The Norwegian government’s recent efforts to assure the eventual safe return of refugees from Eritrea is little more than “symbolic politics,” aimed at appeasing voters and preventing more Eritreans from trying to come to Norway. The UN, meanwhile, is discouraging any efforts to return Eritrean refugees, claiming they would be subject to imprisonment, torture, systematic violation of human rights and a “culture of fear” back home.
State Secretary Jøran Kallmyr of the Progress Party, known for its skepticism towards immigration, has been making headlines and drawing criticism in Norway following his government ministry’s latest attempt to agree on refugee repatriation terms with the Eritrean government. Kallmyr traveled to Eritrea over the weekend and said he came home with promises from Eritrean officials that Norwegian officials will be allowed access to the country, to “gather facts” about conditions in the country that is often referred to as Africa’s version of North Korea.
UN report ‘worrisome’ but ‘written without access’
Kallmyr called the UN’s latest report about horrifying conditions in Eritrea “very worrisome.” The UN cited accounts of random arrests, torture and systematic rape, forced military service that it equated to slave labour, political persecution and executions as examples of a “culture of fear” perpetrated by Eritrean officials. Kallmyr, however, stresses that those writing the UN report were not allowed access to Eritrea themselves, and relied heavily on the accounts of Eritreans who have fled the country’s regime.
While denying that he didn’t take the UN report seriously, Kallmyr said on state broadcaster NRK’s nightly nationwide newscast Dagsrevyen on Monday that it was most important to gain access and view conditions first-hand. After a meeting with Eritrea’s justice minister Fozia Hazim, and posing for a photo with her, Kallmyr seemed assured that he had a deal to send “Norwegian experts” to the country to gather information.
Several researchers who follow Eritrea scoffed at Kallmyr’s claim, while others have said the Eritrean government is known for making promises it doesn’t keep. Kallmyr has been portrayed as either naive, in thinking the Eritreans will commit to a deal allowing independent observers into the country, or cynical in his attempts to resist the arrival of more refugees and win voter support at the same time.
‘Cynical political act’
“This is symbolic politics,” Kjetil Tronvoll, director of the center for African studies at the International Law and Policy Institute, told newspaper Dagsavisen. He believes Kallmyr is merely sending a message to Progress Party voters that their government is working hard to return refugees when possible, and a warning to refugee smugglers and refugees themselves to not come to Norway. “Signals like that are quickly snapped up by smugglers, who may then try to send refugees to another country,” Tronvoll said.
Jan Paul Brekke, research leader at Ipsos MMI, called Kallmyr’s trip to Eritrea “a cynical political act” that he also thinks is meant “more to scare Eritreans on the run into choosing others countries to head for than Norway.” Kallmyr is also scaring Eritrean refugees already in Norway by making efforts to send them back, Brekke told Dagsavisen, “and they’ll surely talk with their friends and acquaintances.” That can have the consequences that Kallmyr and the Progress Party-run justice ministry in Norway desire.
Kallmyr claims that those criticizing his efforts have “misunderstood.” All countries are obliged to take back their own citizens regardless, he said. “An agreement for their return isn’t about a return itself, but how a return can occur,” he told Dagsavisen. “And all applications for asylum in Norway will be handled individually by immigration authorities as usual.”
Most asylum seekers from Eritrea are granted at least temporary residence permission in Norway while their application is processed. Eritreans now make up the single biggest group of refugees in Norway, with 591 arriving last month. That compares to 148 from Afghanistan, 95 from Syria and 49 from Somalia, the countries that earlier generated the most refugees in Norway.
Of the 5,282 refugees who have won asylum in Norway and are awaiting resettlement around the country, 2,138 are from Eritrea, according to the latest numbers from immigration authorities.