Norway’s conservative coalition government is mounting efforts to send asylum seekers from Eritrea back home. Critics claim that would be akin to returning refugees to “Africa’s North Korea.”
Young asylum seekers from Eritrea now make up the single largest group of refugees in Norway, and are second only to Syrian refugees in Europe. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that many flee before reaching the age of 18, when they’re called in for obligatory military duty that’s supposed to only last for 18 months but which in practice can be forced upon them for as long as 10 years. All young men and women can be put to work to strengthen the economy and the regime.
Increasing numbers have been arriving in Norway in recent months, after fleeing through the deserts of North Africa and, often, embarking on hazardous attempts to cross the Mediterranean and then make their way north through Europe. Most are desperate to flee a country that’s described as the most isolationist in Africa, and where it’s difficult to obtain objective information about everyday life and government control over the population.
Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, senior partner at the International Law and Policy Institute, told Aftenposten it was unlikely Eritrea would sign any repatriation agreement at this point. “Eritrean authorities are experts in the game around any such negotiations,” Tronvoll said. “They create a process to show interest for the international concern around Eritrean refugees and immigration, so they can’t be criticized for not addressing the problem. At the same time they make themselves relevant to European countries that want to halt the stream of Eritrean refugees. That can be used in negotiations for more foreign aid.”
Undaunted by such warnings, State Secretary Jøran Kallmyr was traveling Wednesday to the dictatorial nation in East Africa that’s among the world’s poorest for meetings with government authorities. Kallmyr, from the Progress Party known for its skepticism to immigration, wants to draft an agreement for refugee return with the Eritrean government. His effort comes despite the United Nations’ claim that returning Eritrean refugees face grave danger of being imprisoned, tortured or never being heard from again.
Responding to ‘signals’
“In Asmara I’ll have talks with representatives of the government,” Kallmyr told newspaper Aftenposten. “The goal is an agreement for returns, along with agreements that would secure Norwegian immigration authorities access to the county so that they can ensure it is safe to send the asylum seekers home.”
He told NRK that he’s concerned about the growing numbers of young Eritreans “sent to Norway to obtain residence permission.” That in turn could allow them to bring other family members to Norway.
Kallmyr stated that the Norwegian government had “received signals” that Eritrea “wants to do something” with its military draft program that’s been equated to forced labour.
“It’s important to have a good dialogue with Eritrea, but we rely on seeing results on the ground before any agreements can be signed,” he said. That’s why the Norwegian government wants to have observers in the country, “to follow developments” and see how refugees returned by other countries are being treated.