Switzerland to hold off on establishing Eritrea embassy

Swiss foreign affairs minister, Ignazio Cassis, in parliament on Thursday. Keystone

The Swiss parliament has instructed the Federal Council to intensify its diplomatic presence in Eritrea, with the goal of stemming the flows of refugees from the country. But opening an embassy in the reclusive state is not yet on the cards.

This content was published on March 15, 2018 minutes
SDA-ATS/dos, with input from Peter Siegenthaler

In its decision on Thursday, the House of Representatives signed off on an adapted text that was earlier ratified by the Senate, calling for a reinforced diplomatic presence in Asmara but not yet a physical embassy.

The final text is thus a watered-down version of the initial motion, spearheaded by the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, which called for full diplomatic representation in the East African state.

The proponents of the motion said that deepened engagement in the country was necessary; not just because of the large Eritrean population in Switzerland (almost 32,000 Eritreans in Switzerland have the status of refugee or temporary resident), but also to gain a clearer picture of the true situation in the secretive state and to reduce the number of refugees coming to Switzerland.

A diplomatic presence in Asmara would also allow for negotiations to begin on a refugee readmission agreement, the initiators said.

Murky picture

Currently, the Swiss ambassadorship to Eritrea is shared with the Sudanese function in Khartoum, said Swiss Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis on Thursday. The ambassador travels to Asmara five or six times annually, Cassis said, and coordinates “high-level dialogues on themes of migration and human rights.”

According to some international reports – including by the UN and Amnesty InternationalExternal link – the Eritrean regime is responsible for systematic rights abuses in prisons and large-scale army camps. Men are drafted into obligatory national service, sometimes indefinitely, and forced labour is allegedly common.

However, a clear picture is difficult to ascertain. Some in Switzerland (and elsewhere) are doubtful about the extent of the abuses, and claim that refugees from Eritrea exaggerate conditions to secure better asylum treatment.

“We want to know if Eritrea is really producing refugees, human beings whose life and physical integrity is threatened, or whether these are economic refugees emigrating to easily earn a higher salary,” said Maximilian Reimann, spokesman for the People’s Party.

Cassis, however, rejected the idea of a new representation as a silver bullet, saying that there was no causal relation between opening an embassy and easing migratory pressures. The opening of an embassy will be the last stage of the process, he said, not the first.

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