‘I thought I was safe in the UK, but the brutal Eritrean regime I fled is here too’

On September 4, 16 Eritrean asylum-seekers were arrested at a protest against their country’s dictatorship and its supporters here. Since then, questions have been raised about whether the British authorities are doing enough to protect activists and asylum-seekers from the ‘long arm’ of the regime in Asmara.

AARON arrived in Britain as a refugee from Eritrea a year ago. The young asylum-seeker did not want to go into detail about why he fled his home in East Africa. Instead, he tells me in general terms what it’s like to live under one of the world’s harshest dictatorships.

“At any point, you can be forcibly removed from your life, everything you know … and forced to become a soldier,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. Growing up, Aaron saw his friends, neighbours and relatives disappear into Eritrea’s system of indefinite national conscription.

“When you are a certain age, you see people forcibly taken to Sawa,” he says, referring to the military training camp where young Eritreans are taken to spend their final year of school. “It’s a place where they go to mould you to be a slave … not to rebel in any way and not be allowed to think or question. You see a lot of violence before it gets to you, and that’s so that you don’t dissent.”

Since the border war with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki and the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) — the only party permitted to exist in Eritrea — has used indefinite army service to control its population. Conscripts are subjected to forced labour, the UN has reported, that “effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.”

For the past two years, recruits have been sent over the border to fight in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where a bloody civil war has killed over half a million people. To maintain the war effort, this year Eritrea escalated its recruitment drive, with even children and the elderly rounded up to fight.

President Afwerki has ruled the small country in the Horn of Africa since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. With no parliament, constitution, independent judiciary, elections or free press, Afwerki and his small team of advisers rule Eritrea with complete power and control. Opponents are locked up without charge or trial, alongside draft dodgers and those who try to flee.

Many young Eritreans like Aaron risk all to escape. Fears of conscription have caused Eritrea to become one of the world’s biggest creators of refugees per head of population, with more than 10 per cent of the country’s total population thought to be living in exile. While many flee to nearby countries, others embark on the perilous journey to Europe, risking enslavement in Libya and death in the Mediterranean.

After reaching Britain’s shores, the young asylum-seeker believed he’d put enough distance between himself and the regime to secure his freedom and safety. But to his dismay, he found that the dictator’s grip extended far beyond Eritrea’s borders.

‘We feel powerless’

Afwerki’s regime is determined to maintain control not only over the population within Eritrea, but the diaspora as well, Aaron says. “A lot of us in the community, we feel powerless,” Eritrean-British activist Helen Girmasion, who has lived in Britain for over 30 years tells me. “We feel the regime itself, or the arm of the regime, still has an effect on people in the diaspora. It’s still very threatening, you can’t really speak about the regime openly even though you are in the UK — thousands of miles away from Eritrea.”

Eritrea’s use of its embassies and supporters abroad to repress critics has long been documented by human rights groups. An Amnesty International report in 2019 accused Afwerki’s ruling party of carrying out “death threats, physical assault and spreading of lies” to silence critics in the diaspora.

Researchers found cases of Eritrean activists in Europe being stalked, bombarded with threatening calls from unknown numbers and subjected to smear campaigns online. Supporters of Eritrea’s ruling PFDJ party and its youth wing the YPFDJ are at the forefront of these attacks in Europe, the report notes, including in Britain. As Aaron explains: “Support for the regime is so strong [in the UK] you feel that you are still in prison.”

“I am verbally attacked all the time,” Elizabeth Chyrum, the founder and director of the British-based group Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) tells me. “When I was seven months pregnant, four women threatened to physically hurt me, but I managed to escape. Since then, I am very careful [about] my movements and engagements.”

Critics of the regime can also find themselves locked out of key areas of support from their community, as Chyrum explains: “The Eritrean regime is in control of most of the churches in the diaspora. The churches collect a tithe from their congregations and send it to the Eritrean government.”

The repression of Eritreans abroad has been condemned by the European Parliament, which, in a 2016 resolution, accused the PFDJ of extending a “totalitarian grip” on the Eritrean diaspora, through spying on civilians, targeting their families in Eritrea and imposing a 2 per cent tax.

This “diaspora tax,” is a more discreet form of how the regime exercises control over the diaspora, but no less sinister. Levied on all Eritreans living abroad, including those on benefits, failure to pay can result in being barred from accessing consular services and help from the state, such as getting a passport, selling property in Eritrea, carrying out the dying wishes of relatives or even having your body repatriated back home. In this way, people who do not support the regime find themselves pressured into contributing to it through the 2 per cent tax.

While the Eritrean government claims the levy is used to fund development projects, a recent report by British parliamentarians raised fears the money has been used to help fund the war in Tigray, where Eritrean troops have been accused of gang rape, murder and looting, before a peace agreement was reached between Ethiopia and Tigray rebels last month. The report, by cross-party peer Lord David Alton, the co-chair of the APPG on Eritrea, calls for an urgent investigation into the tax.

Resistance in the diaspora

Support for Afwerki and the ruling PFDJ among the diaspora is complicated. Having endured over 100 years of colonisation under various powers and a 30-year war for independence, many Eritreans continue to feel a strong sense of national pride in their small homeland and its liberation struggle.

Fears fuelled by government propaganda that the relatively young nation could once again fall into the hands of a foreign power, generates support for the regime, regardless of its treatment of its citizens.

As Helen explains, “A lot of people have an emotional attachment to their country, especially how it came like with [the] 30-year war. Every Eritrean, at least one or two of their family, has died for this country.”

But in recent years, opposition voices in the diaspora have grown in strength, especially among young Eritreans. Last summer, opposition groups across the world launched an unprecedented stand against PFDJ supporters, shutting down a series of regime-sponsored political festivals in Switzerland, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the US and Britain.

These events, which feature Eritrean singers and performers, raise donations for the regime and spread propaganda, critics say. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Eritrea is said to be massively reliant on the contributions of its citizens overseas through both a 2 per cent tax and donations.

“It’s a regime that would not be around if it wasn’t for the diaspora,” Helen explains — which is why targeting the festivals is an effective way activists can resist the dictatorship back home.

This year, the festivals became a key battleground between the pro and anti-government supporters in the diaspora.

This was seen in London on September 4, after campaigning by human rights activists resulted in a festival, due to be held in the borough of Lambeth, being cancelled by the local council and Metropolitan Police.

Angry at the cancellation of the festival, PFDJ supporters decided to hold a pro-government gathering, with around 70 in attendance, outside the Eritrean embassy in Islington, north London, later that afternoon. Alerted to the last-minute event by posts on social media, the activists who’d fought hard to cancel the first event called a counter-demonstration.

Protesters outside the Eritrean embassy in Islington, north London, on September 4, 2022
Protesters outside the Eritrean embassy in Islington, north London, on September 4, 2022

Many of the protesters, numbering about 40, were young Eritrean asylum-seekers — among them were conscripts forced to fight in Tigray who’d experienced the brutality of the Eritrean regime first hand. For them, the festivals are a cruel reminder that the regime is never too far away.

Aaron felt strongly about joining the protest that day: “Those supporters have blood on their hands. The supporters here know very well the torture, the disappearances, the indefinite army, they are well aware of what is going on and they support that.”

During the protest, the pro-government group waved Eritrean flags, sang patriotic songs and led chants described by the activists as “hate speech.” Tensions were high and scuffles broke out. But many protested peacefully with young Eritreans sitting in the road, Helen, who was at the demo that day, tells me.

Police allowed the pro-government event to continue, despite objections from counter-protesters. “We were saying, either all of it finishes or you give us a space to protest,” Helen says. “And the police said: ‘No, only the people outside the embassy can protest.”

Eventually, riot police were called in, and forcefully dispersed the anti-government protesters. Twenty-one people were arrested. Of those, 16 were young Eritrean asylum-seekers, aged between 18 and their mid-20s.

Helen described the police’s response as “brutal,” and accuses officers of denying them a place to protest. Videos show officers drawing batons and dragging protesters out of the road. The events attracted the attention of the right-wing press, with articles in the Daily Mail and the Sun describing the protesters as “mobs” and “rioters.”

Regime supporters played a role in spreading misinformation about the incident to the press, Helen claims, tagging the Daily Mail, Sun and Telegraph when posting videos of the protest on social media. The Eritrean embassy in London claimed the anti-government protesters were “Tigrayan terrorists.”

Helen says the use of such language is a typical tactic used by the regime and its supporters to “erase the identities” of Eritreans critical of the regime. (The Eritrean embassy did not respond to a request for comment.)

Aaron feels a strong sense of injustice at the way the protest was handled by the police and reported by the British press. Now he feels silenced not only by the oppressive regime he fled but by the British authorities he hoped would protect him.

“It was sad to see a country that we thought respected human rights and our safety and security treat us in that way,” he says. “As long as we are not disrupting ... the country that gave us safety then it is within our right to continue to stand up to the regime, to stand up for our rights.”

As a result of their arrests, Aaron and the other protesters now face an uncertain future. A criminal conviction could put their claims for asylum at serious risk of refusal.

The police’s response to the protest has also prompted concerns from human rights organisations and an MP. In a statement responding to the protest at the time, Britain-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Dr Khataza Gondwe said: “The counter-protesters are genuine refugees and asylum-seekers. It is deeply lamentable that in a free and democratic society, they were the ones who were forcibly dispersed and arrested, while those who initiated the violence were able to continue their incitement and hate speech.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for Islington North, the neighbouring constituency to the embassy, said he was alarmed to hear of the arrests.

“Protesting is a democratic right — a right that extends to those protesting acts of governments at home and overseas,” the former Labour leader, who has been a vocal advocate for peace in Tigray, continued.

“Many of these protesters were themselves young Eritrean asylum-seekers, speaking out against human rights abuses and the war in Tigray. This crackdown is an all-too-upsetting example of the wide-scale demonisation of both asylum-seekers and those who support their plight.”

The Met did not address the concerns raised around its response to the protest in a request for comment, but said in a statement that its officers had been called on September 4 to reports of “fighting” in the vicinity of the embassy. “Local officers attended and found a number of groups involved in a confrontation,” it says. “Specialist officers were also called to assist. Twenty-one people were arrested for offences including public order and wilful obstruction of the highway. An investigation remains ongoing.”

‘No-one is on our side’

The events that day reflect a growing sense among members of the Eritrean diaspora that the British authorities are not doing enough to address the threat posed by the “long arm” of the regime in Britain.

While the Britain recognises the dangers faced by Eritreans, shown by the high number of asylum-seekers from the country who are granted refugee status (97 per cent), some members feel that the state is not taking their concerns about harassment, threats and the influence of the Eritrean regime in institutions in Britain seriously.

As Helen says: “To be honest, as a British Eritrean, I personally don’t feel safe and secure within the land of Britain. I don’t feel like I can express what I think about what’s happening in Eritrea without consequences for my family back home and here. The British government needs to start taking British-Eritreans concerns … and their safety extremely seriously.”

These sentiments were echoed in testimonies given to Lord Alton’s report on the diaspora tax, which quoted one British Eritrean as saying: “I wish that our government, meaning the British government, had more say in protecting the British-Eritreans here.”

Although British authorities have raised concerns about the tax with Eritrea, members of the diaspora say they are still effectively being forced to pay it. In response, to a parliamentary question on the tax, the government said: “We would urge anyone with evidence that coercion has been used in pursuit of payment of the Eritrean diaspora tax to report this to the police.”

Following the September protest, Aaron says he no longer feels safe: “We came here to feel safe and secure and prosper here. Now I don’t feel that I have a government that can protect me … I don’t feel like anyone is on our side. We never knew that the UK could treat innocent people as guilty and guilty people as innocent.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Bethany Rielly is the Morning Star’s home affairs reporter. Follow her on Twitter — @bethrielly.