remarkable development to be able to hold such a gathering. A decade ago there was no real forum in which Eritrean issues could be discussed. But the patient work of a number of organisations, including the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) and Eritrean Law Society have done much to unite concerns about the plight of Eritreans. They have worked hard to pull together organisations from across the EU.

The Brussels conference heard some truly moving testimonies from men and women who had made it to European soil after some of the most traumatic journeys. Some spoke of the sexual violence they had encountered. Others showed their hands – mutilated by traffickers to extract ransoms from their families.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth (above), explained her work in documenting the situation inside the country, saying there are ‘reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity are taking place’. The dire human rights situation in the Horn of Africa nation – including arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions – has ‘not improved in essentials’, she emphasised, despite consistent attention in recent years from the UN and human rights agencies.

But this was not just reflections on the hardships suffered by Eritreans at the hands of one of the most brutal regimes. It was also a call to action. The meeting coincided with a summit of EU leaders in the same city. While much attention has been paid to their work on Brexit, they also found time to deal with Italy’s difficulties in coping with the influx of refugees and migrants from Africa. As the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk put it: ‘We have a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route’.

Professor Mirjam van Reisen, Father Mussie Zerai and Martin Plaut

The Eritrea conference criticised the position, saying that his remarks came as the EU was already working with Libyan coastguards to forcibly return Africans to Libyan detention camps in which rape, torture and slavery are routinely practiced. The conference issued a statement, pointing out that: Finally closing the Central Mediterranean route for refugees desperate to escape Africa’s notorious dictatorships will have a disastrous impact on people – many of them children – who have risked all to flee from repression. We urge European politicians not to adopt this fortress Europe policy, turning their backs on the most vulnerable refugees and betraying the sacred principles enshrined in the human rights and other treaties they are signatories to.’


Perhaps the most forward-looking work that the Brussels conference did was to consider how to broaden and deepen contacts between European organisations campaigning and researching on Eritrea. This included a decision to establish a new website that will allow activists, academics and refugee lawyers to swap information, fresh news and innovative ideas. Work on this is already under way. It is an initiative that could really build on what has already been achieved.

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Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and former Africa editor of BBC World Service News. He is a journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and South Africa, and blogs at MartinPlaut.