BY PHILIPP LöPFE | MIGROS MAGAZINE*
Switzerland provides refuge to thousands of Eritreans – is Eritrea the “North Korea of Africa”, as claimed by the media? No, says Hans-Ulrich Stauffer, the expert on Africa who traveled to Eritrea several times for his current book. Here is what he says about the policies of the Eritrean government, the motives of refugees and the lack of commitment in the Federal Swiss government.
Q: Hans-Ulrich Stauffer, your latest book is about Eritrea. How did you discover the country?
In 1973 there was an indescribable famine in the Horn of Africa, which revealed the questionable nature of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. At that time, I came into contact with the Eritrean liberation movement “EPLF”.
Q: Why did the liberation struggle in Eritrea move so many people here?
Eritrea was an Italian colony, then it came under British military rule, then the forced merger with Ethiopia and finally the liberation struggle.
Ethiopia was initially supported by the USA, then by the Soviet Union, but Eritrea on the other hand, was always on its own. The lonely liberation struggle against Ethiopia – at that time the strongest army in Africa – has led to an aura that continues to this day. Over the years, a reduit idea has established itself, coupled with an avant-garde of the leading people-
Q : Today, Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”.
This comparison is nonsense. Clearly, Eritrea is not a democracy. In the course of the decade-long liberation struggle, a strong leadership team has emerged that govern the country with authoritarian rule. But Eritrea has access to information from all over the world at any time. On numerous houses there are satellite TV dishes, and the smartphone is ubiquitous. The people of Eritrea know very well what is going on in the world
Q : Eritrea wants to be independent of foreign aid – as Mao once called for China?
This idea was and is still is in the minds of the Eritrean liberation front and today’s governing party. The Eritrean leadership is convinced that it knows best what is good for the country; in no way does it want to be dictated by any foreign experts on what it has to do. This does not make them very attractive among the international organizations, especially since Eritrea also closes up to global trade. For example, there is not a single Chinese shop in Eritrea.
Q : In the rest of Africa, this is different.
That is the reason why in most parts of Africa the small businesses have gone before the dogs. Seen in this way, the stubbornness of the Eritrean leadership also has positive sides.
Q : In many African countries, a small corrupt elite is in power. Also in Eritrea?
I have been there often, and as far as I can tell, there is hardly any gap between rich and poor. This does not mean that the members of the government have no privileges. But a private enrichment does not take place – there is no corruption.
Q : And also no tribal and religious wars?
One half of the Eritreans is made up of Christians, the other of Muslims. They have long been a unstable equilibrium. For the government, it is important that this balance be maintained. Thus, neither missionaries of American free churches nor Saudi Arabia-sponsored imams are welcome.
Q : They write in your book, Eritrea rely on a biological agriculture.
This is less intention than necessity. Money is simply not there for fertilizers and pesticides. But food security is a top priority. For this reason, over the past 20 years, about 1,000 dams have been built to ensure water supply. By the way, agriculture is not nationalized, but in the hands of private farmers.
Q : In your description, Eritrea is almost a model country. Why do thousands of young people flee every year?
A shoemaker told one of my friends, a colleague had written to him that he lived in Switzerland for free in a three-room apartment and received 900 francs a month. For an Eritrean, this sounds paradise, especially since he can not estimate how high the cost of living in Switzerland is.
Q : Andreas Glarner of the SVP does not sees this differently. Are we luring the Eritreans to Switzerland?
We are taking a decision from the Asylum Recursion Commission in 2005. He says that everyone who deserts is also politically persecuted. This has quickly spread to Eritrea. There are indeed human rights violations and freedom of expression is limited. But there is also the human right to food, education, health – and in this respect Eritrea has done astonishing job. With regards to the growth targets defined by the UN, Eritrea is among the best in Africa: Child mortality and maternal mortality at birth have also fallen massively. Malaria and HIV rates are low, the economy is growing by eight percent annually.
Q : Nevertheless, many young men pay around 8,000 dollars to criminal organizations and risk their lives in order to flee to Switzerland.
There are far too few jobs in Eritrea for young people, at least in the cities. Add to this is the National Service …
Q : … a kind of recruiting school, which, however, can last for years and with an uncertain outcome.
That is not true. The military service is only one area of application of the National Service. There are also very many civilian activities, for example service at the reception of a hotel or in a hospital. It is also not forced labor; You get a modest wage. The problem is that the duration of the national service is not clearly limited. But, let us remember that Ethiopia still occupies a part of Eritrea and refuses to accept the demarcation of the border, despite the international court’s arbitration. Tens of thousands of Eritreans are in military service because of this neither-war-nor-peace state.
Q : Why does the government not put this on the line?
Because it doesn’t know what to do with all the people when they are not in the national service. There are just no job for them. That is why we should consider how to create jobs in Eritrea. That would also be the right approach for Switzerland.
Q : Most of them receive social assistance in Switzerland.
It’s actually over 80 percent, and that is a horror. But I do not feel called to make a sound assessment here. But I can imagine that Switzerland is only a stopover for many Eritreans. Actually, they want to go to the UK or to the USA, because most of them speak English. In Switzerland, they find completely unfamiliar living conditions and are often mentally blocked.
Q : As you describe it, there is no valid reason to grant Eritreans asylum.
I can’t leave it that way in general. There are certainly Eritreans who have suffered under the [government]. But I am convinced that it is not true for many.
Q : There are, however, two UN reports that speak of serious violations human rights.
There are also contradictory reports, such as the opinion of the Western European Ambassadors and the EU representative, resident in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The Eritrea image is changing, also in Switzerland. Today, the refusal of the National Service is no longer an asylum, and one must also be able to prove persecution. I think this is justifiable.
Q : The Federal Council is under pressure in the refugee issue. Why is he not acting in the case of the Eritreans?
The official Switzerland has been eradicated at Eritrea. Sommaruga, the President of the Council, has once declared that “we are not discussing a dictatorship”. At the same time she traveled to Ethiopia. That was awkward. Now it’s a matter of getting out of this impasse again.
Q : How is that supposed to happen? Eritrea is still refusing to take back rejected asylum seekers.
We should have to put a pace in development policy work. This is difficult, because the Eritreans are stubborn. The Eritrean side must also make concessions and allow more leeway.
Q : How can this be achieved?
You can not use fixed programs. The US, for example, demanded the privatization of all state enterprises. This does not work at all. It can only be done with a dialogue on the same level. At first, however, we must relax the relationship. It would be helpful if a high-ranking Swiss delegation took the trouble to travel to Eritrea. Of course, a member of the Federal Council would be best.
Q : Where do you see concrete opportunities for development aid?
In vocational training. Our dual education system is also attracting interest in Africa.
Q : So would you have to send Simonetta Sommaruga with Rudolf Strahm, the specialist for dual vocational training, on the journey?
That would be ideal. Eritrea wants an education system based on the Swiss model. The EU has now approved a development program worth 200 million euros for Eritrea. The main focus here is on the development of solar energy in rural areas, for example to drive water pumps. It needs people who assemble and maintain these systems. Switzerland could make a contribution here.
* Software translation from German
Hans-Ulrich Stauffer (66) is an attorney-at-law, lecturer at the University of Basel and has been honorary consul for the Republic of Cape Verde for 27 years. He has been involved in development processes in Africa for more than four decades. In recent years, he has traveled extensively to Eritrea. His book “Eritrea – the second look” has been published by Rotpunktverlag.