Houses of Parliament, LondonThis is a summary of an important debate in the House of Lords last night, which was held at a critical moment. Critical for three reasons:

  1. The scale of the suffering by the tens of thousands fleeing Eritrea demands action: they cannot be treated as “economic migrants.”
  2. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, is about to visit the UK to collect evidence.
  3. Ethiopia is due to hold an election in May and international scrutiny of this is vital.


The full version of the debate can be found here.

What was impressive was that many of the speakers could draw on personal experience of both countries: Baroness Kinnock (Glenys Kinnock) recalled her visit to Eritrea, as did Lord Dubs (Alf Dubs) and Lord Avebury. Lord Rea remembered meeting Petros Solomon (one of those who has been jailed by the Eritrean government for the last 13 years). They also drew on their experiences during the debate.

Two flaws

Overall this was an important and well-informed debate. But there were two flaws.

Firstly, the government was not prepared to be frank about how the Khartoum Process would work. No details were really given of what it would mean or how British policy would change as a result of it.

Secondly, it is clear that if the Eritrean regime really reduces its conscription to 18 months, then far fewer Eritreans are likely to  be given refugee status in the UK. It is because of the fear of returning to Eritrean after Eritreans have fled from conscription that has been the reason most refugee cases have been accepted. As the minister said: “That is why some of the figures of asylum grants by us to Eritreans look so high, because clearly there has been concern about them returning to that country given their reasons for leaving.”




Most attention was paid to Eritrea, but there were important points made about Ethiopia, which I will deal with first.

  1. Baroness Kinnock (Glenys Kinnock – Labour and former development minister) criticised both regimes. “Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have a Marxist-Leninist heritage. Ethiopia is still effectively controlled by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, through a system of ethnic federalism. Although there has been some improvement we have to ask how it can be that, at the 2010 election, the EPRDF won 90% of the vote.”
  2. Lord Dubs (Labour) raised the question of freedom of speech in Ethiopia, in the context of the coming election. “Human Rights Watch said last week that 22 journalists, bloggers and publishers were charged with criminal offences in the past year, Six independent publications were intimidated and closed, with dozens of staff forced into exile. Three owners of publications also fled abroad to escape false charges that led to sentences of three years in prison in absentia. Six members of Zone 9, a bloggers’ collective, were charged under the counterterrorism laws and have been in custody for 274 days, sending a chilling message to online activists. Can the Government not make representations to Prime Minister Desalegn to relax the stringent controls on freedom of expression so that Ethiopians can have a genuine election in May?”
  3. Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat) also called on Ethiopia to resolve its border dispute with Eritrea, and to abide by the Algiers Agreement by accepting the Border Commission’s findings. “Both countries had agreed to accept the commission’s decision as final, but when the details were published in April 2002, Ethiopia found one excuse after another to dispute the findings… The Ethiopians unlawfully occupied territory all along the border that should have been demilitarised under the settlement, and Eritrea has been forced to maintain large armed forces as a precaution against further military attacks by its bullying neighbour.”


The criticism of Eritrea during the debate was even stronger than of Ethiopia.

  1. Baroness Morgan (Labour spokeswoman in the House of Lords on Foreign Affairs) made this important point: “What is driving this mass exodus, which includes not just women and children but thousands of unaccompanied minors? The simple answer is that neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea is a functioning democracy. Although both Ethiopia and Eritrea are suffering real problems, there is more scope to influence activities in Ethiopia. In the past, there seems to have been a modicum of free speech and a free press in Ethiopia, although the Government’s intolerance of dissent seems to be increasing significantly in the face of general elections in May. There have been large-scale arrests of protesters and a crackdown on opposition opponents. This is particularly true in the Oromo region, where at least 5,000 people have been arrested as a result of their opposition to the ruling party. But if we think that the situation is bad in Ethiopia, it is truly catastrophic in Eritrea, where all freedoms were suppressed in September 2001. There is no religious freedom, as the right reverend Prelate underlined, no political pluralism, and no independent press in the nation. The forced and interminable military service to fight the unending border war with the neighbours in Ethiopia is clearly a real problem that is driving people from the country.”
  2. Baroness Kinnock described Eritrea in these terms: “The cruelty, tyranny and oppression of Isaias Afewerki and his regime know no bounds. Eritrea is isolated politically, regionally and internationally and it is under UN sanctions because of its alleged support for al-Shabaab in Somalia. The country is often described as Africa’s North Korea. All rights and freedoms are denied. There is no religious freedom or political pluralism, and no freedom of the media or of speech.”
  3. Baroness Kinnock went on to ask what the aim of the British government was in visiting Asmara and follow an apparent willingness from the European Union to have a “new beginning with Eritrea”. “ Does the Minister agree with the suggestion made by some European Governments that it is necessary now to offer additional support and engagement to Eritrea, arguing that additional aid will lead to more openness and to change? Surely there can be no “new beginning”, as has been suggested, with this regime. As history proves, concessions to regimes such as Eritrea will achieve absolutely nothing. I ask the Minister to give some detail on the apparent willingness of the UK to have discussions with the Eritrean regime on, “drivers of irregular migration and ways to mitigate it, asylum and returns, and potential areas for joint co-operation”. [Official Report, 6/1/15; col. WA 136.] What exactly does that mean? Will the UK delay any response on refugee policy until the UN commission of inquiry issues its report on the subject? European Governments should not make major Eritrean policy changes until they see the inquiry findings. Let us see if Eritrea is prepared to co-operate with the UN commission of inquiry before taking any hasty decisions. Now there are signs of unbelievable courage and determination in Eritrea on challenging Isaias Afewerki. The people are aware of the dangers of open protest, but we have to ask just how long they—and he—can hold on. We must urge the EU and others to make sure that the UN commission is given clear and urgent access. Isaias Afewerki’s agreement to co-operate would be the first test of whether he is ready to accept change. Whatever happens, if there is negotiation, the European Union and member states must not make quick concessions but use any momentum to ensure that there can be—and will be—fundamental change. The release of Dawit Isaak would be a welcome and symbolic victory.”
  4. Baroness Kinnock made the point that most Eritreans arriving in Europe should be considered as refugees, not ‘economic migrants’. “My final point relates to what are routinely called “irregular migrants”. These people arrive in Calais having endured a terrifying journey and are then treated as if they are economic migrants. This is clearly not what persuades them that they must leave Eritrea. Many other African countries are just as poor as Eritrea, but their citizens do not come to Europe in their thousands, as they do from Eritrea now. Will the UK argue for their right to stay and ensure that they are treated as refugees?”

Government policy

Replying to the debate for the government minister, Baroness Anelay (Conservative) accepted some of the points raised, but was naturally more cautious in what she had to say.

  1. UN Eritrea Monitoring Group: “I understand that Eritrea denies any support for al-Shabaab but continues to refuse entry to the monitoring group. We urge it to co-operate fully with the group’s work. I am entirely at one with the noble Lord in this matter.”
  2. EU-African Union Khartoum process, designed to tackle people smuggling and human trafficking. “We welcome the fact that both Ethiopia and Eritrea have expressed commitment to the Khartoum process. It provides the best framework to drive this issue forward. Noble Lords have drawn attention to the tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I would say to them that if they are taking the Khartoum process seriously, they have to take negotiation on the basis of solving the differences between them seriously too. As a member of the core group of EU and AU member states steering the development of how we take this process forward, we as a country are keen to ensure that we maintain momentum and that the process leads quickly to concrete projects that combat the smuggling and trafficking.”
  3. Eritrean conscription: “Having left and broken the rules on conscription, people are—I cannot think of the right word—terrified to return. That is why some of the figures of asylum grants by us to Eritreans look so high, because clearly there has been concern about them returning to that country given their reasons for leaving.”
  4. The UK official’s visit to Eritrea in December 2014: “They looked at the drivers of migration and particularly discussed the matter of extended military service. I can say to my noble friend Lord Chidgey that this was a useful starting point for further co-operation. A similar visit to Ethiopia is planned for the near future. With regard the visit to Eritrea, the Eritrean Government representatives assured the officials from the FCO that military service will be strictly limited to 18 months and, indeed, I have been briefed by those officials today. The undertaking has been given. It is matter now of making sure that that is put into practice.”
  5. The Algiers Agreement: Pushed by Lord Avebury, the minister said: “My Lords, international agreements, once entered into, should be adhered to”
  6. Human Rights: There are human rights abuses across the board. The right reverend Prelate raised the issue of religious freedom. We will continue to look very carefully at the matters he raised because, clearly, those are abuses that have occurred and, as he rightly says, particularly against groups that are not registered under the Eritrean system. There was a reference to the detention of political prisoners and journalists. We certainly try to establish the facts. There are still journalists in detention despite reports that six have been released. There was a reference to the Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, who is still under arrest. With regard to all these matters, we do not give up. Just because it is difficult, we do not give up in pursuing our relationship with these two countries. Walking away would leave those who are the victims of persecution and misbehaviour by Governments in a more perilous position than they currently face. The commitment of this Government is that this is a challenge that requires a global, long-term response to a difficult problem. We will all keep trying to ensure that, as an international community, we do our best to tackle it for the sake of those behind the traffickers and behind Governments who do not have good governance.