By Meron Estefanos, Co-founder of International Commission on Eritrean Refugees
I am often amazed by how far removed the policy world is from the realities of refugees and asylum seekers who find themselves caught up in the plethora of legislation, policies and practices that intertwine to make their access to safety almost impossible. From my conversations with hundreds of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers caught up in navigating their way to safety, I have come to conclude that European immigration policies are experienced by refugees as yet another barrier they have to dodge, leading many to take illegal and often dangerous routes to attain the protection they are legally entitled to.
This is the case for many refugees who wish to join their families. For instance, some European countries only grant family reunification to people who possess a valid passport from their country of origin. Fisseha (not his real name), a member of a political organisation opposed to the regime in Eritrea, lives in France, where he has been granted asylum. His wife and daughter live in Sudan and are extremely anxious about the danger posed by the presence of agents of the Eritrean regime who have in the past kidnaped and forcefully returned people from Sudan to Eritrea. Fisseha has been an open and prominent dissident of the regime and his family would never be granted an Eritrean passport in Sudan. Seeing no other option, his wife paid smugglers to put herself and her daughter on a boat departing from Libya on the 30 of June. Three months on, no one has been able to trace the boat. It vanished along with Fisseha’s family and over 250 others.
Fissesha’s family is not alone in this obstacle course. The plight of Hiryti, who I met through my work with victims of human trafficking in Sinai, started when being four months pregnant, she decided to join her husband in Israel. When she got to Sudan, she was kidnapped and the ransom demanded was $30,000. Inevitably it took months for that kind of money to be collected by family and their networks and meanwhile she was tortured and gave birth to her son shackled. When she was eventually freed and made it to Israel, the Israelis deported her back to Egypt despite knowing that her husband was in the country. From Egypt, she was deported back to Eritrea. No one survives that kind of pregnancy and birth without serious health complications. In addition, the financial resources of her entire family had been exhausted, but she remained determined to join her husband. Fearing the ordeal of being kidnaped again, Hiryti and her husband decided to invest in bribing Eritrean officials to get a passport and exit visa so she would be allowed to leave the country ‘legally’ – little did they know that UNHCR would consider that prudence as an indicator that Hiryti has no needs for protection under the refugee convention. She cannot go to Israel and her husband cannot go to Sudan either. Without a refugee card she was at risk of being arrested by Sudanese officials and being deported again to Eritrea. Hiryti is now left with a single option: attempting to go through Libya and cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
Every year, many more families are forced to attempt dangerous and illegal routes where together with corrupt officials and unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers, European and international policies and practices are endangering the lives of the very people they are meant to protect. There is a need for coherent immigration and asylum policies and for that, the experiences of people genuinely in need of international protection have to be taken into account.
This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 3 October 2014. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.