Information downplayed rights abuses and meant some Eritrean children in Calais were refused entry to UK
The government downplayed the risk of human rights abuses in one of the world’s most repressive regimes in an attempt to reduce asylum seeker numbers despite doubts from its own experts, internal documents have revealed.
Home Office documents obtained by the Public Law Project detail efforts by the government to seek more favourable descriptions of human rights conditions in Eritrea, an east African country that indefinitely detains and tortures some of its citizens as well as carrying out extrajudicial executions and operating a shoot-to-kill policy on those caught trying to flee the country.
The notes relate to a high-level meeting that took place in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in December 2014, between senior Eritrean government officials and a UK delegation led by James Sharp, the Foreign Office’s director of migration, and Rob Jones, the Home Office’s head of asylum and family policy.
A diplomatic telegram written by the then UK ambassador to Eritrea, David Ward, says the meeting was held to “discuss reducing Eritrean migration” and sought to find evidence on human rights “to evaluate whether we [the UK] should amend our country guidance”.
The discussions focused on how to reduce the number of Eritrean asylum seekers granted refugee status in the UK and how to deter more Eritreans coming to the UK to claim asylum. UK officials were concerned that the UK’s high grant rate to Eritrean asylum seekers of about 85% would attract more Eritreans to the UK.
UK officials agreed to look at giving Eritrea aid in exchange for Eritrea agreeing to soften some of its human rights abuses. The Eritrean government appears to have agreed to limit forced military conscription to 18 months but said it would do this informally rather than by making a formal announcement. Reports from human rights watchdogs this month found that the problem of enforced and prolonged military conscription is as bad as ever.
The documents also reveal that UK officials warned that they still had concerns after the meeting about the human rights situation in Eritrea. One of the documents disclosed to the Public Law Project, entitled Informal Report of UK Visit to Eritrea 9-11 December 2014, states: “If [Eritrean] government representatives are to be believed the risk of persecution or mistreatment in Eritrea is lower than our country guidance suggests. But independent verification of their description of the situation in Eritrea is difficult to find. Further evidence is likely to be required before a significant reduction in that rate [of grants of asylum] can be supported.”
A partially redacted email sent on 17 December 2014 states: “The story on the penalties for those returning to Eritrea for evading national service or illegal exit was less clear. Non-governmental interlocutors acknowledge the possibility of extrajudicial detention on an arbitrary basis.”
A parliamentary answer in the House of Lords in January 2015 confirmed that the visit to Eritrea had taken place and said that discussions had involved “topics including the current drivers of irregular migration, ways to mitigate it, and voluntary and enforced returns”.
Lord Bates, a Home Office minister, added: “We are now considering how best to use the information gathered during the visit to develop our approach to managing migration from Eritrea.”
But despite the doubts about a real improvement in the human rights situation expressed by UK officials in the internal documents, the Home Office went ahead in March 2015 with issuing new guidance to those making decisions on asylum seekers stating that the human rights situation in Eritrea was not as bad as previously thought.
Country guidance issued by the Home Office is highly influential on both ministry officials and judges making decisions on asylum claims. This guidance is expected to contain independently verifiable evidence.
As a result of the new guidance the levels of grants of asylum to Eritreans plummeted from 85% to 60%. However, 87% of those refused under the new guidance had their refusals overturned by judges on appeal.
The 2015 guidance impacted on Eritrean children in Calais who hoped to come to the UK at the end of last year. The Home Office used the lower grant rates as a reason for excluding almost all Eritrean children in Calais aged 13-15 – the initial grant rate for Eritrean asylum seekers between March 2015 and June 2016 was below 75%.
However, a significant case in the upper (immigration) tribunal last October, known as a country guidance case, found that the new Home Office guidance on Eritrea was not credible. The Home Office has acknowledged the reality of the human rights situation and withdrawn its flawed guidance.
Alison Pickup, the legal director of the Public Law Project, said: “It is of fundamental importance to the integrity of the UK’s asylum system that decisions on refugee status are based on fair, objective and informed assessment of conditions in their country of origin. The Home Office has a legal duty to ensure that the information given to decision-makers is as accurate, up to date and complete as possible. This disclosure suggests a troubling lack of impartiality and objectivity in the selection of information to be provided to asylum decision-makers about one of the most secretive and repressive regimes in the world.”
In relation to the Home Office exclusion of Eritrean children in Calais, she said: “The Home Office’s exclusion of Eritrean refugee children on the basis of a statistic which is the result of its own flawed guidance is a tragedy.”
Safe Passage, part of Citizens UK, was working with refugee children in Calais before the camp was closed last November. The Citizens UK leader, Jonathan Clark, the bishop of Croydon, said: “It is hugely concerning that the Home Office appeared to have been willing to set aside their own concerns that they were not being told the truth about ongoing human rights violations because of a policy to reduce numbers. This faulty evidence contributed to many vulnerable children from the Calais refugee camp [being] denied sanctuary in the UK through the Dubs scheme.
“As the government considers its policy towards unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy we urge them not to rule out children from countries such as Eritrea, but help the most at risk.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The UK has a proud history of offering asylum to those who need it. Each application is carefully considered on its merits against background country information, ensuring only those with a genuine claim for asylum receive a grant.
“We continually review our country information and guidance to ensure it is up to date, accurate and relevant, so that staff can make fair and considered decisions. The most recent update to the guidance on Eritrea was made last year as a result of a fact-finding mission in 2016. We work closely with countries such as Eritrea to discuss migration matters.”
The Guardian has approached the FCO for comment.
Jan 22, 2017
Banjul, Gambia, Jan 22 – Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh flew out Saturday from the country he ruled for 22 years to cede power to President Adama Barrow and end a political crisis.
Jammeh refused to step down after a December 1 election in which Barrow was declared the winner, triggering weeks of uncertainty that almost ended in a military intervention involving five other west African nations.
The longtime leader boarded a small, unmarked plane at Banjul airport accompanied by Guinea’s President Alpha Conde after two days of talks aimed at hammering out a deal for his departure.
He landed in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, around an hour later, an AFP journalist at the scene said, with his final destination unknown.
Former president Yaya Jammeh (C), the Gambia’s leader for 22 years, waves from the plane as he leaves the country on 21 January 2017 in Banjul © AFP / STRINGER
“I call on President Barrow to come in immediately and take over the supreme responsibility of President, Head of State, Commander in Chief and first citizen of our republic,” Jammeh said according to remarks read out on state television before he left the country.
It would be improper not to “sincerely wish him and his administration all the best,” he added.
Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup from the country’s only other president since independence from Britain, Dawda Jawara, making this The Gambia’s first democratic transition of power.
The Gambian political crisis © AFP/File / Aude GENET
Waving to a small gathering of supporters on the tarmac dressed in his habitual white flowing robes, Jammeh, a devout Muslim, kissed a Koran before boarding.
Conde and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had urged Jammeh to peacefully give up his office to Barrow, who is waiting in neighbouring Senegal for the strongman to leave.
He finally said he would step aside in the early hours of Saturday morning. Barrow is expected back in The Gambia imminently.
– The Guinea question –
Earlier Guinean state minister Kiridi Bangoura had said Jammeh preferred “to come to Guinea, to stay in Conakry, before he decides, along with the Guinean authorities, where to move for good.”
People celebrate in the streets after hearing of the confirmed departure of former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh in Banjul on January 21, 2017 © AFP / CARL DE SOUZA
The agreement that finally saw the strongman give in to pressure to step down “foresees the departure of Yahya Jammeh from The Gambia for an African country with guarantees for himself, his family and his relatives,” Mauritania’s Aziz said.
Diplomats said late Saturday that Equatorial Guinea was emerging as the most likely option for his exile.
This would address concerns that Jammeh might interfere in his nation’s politics if he stayed in Guinea, whose border is not far from The Gambia’s eastern region.
Scenes of jubilation broke out almost immediately on streets near Banjul, the port capital, after the news filtered out that Jammeh had gone.
“We are free now. We are no longer in prison. We do not have to watch our back before we express our opinions,” said Fatou Cham, 28, who was celebrating with her friends.
Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh was the country’s leader for 22 years © AFP/File / ISSOUF SANOGO
Activists will be keen to see Jammeh — who controlled certain sections of the security forces — refused amnesty for crimes committed during his tenure, which was marked by systematic rights abuses.
Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, called Jammeh’s departure “the chance to usher in an era based on respect for the rule of law and human rights.”
– Weeping supporters –
Jammeh attempted to build a personality cult over and has left behind a small minority of diehard supporters, some of whom wept as his plane departed.
This photo taken on December 1, 2016 in Banjul shows incumbent Gambian president Yahya Jammeh (C) gesturing before casting his marble in a polling station in a presidential poll © AFP/File / MARCO LONGARI
“We wanted to be behind this man for a century or more,” said Alagie Samu, speaking on the tarmac. “He is the most successful, visionary leader in the entire world.”
Dressed in green, the colour of his political party, some were loyal to the end.
“No human being is perfect, but for 22 years in the country here he has tried hard for Gambians,” said a woman with cheeks wet from tears, who did not wish to be named.
People celebrate the inauguration of new Gambia’s President Adama Barrow at Westfield neighbourhood on January 19, 2017 in Banjul © AFP/File / STRINGER
The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest nations and although education and health standards have lifted in recent years, poverty remains endemic.
With Jammeh gone, all eyes will be on the Barrow administration as they make their first steps as a government of reform and development.
“The will of the people has come to be at last,” said Isatou Touray, a key official in the government-in-waiting. “Democracy is back, you can’t stop the people.”
A handout photo released by the Senegalese Presidency shows Adama Barrow speaking during his swearing in as president of Gambia at the Gambian embassy in Dakar on January 19, 2017 © SENEGALESE PRESIDENCY/AFP/File / Handout
Army chief Ousman Badjie, a former Jammeh loyalist, has pledged allegiance to Barrow along with top defence, civil service and and security chiefs.
The first priority will be to help the tens of thousands who have fled in recent weeks fearing a bloody end to the crisis to return safely, Touray said earlier Saturday.
Humanitarian workers from International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), recounted harrowing details of the latest major tragedy in waters off Libya after talking to four rescued passengers, two Eritreans and two Ethiopians, who arrived on Monday evening in the Sicilian port of Trapani.
The survivors, three men and one woman, were described as "traumatized and exhausted".
They said their two-tier, wooden boat had left Libya on Friday with more 180 people packed on board, all of them originally from East Africa.
After five hours at sea, the engine cut out and the boat started to take on water. As it slowly sank, more and more of the people on board were submerged under water.
One of the survivors described his desperate effort to find his wife, who had taken a spot in the centre of the ship.
After hours in the water, the survivors were rescued on Saturday 30 nautical miles from the Libyan coast by a French boat operating as part of the European borders agency Frontex's Operation Triton before being transferred to another Frontex ship, the Siem Pilot.
Siem Pilot, provided by the Norwegian coastguard, arrived in Trapani on Monday evening with the four survivors, four recovered corpses and 34 people rescued from another stricken migrant boat.
The latest deaths and rescues follow a record year for the number of migrants trying to reach Europe on the western Mediterranean route from north Africa to Italy.
Some 181,000 people were registered at Italian ports in 2016 while the UNHCR recorded more than 5,000 deaths and presumed deaths on all migrant routes across the Mediterranean.
Despite the mid-winter weather making crossings particularly perilous, the start of 2017 has brought no sign of departures slowing with some 2,300 migrants already registered in Italy since January 1st.
17 January 2017
Share this article
UPDATED: Heavy snowfall and unusually harsh weather have left hundreds of thousands of homes without electricity, schools closed, and roads unusable.
Recent days have seen up to a metre of snow in southern areas, strong winds in the north and coastal areas, and temperatures well below the average for the season in most of the country, reaching lows of below -30C in some northern mountain towns.
The wintery conditions are expected to last for at least another week, due to the arrival of a polar air mass in the country, weather experts at Meteo.it explained.
On Tuesday evening, Italy's Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti confirmed that the army had deployed soldiers to Abruzzo, which is suffering the brunt of the wintery spell with road closures, power blackouts and some smaller villages isolated.
Over a quarter of the local population - 300,000 people - are without electricity, according to the region's councillor for Civil Protection. A further 12,000 people in the Marche region also suffered power blackouts, while 2,000 in the towns of Chieti and Pescara had no running water.
Fire services are also assisting in the central Italian regions, rescuing trapped farm animals and helping to clear roads, as well as continuing to work on recovery in the areas hit by earthquakes last year.
Since the weekend, at least three people have been reported dead from weather-related conditions. A 67-year-old man was reported dead from hypothermia in Teramo, Abruzzo, after falling from a boat into icy water, and a 53-year-old homeless person was found dead by police due to exposure in Agrigento, Sicily. On Wednesday morning, a third victim was found dead in his car in Brindisi.
In Salerno, Campania in southern Italy, the small mountain village of Pruno had been isolated by the snow for several days without access to food or medical supplies. Soldiers and firefighters conducted relief operations on Monday, bringing medicine and food supplies for the next few days.
Heavy snowfall in the areas affected by the 2016 earthquakes has left already fragile buildings struggling under the added weight, with further damage to the towns' historic centres feared.
Residents have raised concerns for their farm animals in damaged barns and stables while temperatures remained at around 0C in most of the region on Tuesday, with both Amatrice and Arquata del Tronto at -1C.
"We're back on our knees: we have a meter of snow, isolated hamlets, no light, and the Via Salaria [the main road from Rome to the region] is blocked. We need help," said Sante Stangoni, mayor of Acquasanta Terme in the Marche region.
Over the weekend, residents of the affected areas held demonstrations over the lack of government assistance, with one protester telling The Local: "The rubble is still there; nothing has been moved, and then there's the aggravating factor of the snow and frost."
Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP
There has also been huge disruption to travel, with the A14 reopening at 9:30am on Wednesday morning after two days' closure due to snowfall. Other partial road closures remain in place in Sicily, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna and boat travel to some of the country's islands is severely disrupted, with Capraia, and the islands of Elba and Giglio all isolated due to agitated seas.
chool closures continue across the country, including in the mountainous parts of the Umbria and Marche regions, Prato in Tuscany, and northern Sardinia.
IN PICTURES: Italy transforms into a winter wonderland with heavy snowfall
The wintery spell is expected to continue until next Thursday at the very earliest, the weather boffins at Meteo.it predict, with continued cold weather across the country and more snow in the centre-south and extremely strong winds of over 100km/h in Trieste and Tuscany.
Wednesday will likely bring widespread cloud and rain, with snow in Emilia Romagna, Marche and northern Abruzzo at 100-300m altitudes, while elsewhere snowfall will be constrained to areas above 400m. Temperatures are expected to remain low before seeing slight increases on Thursday and Friday.
But the weekend should finally bring some moderate relief, with slight improvement in conditions expected across the country but especially in the central-south.
Author: Martin Plaut
Martin Plaut and Leonard Vincent
It may not be a physical barrier comparable to Donald Trump’s wall to prevent Mexicans from reaching the USA, but it is nearly in place. Europe is close to sealing the routes refugees and migrants take across the Mediterranean. Consider the facts. These are the routes into southern Europe. (Map: Frontex Risk Analysis, Q2 2016) frontex-migration-2016
Two routes that Africans have used in the past have almost been sealed. There is next to no transit by sea from West Africa through the Canary Islands and only a limited number arriving in Spain.
The route through the Sinai and Israel has been closed.
The brutal treatment of Eritreans and Sudanese in the Sinai by mafia-style Bedouin families, who extracted ransoms with torture and rape, was certainly a deterrent. So too has been the increasing propensity of Egypt to deport Eritreans to their home country, despite the risks that they will be jailed and abused when they are returned. But this route was sealed in December 2013 when the Israeli authorities built an almost impregnable fence, blocking entry via the Sinai.
This has left Libya – and to a lesser extent Egypt – as the only viable routes for Africans to use. Both are becoming more difficult. Although the International Organisation for Migration calculates that roughly 17 men, women and children perishing every day making the crossing, or nearly one every hour, they have not been deterred.
Libya is critical to the success of the EU’s strategy, as a recent European assessment explained: “Libya is of pivotal importance as the primary point of departure for the Central Mediterranean route.”
Libya: the final brick in the ‘wall’
The European Union has adopted new tactics to try to seal the central Mediterranean route.
The countries keenest to push this for this to take place are Germany and Italy, which took the bulk of the refugees that arrived in recent years. Germany received nearly 1.2 million asylum seekers over the past two years, while Italy received 335,000 arrivals over the course of 2015 and 2016.
Earlier this month Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti was dispatched to Tripoli to broker an agreement on fighting irregular migration through the country with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord.
Minniti and al-Sarraj agreed to reinforce cooperation on security, the fight against terrorism and human trafficking.
“There is a new impulse here — we are moving as pioneers,” Mario Giro, Italy’s deputy foreign minister, told the Financial Times. “But there is a lot of work to do, because Libya still doesn’t yet have the capacity to manage the flows, and the country is still divided.”
The deal has, apparently, hit a snag. The Libyan government is resisting Italy’s proposals, although their detailed objections have not been revealed.
Germany’s aid threat
While Italy’s attempting to strike a deal with Libya, Germany is issuing threats.
With Chancellor Angela Merkel facing elections in 2017 and keen to show she is no longer a ‘soft touch’ for refugees, a much harder line is now being taken with anyone seeking asylum in Germany.
Germany deported 25,000 migrants in 2016 and another 55,000 were persuaded to return home voluntarily.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is pushing a plan that would make it easier to detain rejected asylum seekers considered a potential security threat, and to deport them from “repatriation centres” at airports.
Germany is underling its determination to cut numbers by threatening to end development aid to countries that refuse to take back rejected asylum seekers. “Those who do not cooperate sufficiently cannot hope to benefit from our development aid,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told Der Spiegel.
Europe and Africa
The Italian proposals are very much in line with agreements the EU reached with African leaders during their summit in Malta, in late 2015.
The two sides signed a deal to halt the flight of refugees and migrants.
Europe offered training to “law enforcement and judicial authorities” in new methods of investigation and “assisting in setting up specialised anti-trafficking and smuggling police units”. The European police forces of Europol and the EU’s border force (Frontex) will assist African security police in countering the “production of forged and fraudulent documents”.
This meant co-operating with dictatorial regimes, like Sudan, which is ruled by Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
But President al-Bashir is now seen as a western friend, despite his notorious record. One of President Obama’s last acts in office has been to lift sanctions against Sudan.
What is clear from the Italian and German initiatives is that Europe is determined to do all it can to reduce, and finally halt, the flow of Africans through Libya – the only viable route left for most African migrants and refugees to reach Europe.
A legal route into Europe
While the informal and illegal routes are being sealed a tiny legitimate route is being opened. The Catholic Church, working through its aid arm, Caritas and the Community of Sant Egidio, has managed to negotiate an agreement with Italy for 500 refugees from the Horn of Africa to be allowed to come to Italy.
Oliviero Fortis, Head of the Immigration Department of Caritas, said: “We must, as far as possible, promote legal and secure entry solutions. Being able to enter Italy with a visa is an operation that works perfectly. Except at the political level, and that’s the big problem! It is the Italian Church that will bear the costs, in the hope that this initiative will be a model for the acceptance of refugees that can be monitored and replicated by European institutions.”
EU and Eritrea
Eritrea – among the most brutal dictatorships in Africa – remains one of the key sources of migration and refugees. Although Eritrea has fewer citizens than most other African states more Eritreans arrived illegally in Europe in early 2016 than from any other African country.
This comes at a time of unprecedented pressure on Eritrean refugees, as they make their way through Sudan and into Libya. The Sudanese government’s ‘Rapid Support Force’ – an autonomous special force headed by a notorious Janjaweed commander – has been used to round up refugees, to deport them back to Eritrea.
The EU is floundering around attempting to halt this exodus. Recently it offered €200 million in aid to Eritrean ‘projects’, but has few means of monitoring just how it will be spent. Eritrea is a one-party state, in which the ruling PFDJ has never held a congress.
The country is ruled by a narrow clique surrounding President Isaias Afwerki, which uses National Service conscripts on the farms and factories that they control.
While the EU has outlined a range of programmes it is willing to support, given the monopoly power exercised by the sole party and army commanders over the entire Eritrean society, it has next to no means of ensuring that the funds do not ultimately end up reinforcing this autocracy.
If the EU initiatives fail (and it is highly likely that they will) they will only serve to strengthen the Eritrean and Sudanese regimes. At the same time attempting to block Libya and Egypt as the only remaining means of reaching European soil is likely to force Eritrean and Sudanese citizens to take even longer and more dangerous journeys to reach safety.
The EU is working hard to strengthen its ties with Libya so that it can go into Libyan waters and destroy the boats and other infrastructure used to smuggle Africans into Europe.
In a report to EU’s 28 member states, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, who heads the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR MED) explained that it is vital that
European navies operated inside Libyan territorial waters to halt trafficking. But this cannot happen at present. “It is clear that the legal and political pre-conditions have not been met,” said Admiral Credendino, indicating that greater cooperation with the Libyan authorities was needed.
The tiny legal route offered by Italy is unlikely to meet the needs of Africans desperate to seek refuge in Europe. Instead, the increasing restrictions are likely to lead to increased deaths and despair as destitute African youths take ever-more risky routes out of Africa – and further destabilisation of an already fragile part of the world.
This is the likely outcome of Europe’s African ‘wall’.
It will neither end the flow of refugees fleeing suffocating repression, nor will it seal the borders of Europe. Thousands of people fleeing for their lives will be forced away from Europe (and away from European public opinion). Instead it will place the burden of this crisis on brutal and often racist regimes along the fugitives’ routes.
And all this for what?
Refusing to accommodate, for a reasonable period of time, a few thousand young women and men who are only too eager to learn, live and contribute to European societies, until eventually circumstances change and they can return home with gratitude towards their European hosts.
It’s not only a shame; it is a political mistake of historic proportions.
Disaster comes day after more than 550 migrants rescued between Libya and Italy
Saturday 14 January 2017
The disaster came a day after two migrants were found crushed to death in a dinghy AP
More than 100 refugees have drowned after a boat sank in rough conditions in the Mediterranean Sea as the crisis shows no sign of slowing.
The Italian Navy was searching for survivors from the vessel, which was believed to be carrying up to 110 people.
Only four survivors were pulled from the water, with at least eight bodies found so far.
Flavio Di Giacomo, from the International Organisation for Migration, told The Independent around 106 people were thought to have died and described the conditions at sea as "extremely bad".
The boat went down in waters between Libya and Italy, which has become the deadliest sea crossing in the world since the start of the refugee crisis.
It claimed the vast majority of more than 5,000 lives lost in treacherous boat journeys to Europe in 2016, the deadliest year on record, with people drowning or being crushed or suffocated in overcrowded smugglers' boats.
Saturday's disaster was the worst single incident so far this year, which has already seen at least 122 deaths at sea.
The news about the passing away of Dr. Habte Tesfamariam in the early evening of 13 January 2017 in German at 74 years of age had once more struck as a thunderbolt the rank and file of the Eritrean National Salvation Front, in particular, and its sister organizations in the opposition camp, and the wider change and justice seekers’ national movement, in general. The death of Dr. Habte is yet another devastating loss the ENSF has suffered in the span of the past few years.
His involvement in the Eritrean national movement had started at youthful age. As a student he had joined the Eritrean Liberation Movement whose message and organization had soon after its formation in 1958 spread countrywide in 7-person clandestine formations. During his enrollment as veterinary science student in Alemaya College, Ethiopia, he continued his activities from there as well. Subsequent to graduation with the first degree, he moved to Poland to pursue higher studies. From there, too, he joined other fellow compatriots to organize Europe-wide student union, which they wanted to link with the General Union of the Eritrean students whose members were studying in Cairo, Baghdad and Syria.
As chairman of his union in Europe he was frequent visitor to the Middle East in the 60s for the purpose of consulting with the ELF leadership of the time (The Supreme Council and the ELF later), and unifying the student unions under the General Union of the Eritrean Students (GUES). One of those travelers was in 1968. These missions had continued during his time as Ph.D. candidate in Berlin, East Germany. Following the completion of his studies there, he joined the ELF as a full timer fighter
The first encounter the writer of these lines had with him in person was at the venue of the ELF Second National Congress in 1975 where he was elected as a member of the higher political leadership the front, the Revolutionary Council. It was in that capacity that he was assigned to lead the European and African desk of the ELF Foreign Relations from his base in Damascus, Syria. Close working relationship between the Foreign Relations office and the ELF Foreign Information Center in Beirut, Lebanon, had given me as a member of the staff of the latter an opportunity to know Dr. Habte more as a person and an activist.
Dr. Habte was a kind, humble and modest man. A first impression was sufficient for a person to mark his jovial nature. His humility and respect for individual’s regardless of rank or status manifested themselves in practical life. Whenever he happened to be for work visits, he had shared his stipend or allowance with his subordinates, and did the shopping and prepared meals for them while they attended their jobs. I was one of those who had enjoyed his kindness and affection.
During his tenure as head of Euro-African desk in the ELF Foreign Relations bureau, his effort to open relations with European and African countries was relentless. It must be recalled that during those times these countries were almost totally closed area to ELF, and the Eritrean activists in general due to Ethiopia’s dominant diplomatic influence that encompassed the two superpowers of the time and their allies. Therefore, his movement was closely watched, and in one incident in 1976 in Lusaka, Zambia, he had narrowly escaped kidnapping by enemy security agents thanks to the then Ambassador of Somalia.
Due to this hurdles his efforts had faced, his pursuit of political and diplomatic openings for the ELF were run in two directions: political and diplomatic where possible and humanitarian aid channels to help refugees mainly in the camps in Eastern Sudan. In regard to the latter, he joined hands in 1975 with his friend from his student days, Dr. Yusuf Birhanu Ahmaddin, to found the Eritrean Red Cross-Crescent Society. This became crucial means in establishing contacts and relations with humanitarian and non-governmental aid agencies, and provided valuable medical and school facilities to needy refugees and their children such as UNESCO school in Kassala, Sudan, and the primary school at Wed-Sherifey refugee camp kilometers outskirt of Kassala.
His tenure in the Foreign Relation office had continued up to the end of the year 70s, and the setback the ELF had suffered in 1982 due to the allied EPLF-TPLF assault. The internal crisis and the unfortunate March 25 military takeover by contingents of the ELF under the late Abdalla Idris Mohammed, and detention of most of the top leadership had embarked Dr. Habte on extremely difficult mission.
The principal challenge was how to preserve at least some semblance of what the ELF had represented: demographic representation and programmatic ideals. It was then that his leadership quality had factored to manifest in resoluteness for principles and pragmatism in dealing with problems in the context of existing realities. During that difficult time, when the mainstream segment of the ELF that retained the name ELF-RC faced impossible options of disbanding or continuing as an organization, Dr. Habte had to rely on his pragmatism and find maneuvering space. That was the time when he and other leaders decided to opt for merger with the late Osman Saleh Sabbe’s organization and avoid dispersal and oblivion. That decision gave accorded the organization a breathing space until it could reorganize its rank and file re-emerge again as viable organization. Thus, Dr. Habte joined by the late Ahmed Mohammed Nasser and Ibrahim Mohammed Ali and many others, were able to lead the ELF-RC to hold its 3rd National Congress in 1989 from where it re-launched itself to play its role.
Ever since, thus, he served the organization in top level positions such as the chairmanship of the higher political leadership council (RC) and numerous ad hoc political missions and dialogue committees for unity. There had hardly been an attempt in the long unity efforts in which Dr. Habte had not played prominent role. This was true even in post-liberation years since 1991, when the monopolistic and dictatorial nature of the EPLF regime became more and more entrenched. Indeed, the struggle to unify the opposition organizations and rally support for them has demanded patriots with Dr. Habte’s level of commitment to national unity and liberation.
For that reason, he was conspicuously visible at various stages in the forums and conferences that produced opposition umbrellas. He had never missed any significant platform of which the 2010 Akaki Conference that led to Hawassa Congress a year after mere examples. He had served so diligently on the committees that he had co-authored of the Road Map which the Hawassa Congress of 2011 had adopted.
His comrades-in struggle, and generations to come, shall remember Dr. Habte an as accomplished patriot who had uniquely combined resoluteness on principles and flexible pragmatism on expediency whenever circumstances had called for it. This outlook reinforced by personal character had served him well in times of political crises. Whenever contradictions made political divorce, and thereby, decision making inevitable, the fate of national unity to which he was totally committed was deal maker or deal breaker. He shall be remembered as a man with unshaking faith in national unity through solidarity and integration as opposed to unity through compromise oriented military and political balances. On this matter, thus, no expediency or power of persuasion could sway him to compromise.
Dr. Habte had passed away while still the beloved and respected fatherly chairman of the Eritrean National Salvation Front. He shall be missed for long time as those who preceded him. He is survived with three bright children and their beloved mother.
May his soul rest in eternal peace, and his widow and children be graced with the strength that enable them work through the devastating grief.