Open Letter to the Danish Immigration Service

Dear Delegation of the Danish Immigration Service,

The report on “Eritrea – Drivers and Root Causes of Emigration, National Service and the Possibility of Return” prepared as country of origin information for use in the asylum determination process of Eritrean asylum seekers in Denmark.

According to the report, the main reason recent arrivals in Denmark give for leaving Eritrea is the conditions of National Service, illegally leaving the country and fear of reprisals if they return.

The delegation sought to address the sudden and significant increase in number of asylum seekers and wished to double check directly from the country of origin whether the reasons stated were true.  It believed that the information available on the topic was published by stakeholders with no or little direct access to Eritrea, hence the need for first hand information gathering by the delegation.

We commend your effort to investigate the cause of this influx of refugees to your country. You stated that you chose your interlocutors based on the expertise, merit and role of each interlocutor relevant to the purpose and content of your mission.  But, it is not clear to us how your stated goal of getting “updated and first-hand description of the conditions on the ground” could be achieved by talking to Western Embassies and International Organizations, whose tenure usually last 2 – 3 years only and who have limited contact with nationals and no access to those who live outside the capital city.

First it is worth mentioning that one of your interlocutors Professor Kebreab has disassociated himself from your report.  Four more have not responded to your request for confirmation of your notes, therefore, we are not sure whether they would have disassociated themselves from the report as well.  Notably, those four are: A “Western Embassy E in Eritrea”; An Eritrean Intellectual in Asmara; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Eritrea (i.e. almost one fourth of your sources are inside Eritrea) and the IOM.

Recognizing your decision to disregard the statements of asylum seekers in your country, and to doubt the veracity of available information on human rights issues on Eritrea, we will focus only on your report.  We would like to highlight the statements of your interlocutors and point out how the conclusions of your interlocutors and thus of yours, on political organization, general climate of fear, national service and people’s military/army, consequence for evasion/desertion and return of asylum seekers seem impossible to substantiate.


Political Opposition:

Your interlocutors informed you the main reasons for emigration are “National Service” and “disillusionment with the government. “  If you accept that the young are disillusioned with the government, a reasonable question would be to find out how they could express their disillusionment?  Perhaps organizing demonstrations or running for public office would be possible. Considering the young age of most asylum seekers, it may be reasonable to expect them to start by asking their superiors in the army or in the army owned corporations as to why things were the way they were?  It would be interesting to know whether your interlocutors discussed with you the possibilities for such actions and what the outcome might be.

What is clear is due to the inability of the people to organize politically and protest legally, the population is showing passive resistance by walking out of the country.  This in itself is a political act.

As if to show improving conditions, your interlocutors state that the government’s ability to “enforce rules of National Service and the control of citizens movement seem to be diminished.”  This diminishing power of the Government to enforce complete control is coming about due to the massive desertion and evasion.  Confirming that, once again, fleeing the country is passive political resistance.

Your interlocutors mentioned that “there are some who are detained for political reasons and some reported to have died in prison” and yet you mentioned that there was “no organized political opposition”.

No general climate of fear:

None of your sources, neither Western Embassies nor the International Organizations in Eritrea would dare to be named.  They also need special permit to travel more than 25 km outside Asmara. To quote from your report, you confirm the “arbitrary nature of security apparatus” and that “checks for ID and travel permit are sporadic”. We would like to point out to you, such sporadic checks are more effective than regular checks as one wouldn’t know when and where to expect them and cannot prepare for or plan to evade them.

Ironically, Western Embassy C states that “people gladly criticize the government in private, but if they choose to keep quiet in public that is an expression of discretion as much as than an expression of a general fear of being exposed to reprisals for criticizing the situation in the country”.  It is interesting why one would conclude “discretion” instead of “fear” causes people to refrain from open criticism.  They are not discreet enough to criticize the government to a foreign embassy but are discreet to criticize it openly amongst their own.

You confirmed that all students who reach the last year of high school, (or those who reach the age of 17 before their last year in high school) throughout the country are taken to a remote military training camp to complete their high school.  Parents and students have no say in this.  Once the military training and the last year of high school is completed, a student has no choice but to go either to a college or military unit to which he/she is assigned.  A normal person would find this absolute loss of control of the direction of one’s life to be a reasonable cause for fear.  Obviously, it is not possible to organize in such a repressive regime.

National Service and People’s Militia/Army:

Attempts by some of your interlocutors to sugar coat the indefinite nature of national service with qualifications of “it is not really indefinite, but when it ends is arbitrary” and “may depend on the individual employer” only confirm that the situation is much worse.  An official stance that national service is indefinite, i.e. all are conscripted in the military and will rise within the military ranks, would bring some predictability to the life of the conscripts. Instead, this arbitrariness causes the majority of those in service to hang around for far too long hoping to be demobilized and those who are just joining or about to join, to evade it completely thus meriting the description of your interlocutors that “the young generation are not as committed as the older generation.”

Your interlocutors couldn’t definitely say when the People’s Militia/Army started.  They state either 2012 or 2013.  The reason for this vague statement is that there was no proclamation or announcement.   It was random; people were called up, trained and given arms. The purpose and duration was not explained to them. To quote from your report “they are expected to report for training once a month or every two weeks … up to the age of 70”. To those who served for very long period and for one reason or another managed to be demobilized, it is tantamount to re-conscription.  An interlocutor even mentions that one of their employees missed work because he was on guard duty.  How many days does one have to miss work before he is fired?  How is it possible to state that there is no “general climate of fear” after making the above observation? For those who hoped to be demobilized and finally go back to their families, the prospect of continuing service under the people’s militia makes their life equal to that of a slave with no say in their future.

Your interlocutors report that there were no visible round ups of deserters or evaders in “recent months” or “in the last one or two years in Asmara”.  They state that that National Service was “not as strict as it was 4 to 6 years.”  This is a testament as to how bad things were, and how current situation looks better by comparison.  It is not a testament to a policy change by the Government or that the national service has become more predictable.

Consequence for evasion/desertion

You note consequence for evasion/desertion was “most likely few days maximum to 6 months imprisonment” and “doubt that they are imprisoned”.   But then you state that “the justice system in Eritrea is arbitrary and rules do not apply in uniform manner.”  How is it possible then to predict what one would face for evasion/desertion?  Your interlocutors state that “most are sent back to work”, as the Government would rather put them to use as cheap labor than keeping them in prison.  It must be mentioned here that “sent to work” means that most are sent back to their army units.  Having stated that “justice system is arbitrary”, we can leave it to the imagination what repercussions they would face inside army units.


In the case of returns, there are two important facts that must be highlighted.  First, we are discussing a country whose population are leaving it in the thousands per month for the past few years, and the returnees are a few hundred a year.  You should also accept that those referred to as returnees are in fact not returnees in its proper sense but are summer time vacationers.  Second, the much mentioned “apology letter”, is not in fact an apology letter.  It is an official apology form with statements to the effect that the applicant accepts “he/she has committed a crime, will accept any penalty meted out in the future.”  This is a contract that citizen is signing with his/her government: the Government will provide consular services to the citizen and in return the citizen “1. Accepts guilt, 2. Accepts any penalty i.e. any kind of punishment, at any given time, for any period.”  We are confident that this kind of agreement, with no reference to a legal code upon which the penalty might be based on, is tantamount to selling one’s life.  It is not legal; instead it is an evidence of extortion.

You also write that it is not possible to renounce Eritrean citizenship.  Therefore, an Eritrean asylum seeker has absolutely no possibility to visit his family or make any effort for family reunion without the apology form!

You quote that “no reports of deserters who return being punished”, however, this doesn’t mean that there are no punishments.  It may simply mean that no deserters return.  Those who return are very few who made it to Europe or North America.  Those who don’t make it, who are in limbo in refugee camps, in the asylum process, are not welcome.

The much quoted “Western Embassy B” is the one that stated “99.9% are economic refugees.”  There were no studies referred to for this figure.  Rather, this same Embassy that is accusing the operation Mare Nostrum as causing the influx of refugees has no explanation for the figures before the start of the operation, in October 2013.  The same Embassy B representative states that “Eritrea will not give assurance regarding human rights and it will not allow European countries to monitor unsuccessful asylum seekers who have been returned to Eritrea”.  Now, it is not clear as to why Eritrea wouldn’t allow this access and assurance if it was simply receiving citizens who had had tried their luck at making their fortune.  Could it be that the Government sees them as a political opposition who chose to demonstrate their disillusionment by forsaking it at great personal risk?


“Because exodus of mainly young men and women reached a scale that threaten the development of Eritrea”, the Government is being lenient towards deserters, returnees etc.  Your interlocutors lament that this change is not appreciated by human rights organizations.  How is this action or rather lack of action by the Government to be seen as a change of policy that merits acknowledgement in human right reports?

You are portraying a Government that treats its people as beasts of burden to be deployed wherever necessary and has now become concerned because these beasts of burden have disappeared.  It is not a Government concerned for the welfare of  its citizens.

We urge you to re-read your own report. All the evidence you need is there.   While you may find that the conditions in Eritrea are good enough for Eritreans or other African’s in similar economic condition, you cannot qualify the need for freedom.  The desire for freedom and the fear of loss of freedom are equally applicable to a Dane or an Eritrean.

In discrediting human right reports, your interlocutor states that “even the Special Rapporteur relies on the report of others”.  That simply is due to her inability to get an entry visa.  This makes us wonder, given the purpose of your visit to be “fact finding”, how is possible that you were given an entry visa?  It would be interesting to know what conditions you had to meet to be granted an entry visa? Was this the reason you would not interview regular Eritreans in confidence, or why you failed to visit the military training grounds, or prisons?

We find the continuous attestation to the absence of corruption strange when all press is controlled by the Government.  The absence of visible wealth is taken at face value and one doesn’t consider that the poverty in the country is rock bottom so that illegally earned wealth might be demonstrated by simply having three meals per day. Compare the salary of the highest paid Minister and the cost of groceries per month.  If you re-examine your visit, when you mention that several Eritreans were in the restaurants and hotels where they were watching CNN, BBC and checking internet on their smart phones, did it not occur to you to compare the cost of service in these hotels and the average earnings of a typical Eritrean? Was it not clear to you that you were looking at a very elite group of people?

We also find it curious that no religious persecution was mentioned when it is well known that Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran Evangelical churches are persecuted.

Nevertheless, we thank you for making the effort.  Despite the skewed conclusions you chose to draw with regard to your main quest, your interviews with the Western embassies are evidence of the dire situation in the country: hopelessness, unpredictable and arbitrary nature of the laws, malnutrition, that the government greatly benefits  from diaspora remittances and retains two thirds of value of remittances by manipulating the exchange rate, that the Government is a predator that uses it citizens in any which way to save money (indefinite service) or increase revenue (diaspora), that it does not see its citizens as the ones who give it legitimacy or as full participants in deciding their own and their country’s future.

Yours faithfully

Elsa Chyrum,
Human Right concern Eritrea,
London, U.K,

The above letter was addressed to:

Migration Service,
Danish Immigration Service
Ryesgade 53 2100 Copenhagen Ø Phone:
Via: e-mail:

Ministry Of Justice, Denmark

Human Rights Denmark, Institut for menneskerettighede

Danish Refugge Council

Email: mette.ostergaard@pol.d,
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)