Migration office criticises politicians’ Eritrea visit

Swiss parliamentarian Thomas Aeschi visited the village of Mendefera in Eritrea in early February, as part of a private parliamentary mission to the country Keystone

While declaring that Eritrea is not the “North Korea of Africa”, the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration has criticised elements of a controversial two-week private visit by a group of Swiss politicians to the small African state. 

This content was published on February 16, 2016 - 11:20 with agencies

The secretariat is currently examining demands by a group of Swiss politicians who visited Eritrea last month and who wish to meet Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, in charge of immigration, to discuss their conclusions. They had praised the openness of the people they met in Eritrea and the fact that they didn't have problems travelling around.

The secretariat told the Swiss News Agency on Monday that Eritrea is not “the North Korea of Africa” and foreigners could move around “relatively freely”.  Government experts had been able to visit the capital Amsara and other cities without surveillance on trips to Eritrea. 

“However the politicians did not discuss human rights topics linked to asylum procedures,” it added, referring to legal rights, national military service and prisons. 

Parliamentarians Thomas Aeschi (conservative right Swiss People’s Party), Yvonne Feri (centre-left Social Democrat), Claude Béglé (centre-right Christian Democrat), Christian Wasserfallen (centre-right Radical), visited Eritrea with Aargau local politician Susanne Hochuli on a two-week private trip at the beginning of February. They were invited by the Swiss honorary counsel Toni Locher, and met Swiss and Eritrean officials and travelled around the country. 

On their return, the group requested a meeting with Sommaruga and called for a Swiss mission to examine the human rights situation in Eritrea. They also want Switzerland to set up a permanent diplomatic representation, to launch a special development aid project for Eritrea and to discuss refugee issues.

Positive impressions

Members of the group have given several media interviews expressing positive impressions of developments on the ground. 

“It’s a country which has known a very tough dictatorship and the system remains authoritarian but it is opening up,” Béglé told Swiss public radio, RTS, on February 10.

However, in a statement the secretariat said there was “no sufficiently strong evidence to show that the human rights situation in Eritrea had improved significantly”. 

The visit has also been criticised in Switzerland by several politicians and by the head of the Swiss branch of Amnesty International, Manon Schick.

“I would also like to go to Eritea to get an idea of the situation on the ground. But unlike Mr Béglé, and the other parliamentarians, I was not invited on their organised trip last week,”she declared in an editorial in the 24Heures newspaper on Tuesday. 

"That’s normal, the government is frankly hostile to any monitoring of human rights situation in Eritrea. The UN special rapporteur on Eritrea, the African Commission of Human Rights and People and independent organisations like Amnesty International have been refused entry to Eritrea for years. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which can enter, does not have access to prisons. What does the Eritrean government have to hide?” 

Last November, the Swiss government commissioned a report from the foreign ministry on the situation in Eritrea, which should contain a detailed analysis of the situation and “illustrate the political strategies that Switzerland could adopt in the mid- to long term”.

Eritreans make up the largest national group of asylum seekers to Switzerland, with 6,640 Eritreans having been granted refugee status in 2014. Only two other European countries had accepted more Eritreans: Germany, with 13,200 and Sweden, with 11,500.

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