Paying Eritrea to stop their slaves escaping is the road to moral ruin

When Britain outlawed slavery many centuries ago, wealthy slave owners were granted heavy compensation to make up for their losses. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, consider the thousands of people trapped in military slavery in Eritrea, who this week may have been made aware of the news that the European Union is to hand over ‎€200m directly to the Eritrean government to actively stop them from escaping.

The migrant crisis has become an embarrassment for the EU. Locked for years in an internal battle, and having failed to come up with anything even close to the political consensus needed to cope with the crisis in a humane and rational manner, it appears the only thing anyone can vaguely agree on is that it would be helpful if the migrants stopped coming. Apparently, anything that may prevent this, regardless of how despicable it might be, is now being considered an acceptable response. The cynical desperation could not be more palpable.

Eritrea operates one of the most exploitative and disturbing regimes on the planet. Still theoretically locked in a war with Ethiopia, from whom the country officially split in 1993, national service is compulsory for all men and virtually never-ending; in other words, the military functions as state-run slavery on an industrial scale. Conscription is supposed to last eighteen months, but in reality is indefinite and for many can be over a decade. Conscripts are victims of arbitrary and harsh punishments which amount to torture, can suffer from sexual and physical abuse, earn dismal wages that cannot support their families, and work as slaves on building projects owned by the government construction monopoly. As Human Rights Watch have noted in their damning 2015 country report, “the Eritrean government engages in systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations carried out in the context of a total lack of rule of law”.

It is this climate of intense political repression and misery that has resulted in a mass exodus of Eritreans to Europe seeking asylum, such that the tiny North African nation contributes almost a third of those seeking refuge in the EU. In 2013, while on tour in Kenya eleven members of the national football team, including the coach, defected; the national squad has lost 51 members in such defections over five years. In total, more than 313,000 Eritreans have fled the country, amounting to more than 5% of the population. Leaving is not without risk; security forces have a shoot-to-kill order on any migrant they see trying to flee the country.

If you thought this bleak picture would be enough to elicit some compassion from the European community, you thought wrong. The UK has already pulled up the drawbridge to Eritreans, with the Home Office re-categorising the country as ‘safe’ so that asylum seekers to the UK can be deported back to where they came from. The number of Eritrean asylum applications granted plummeted from 73% to 34% virtually overnight, despite nothing having changed about the horrific political repression and indefinite national service Eritreans suffer. The report heavily cited by the Home Office in its decision has since been discredited by its own researchers. An independent report into the Home Office re-categorisation concluded that the recommendations were “completely divorced from relevant objective evidence” and unless the Home Office reversed the decision it must be “viewed as totally lacking credibility”. This assessment concluded that the decision had been made based on assurances from the Eritrean government that were completely unsupported by any action or evidence.

The cynicism is simply staggering, the moral collapse surrounding the migrant crisis virtually unparalleled by any humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. One thing is apparent: across the European Union, governments are showing with remarkable clarity that they are motivated more by controlling immigration statistics and socially cleansing undesirable immigrants than they are with offering sanctuary to desperate people fleeing violence and conflict. The election of more and more xenophobic right-wing national governments across Europe is only going to make things worse. Aa the EU’s €200m gift shows, they are actively willing to reinforce despotic and tyrannical regimes so long as foreigners are kept away from Europe’s borders. As the director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, Meron Estefanos, said: “it feels like the oppressors are getting a reward from the European Union for oppressing their own people.” He’s right. They are.

Nobody is saying that the migration crisis doesn’t throw up ethical challenges, and that somewhere along the line, tough decisions won’t have to be made. There are millions of refugees, and Europe can’t simply take them all. But the sheer lengths European nations appear willing to go to in their pursuit of fortifying Europe’s borders paint a stark picture of a moral bankruptcy that will be remembered for generations to come. Difficult and complex decisions regarding aid payments to unsavoury political leaders are a fact of life in the development industry. But paying the slavers to keep the slaves is the latest domino to fall on a path to total moral collapse. We must be clear: the EU is using development aid to further its own political agenda, actively supporting political repression, not assisting development and helping the vulnerable in any way. Europe is supposed to be the cradle of human rights. We can do much, much better.


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