Tackling the problem at source – Eritrea, Syria: and the flow of refugees
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea accusing Eritrea of crimes against humanity.
Minister’s reply (Baroness Anelay of St.Johns):
4.21 pm June 18th 2015
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, like other noble Lords I shall speak briefly about the long-term and the short-term questions which arise from the refugee crisis.
Surely, the gravity of the situation is underlined by the speeches we have already heard during the debate, but by the lethal statistics as well. Some 3,500 people have already been fished from the sea dead, with 1,800 corpses reclaimed in this year alone.
On Monday, I raised the situation in Eritrea. Last year, Eritrea and Syria accounted for 46% of all those fleeing over the Mediterranean. As the noble Baroness said, we have to tackle this problem at source but that is a long-term issue. What do we do in the mean time? I find it impossible to justify the 187 places for resettlement in the UK, as was just referred to, against Germany’s 30,000, the Lebanon’s 1.2 million, Turkey’s 1.8 million and Jordan’s 600,000. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will respond to the comments made by Sir Peter Sutherland, the United Nations special representative of the Secretary-General, who at the weekend rebuked us for not taking our “fair share” of refugees.
I hope he will say whether he has considered the requests of the Refugee Council to consider legal avenues for refugees, such as humanitarian or asylum visas, and to look at ways to reunite families.
I also wonder whether we have consulted with other Commonwealth countries about a more coherent international response. So yes, the European Union should be involved but the Commonwealth and the entire international community, via the United Nations, should clearly be involved as well.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 June, the Government said that “the vast majority” of Mediterranean migrants “are not asylum seekers” to give some justification for our not taking part in the EU quota system. But that is simply not so.
Are we seriously saying that the UNHCR is wrong when we insist that those escaping from Eritrea or Syria are not internationally recognised refugees?
Those, for instance, escaping from Eritrea are leaving a country which was designated by a United Nations commission of inquiry only a week ago as a country likely to be susceptible to crimes against humanity.
In Syria, let us consider the fate of the Yazidis, the Assyrian Christians and those who have been abducted by ISIS.
In Libya, escaping refugees have been beheaded, with another group of Eritreans having been abducted in the last few days..
In April, along with 12 other Peers drawn from across the divide, I signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph. We argued that creating internationally policed safe havens—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in north Africa and the Middle East—would reduce dangerous sailings. Asylum applications could be assessed and repatriation organised where appropriate. We said that it was an urgent priority. It still is.
The Government said that such safe havens would create magnets to encourage more people to flee from war, persecution or grinding poverty.
But what is the alternative strategy?
What exactly is our policy?
Should we tell fleeing refugees to stay and be killed, raped, or persecuted; tell them that they can illegally board boats that will then be blown out of the sea; tell them that if they reach Italy or Greece we will then slam our doors on them; or tell them we have no internationally agreed strategy for dealing with the immediate crisis or for resolving the conflicts which have driven them from their homes in the first place?
That is not moral or legal and it is not worthy of our nation.
The following Topical Question was successful in the House of Lords ballot for a topical oral question. It was the fourth oral question asked on Tuesday 16 June 2015:
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the UN Commission of Inquiry Report that found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea, and of the impact of such crimes on the exodus of refugees from that country. To be answered by the Earl of Courtown (Foreign and Commonwealth Office).
Question: June 16th 2015e
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the UN Commission of Inquiry Report that found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea, and of the impact of such crimes on the exodus of refugees from that country.
My Lords, we are concerned by the commission’s findings that widespread human rights violations are being committed in Eritrea and that these may constitute crimes against humanity. We have made clear to the Government of Eritrea that they must honour their international obligations and that improved respect for human rights is required to stem the flow of irregular migration.
My Lords, does the noble Earl see the connection between crimes against humanity, which include rape, torture and extra-judicial killings, and the 300,000 Eritreans who have fled that country? We see pictures every day on our TV screens of people taking to the high seas and even facing execution by beheading by ISIS as they try to escape via Libya. Given that connection, must we not tackle this problem at the root and ensure that regimes like that of Afwerki in Eritrea are hauled before the International Criminal Court and held to account for their actions? Will the noble Earl tell us, therefore, why we have agreed a package—via the EU—of £300 million in aid to Eritrea which requires nothing to be done about these human rights violations?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. We certainly agree that a comprehensive plan is needed to tackle migration. That means greater engagement with source countries to address why migrants leave in the first place, through development aid addressing human rights abuses and tackling conflict. We have stepped up bilateral engagement with Eritrea to that end. We have also made it clear to the Government of Eritrea that they must honour their international obligations and that improved respect for human rights is needed to stem the flow of irregular migration. We keep the human rights situation in Eritrea under close scrutiny and will discuss the commission’s conclusions at the UN Human Rights Council on 23 June.
My Lords, when I first visited Eritrea in 1988 during the 30-year Ethiopian-Eritrean war, people suffered terribly, as they do now. Twenty-four years after independence, the dictator Isaias Afwerki rules, and at last the UN has said, as I am sure the Minister knows, that he has a regime that runs through terror, not through law. Having presumably read the UN report, does the Minister not agree that the Eritrean tyranny is on a par with that of North Korea and should be treated accordingly by the United Kingdom and by the international community?
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, having visited that country, is certainly very aware of the terrible things that have happened there. We are deeply concerned by the commission’s report published on 8 June. We are reviewing its findings carefully and will discuss next steps with international partners at the UN Human Rights Council on 23 June. At this stage, the commission has not concluded that crimes against humanity are taking place; it has called for further investigation into whether this is the case. One problem is that the commission was not allowed into Eritrea in the first place.
My Lords, there have been consistent reports of gun-running from Eritrea to Somalia, Sudan and other such places and destabilisation of some of the surrounding countries. What discussions have Her Majesty’s Government, or their European colleagues, had with the African Union about the extent to which Eritrea is actively destabilising the region?
A number of meetings have been arranged between the African Union and the EU under the Khartoum process, which the noble Lord will be aware of. There will be a further meeting later in the autumn when more of these matters will be discussed.
My Lords, now that the Prime Minister has said on 3 June that,
“we need to break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe”,—[Official Report, Commons, 03/06/15; col. 583.]
and has called for arrangements to be made for the possibility of returning illegal immigrants to Africa, will Her Majesty’s Government start negotiations in the Security Council to get a United Nations mandate to establish in Africa—preferably somewhere in Libya—a holding area to which people can be returned and where they can be decently treated and properly assessed as to what should happen to them next?
My noble friend is quite right that people should be decently treated. From what has been happening, it is obvious that they are not being decently treated. I will pass his question on the UN Security Council to the department. As I have said, we have to cut the link in Eritrea. The Eritreans have said that they will keep their national service only for 18 months. Also, all the young men—up to 200 a day—are leaving Eritrea, so the workforce is disappearing.
My Lords, picking up on that point, there is evidence that national service conscripts are being deployed as labour in foreign-owned mines. Will the Minister support an ILO investigation and intervention on such claims of forced labour?
As the noble Lord is aware, Eritrea is very much a closed country. I was not aware of the forced labour incidents. I will of course pass this on to the department and, if there is any more information that I can give him, I will write to him.
My Lords, what has become of the last lot of Christians unfortunately intercepted by ISIL on their way to the Mediterranean?
My Lords, as I understand it, ISIL has intercepted a group of Christian Eritreans. Her Majesty’s Government are aware of reports of these nationals, 86 in number, who were abducted in Libya on 3 June by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. We have no further information at this time of what is happening. We have seen appalling acts of terror inside Libya, including the targeting of others because of their faith. At the moment, there is no further information, but we will be watching closely.
Unless the international community tackles conflict, crimes against humanity and egregious human rights violations in the Middle East and Africa, the vast number of people who have been fleeing will continue, adding to the refugee crisis. Along with Syria, the situation in Eritrea is bordering on the catastrophic (and more than 300,000 have already fled). These reports are all from the last week:
Home Office weighs bleak UN report on rights abuses by Eritrea government:
New UN report details litany of human rights violations, ‘rule by fear’ in Eritrea:
ERITREA – LAST IN THE WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS
Eritrea: Scathing UN Report
Commission Cites Possible Crimes Against Humanity:
Libya: Isis Kidnaps 86 Eritrean Christian Migrants, Sparks Beheading Fear