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Out of the frying pan And thrown into the fire; The Saga of Eritrean Asylum Seekers Deported from Malta Imprisoned and Tortured in Eritrea

Out of the frying pan And thrown into the fire; The Saga of Eritrean Asylum Seekers Deported from Malta Imprisoned and Tortured in Eritrea

March 2006

I. Back ground

They originated from a land of perpetual war and killing, a land of stolen youth, a land of suffering parents, a land of disrespected elders and a land of camouflaged slavery.

They are the son’s and daughters of a nation who witnessed their country change from a land of the living to a military camp celebrating death. They were born of brave patriots, tolerant, law abiding, gentle and proud citizens, and assertive individuals who do not blink when claiming their rights.

They are citizens of Africa’s youngest country which is home to a heroic generation of fighters who against all odds fought an epic thirty year war of liberation against Ethiopia, a struggle to create a unique African state, democratic, peaceful and prosperous.

When their country joyfully declared it’s independence from Ethiopia back in 1993, it was heralded as the beginning of an African renaissance but what has followed since has been a decade of war, famine, drought and political repression.
To the dismay of many this great experiment in African democracy is now dead and buried. It’s all such a far cry from the heady days of the liberation struggle, when their people confronted the mighty Ethiopian war machine which was backed in turn by the Americans, then the Soviets.

They come from a nation where all able bodied citizens aged between 18 and 40 are soldiers and forced military conscripts. The right to conscientious objection to military service is not recognized. National service has been extended indefinitely by administrative decision, conscription accelerated and military training shortened.

Their government has unleashed a crackdown on all evangelical Christians since 2002. All Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations, Adventists, Presbyterians, Assemblies of God, Mennonite and Methodist linked churches, which are collectively called “evangelicals” (or sometimes “pentes”, a pejorative term) were all closed down by the government in 2002. Historically rooted in Marxist ideology, the government says evangelicals are unpatriotic, foreign, imperialist lackeys that disrupt national unity. The President is afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state’s instructions.

All evangelical churches have been closed and there members are even forbidden from worshiping privately in their homes. Upwards of 1800 are currently under arrest for their faith, their only crime being praying, reading the Bible or worshipping the Lord Jesus in groups. Possession of a Bible and prayer meetings are punishable by imprisonment. Through a systematic incessant interrogation, food depravation and torture many are ordered to sign documents renouncing their faith or risk being indefinitely locked up in metal shipping containers.

They come from a country where several hundred relatives (fathers, mothers, eldest available brother or closest adult relative) of people who have evaded or deserted from military conscription or failed to report for national service since 1994 have been arrested and held incommunicado, in harsh conditions. The arrest includes of elderly people, some of whom are infirm or blind, their crimes facilitating the evasion of conscription or flight abroad. None of those arrested has been charged with a criminal offence but have been offered release on bail of 50,000 Nakfa (US$3,300), if they guaranteed that they would produce their missing relative

They originated from a nation where widespread and systematic use of torture and ill-treatment is used as a standard form of punishment on alleged dissenters and all political prisoners. The various form of tying and beating are nicknamed “helicopter" "Otto" (Italian for eight), "Jesus Christ", "Ferro"(Italian for iron)"Torch". Torture used in interrogations of political prisoners held in security prisons includes electric shocks and sexual torture – a coca-cola bottle filled with water and tied to the testicles.

They fled from a nation where conditions of detention for political prisoners are extremely harsh. Many prisoners are held in crowded underground cells where they hardly ever see daylight. They are detained in numerous built or make-shift prisons throughout the country, mostly secret with access prohibited.

Metal shipping containers, brought from ports and used elsewhere for storage, are now widely used to accommodate the expanding number of prisoners and also for punishment. Prisoners held in shipping containers are locked up for almost 24 hours a day. Containers become extremely hot and suffocating during the day and very cold at night. The conditions are unhygienic and infectious diseases spread rapidly.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has no access to any of the prisoners or to these prisons. Many prisoners are said to have died in custody as a result of torture or absence of medical treatment. There are no inquests into deaths of prisoners and families are not informed.

The leader of the nation is the source of all power and authority. He is the law, the judge, the jury and the executioner. He is hailed as the great leader and cannot be criticized. He is the “Kim Il Sung of Africa” and has effectively turned the nation to another North Korea.

Those who dared to voice a differing opinion have ended up being thrown into remote jails, where no one knows how many and why they are there. He can send you to war at will, imprison you, or just plain execute you if you ever cross his path or disobey him. He has stopped all dialogue and rejected any scrutiny of violations of civil liberties and fundamental human rights in contradiction of all international human rights treaties, laws and safeguards.

Their new nation, who barely 14 years after its victorious war of liberation has reached a point where it meets all the criteria of a failed nation. Its institutional structures exhibit internal decay. The economy is in shambles. Health services have deteriorated beyond repair. The quality of education is just as hopeless. Malnutrition and diseases are rampant.

Their homeland is at war with all its neighbors namely Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen. A recent border war with Ethiopia alone has consumed over 20,000 people and millions of dollars worth of it’s meager resources.

These youngsters are part of an increasing flow of new post independence asylum seekers from Eritrea to various countries in the world. They are part of those fleeing their country in growing numbers from a government that has an appalling human rights record and violation of human rights on a massive scale.

II. The journey from Eritrea to Malta
Fleeing persecution they trekked from Eritrea in East Africa to North Africa across a grueling 3800 kms. of journey comparable only to the biblical exodus of the Israelites with the hope of reaching safe shores where they could get asylum.

These Eritrea’s new wave of refugees on the “route of death” in trying to escape an inevitable death at home under the dictatorial regime of President Isayas journeyed crossing over the border to the Sudan passing via Khartoum and Suq-Libya to Unwainat and Ejabiya on the Sudan-Libya border, through the killing and always moving sandbanks of the Sahara Desert, to Kufra, Bengazi and Tripoli in Libya.

They were desperate people, who risked the searing desert of the Sahara and it’s ever shifting sandbanks following an unmarked line on the map on to the drowning waves of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the process countless perished in the desert and the high seas. Since no one has ever tried to document the loss of Eritrean lives when attempting to flee, No one can in certainty tell the actual number of Casualties. Hundreds if not thousands have simply perished.

They used different methods to flee Eritrea and enter Sudan. Some buy internal mobility permits (menkesakesi) from the corrupt Eritrean regime officials/officers. Some disguise themselves as traders, or as a soldier going to his/her unit or government functionary on internal travel. The mobility permit alone costs several hundred dollars. Some pay smugglers, mainly local tribesmen who know the area to help them.

In The Sudan neither the UNHCR nor the Sudanese government recognize them as refugees. Most applications are rejected. Hence they continued their journey on board small Lorries and trucks across the Sahara to Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya. The journey takes anywhere between 10 days to 20 days, depending on correct direction and some good luck. Many died of thirst and hunger when they attempted to cross the Sahara on foot after their truck broke in the middle of nowhere. Some were swallowed up in the quick sands of the desert. Some died of heat stroke and sheer exhaustion.

At the end of this perilous journey those who arrived in Tripoli and Benghazi Libya begin to prepare for the third leg of their odyssey. The survivors of the desert trip soon start the third round of preparation for another risky journey. i.e. to cross the turbulent Mediterranean sea on board ill fitted small boats. There intended destination is Sicily in Italy and onwards to mainland Europe, there to ask for asylum and find a safe heaven. They each pay about US$ 1,000.00 and are packed like sardines in small fishing boats which were built for coastal fishing and not to undertake such a hazardous sea crossing.

Some make it. Some drown when the boats capsize in the ever turbulent sea of the Mediterranean. In June 2003 near Tunis a boat with about 250 on board sunk when it capsized. Only 14 survived. No one knows how many Eritreans died in this and other boats that faced similar tragic fate. Their bodies are either washed ashore or hauled in by local fishermen. Some of them are never found, their silent corps lying deep in the sea with their stories untold, and buried without ceremony in the womb of the ocean along with their dreams.

For the world they are just some subhuman species named “illegal immigrants”. For their family they are beloved sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Somewhere a mother cries for her lost son, a wife wails for the death of her husband, a child longs for his father and wonders where he is. Some reporter somewhere reports it in some newspaper as an incident off the shores of some country in the Mediterranean and they are forgotten the next day.

Some are spotted and rescued by coast guards or naval ships when their boats are found floundering at sea. Some are sighted by passer by ships or patrolling airplanes, and are hauled in to shore. Some boats tossed by the waves just drift in to some unknown coast with a human cargo of some living and some dead from exhaustion and dehydration, all piled up on top of one another like a vision out of hell or a bad horror movie.

It was on March 3, 2002 that the first group of 150 Eritreans landed in Malta unintentionally. There intended destination was Italy and mainland Europe. In late July 2002 a larger group of 250 persons arrived. Other smaller groups also continued to arrive during 2002 and 2003. They arrived in small rickety un seaworthy boats of 20 to 100 people. They consisted of men, women and children ranging from 8 months old to 50 years of age.

Upon arrival they were interned in 3 detention centers, namely Ta’Kandja, Safi Barracks and Hal-Far. These were heavily overcrowded detention centers that make living conditions difficult. Mr. Alvaro Gil-Roberts Council of Europe human rights commissioner, after a visit to the detention centers to Malta said “In comparison to your prisons, the detention centers here in Malta are shocking.”

Amongst the detained were 28 children of which 10 were infants, born in detention. These children, who have not committed any offence, were detained with their parents below internationally recognized standards of detention, in an environment that would be ultimately damaging to their development, deprived of all the social, material and psychological needs necessary to their growth, and in contradiction to International standards that require that children should only be detained as a last resort, in exceptional cases and for the shortest possible period of time.
The detention centers in Malta were run by the police and armed forces. Many were held on grounds beyond those permissible under international norms. Inmates frequently lacked access to appropriate legal advice. There were severe delays in processing asylum applications. Almost all asylum applications were rejected. Asylum seekers were treated inhumanely. When they are sick and have to go to the hospital they were handcuffed, as if they were criminals. To add insult to injury the Maltese government decided to deport the asylum seekers back to Eritrea.

III. Deportation to Eritrea

Malta, in direct contradiction to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol which upholds the principle of non-refoulement, and in complete disregard to Amnesty International’s letter of 27 September urging the Maltese government to refrain from returning any of these asylum-seekers to their country of origin, forcibly deported 223 asylum seekers back to Eritrea in September and October of 2002. It was a cold blooded action that caused enormous suffering and pain. Here is some extract of what happened to them when they arrived in Eritrea.

The deportation started on the 29th of September 2002. 55 asylum seekers were handcuffed and each one escorted by two Maltese Special Forces was led to a waiting Maltese aircraft. Each one was made to sit between two soldiers. Additional soldiers were sitting at the front and back of the aircraft. They were flown to Asmara, Eritrea and handed over to the waiting Eritrean security personnel. Mission accomplished they returned back to Malta. The total number of Maltese Special Forces was 120.

In similar manner additional 3 aircrafts with almost similar number of asylum seekers and soldiers took off from Malta within a few days from each other and transported 223 Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea (men, women, children and pregnant women and lactating mothers).

Once in Eritrea, the asylum seekers were transported to Adi Abeyto prison, ordered to take off there shoes, searched thoroughly, relieved of all their belongings except the clothes on their back and were locked up.

“The armed soldiers escorting ordered: “keep your heads down! Do not talk to one another! Anyone who is caught moving his head will be dealt with….you will see!” We passed through the heart of Asmara, the city where we were born and raised, the city for which we shed our blood and sweat, now with our head bent, like prisoners of war, we passed through it headed to our destination Adi Abeyto prison.” Testimony of one of the deportees from Malta who later escaped.

In Adi Abeyto prison they were kept in a tin roofed grain storage structure all together with no blanket or nothing to sleep on except the bare floor. They huddled together comforting each other awaiting their fate, not knowing what would happen next. They were led out in single files twice a day to relieve themselves. For the times in between and for the night, there was a big bucket for urination in the room.

They were called by name one by one, handcuffed and led to another room for interrogation. They were beaten, tortured, mocked and harassed. They were not allowed to bathe; they were deliberately and systematically tortured to break their spirit.

We didn’t bathe for nearly a month. We were so filthy that our bodies and clothing were covered by lice. The first order of duty in the morning was to take one’s clothes off and to kill the lice. To those who considered this lacking in decorum some would tease them: “so-and-so’s lice will only die of old age.” Testimony of one of the deportees from Malta who later escaped.

In desperation 27 of the deportees attempted to escape. The prison guards opened fire on the bare footed unarmed and hungry detainees. Killed one, wounded several and captured all.

"Robel Goniche, a young man from Asmara [deported from Malta (17) and detained at Adi Abeto prison] was shot at the edge of the compound trying to escape and later died. All 27 who tried to escape were badly beaten, flat on the ground, until some were bleeding on the head with teeth and lips cut. One had an arm broken, which never healed straight, and another had his leg cut with a bayonet."

In mid December with the exception of two, all the women and some men over the age of 40 were separated from the group of detainees. The rest around 170 of them were again loaded on trucks and taken to the port of Massawa. They were put on a ship and transported to Dahlak Island in the midst of the Red Sea.

The Dahlak Archipelago comprises of 124 islands, mostly rocky islets, off the Red Sea coast of Eritrea. There are three principal islands, the largest of which is Dahlak which is located 58 kms. from Massawa. In Roman times the islands were famous for its pearl fisheries. A more sinister aspect of the islands’ history is that they were one of the most important conduits for the export of slaves from the mainland to Arabia. In the early years of the Italian colonial rule i.e. 1891/1892, the island was established as a detention camp for the anti-colonial Eritreans. During the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea the prison was used by the Dergue. Thousands of political prisoners lost their lives there, indicating the bitter conditions of this prison. It is a very hot and inhospitable place with the temperature ranging from 35 – 45 degree centigrade.

Prison life in Dahlak was simply hell. They were kept in warehouses with corrugated tin roofs and dirt floors. All windows and doors were always closed. In the sweltering heat the rooms were stifling hot. 110 detainees were kept in one room with just 60 centimeters of space per person.

What we endured there is bitterer than the bile of an elephant [an Eritrean expression to describe something intolerably bitter] and even if one were to use the sky as a writing board, it would not suffice. Food and water was inadequate. There was insufficient medical treatment. One is allowed to go to the bathroom only twice a day…………You eat the same food, without change, for months. A 25-liter water can was given for two detainees to wash your body and your clothes once every month. Drinking water was either rusty or infested with insects and we developed all kinds of health problems. If you so much as look out the window, you will be punished. Nobody is allowed to pray, to supplicate or to read the Bible or the Koran. If you disobey, you will be tied in the helicopter position and beaten.
Testimony of one of the deportees from Malta who later escaped.

In July of 2003, after eight months of imprisonment in Dahlak about 93 mostly civilians were sent to secret mainland prisons, leaving behind around 75 in Dahlak prison. Some managed to escape from the mainland prisons and reentered the Sudan and sought UNHCR protection. 21 of those who re-escaped have now been resettled in Canada. 14 are in Winnipeg, 1 in Brandon, 3 in Windsor, 1 in Halifax and 2 in Vancouver. The fate of the 75 left in Dahlak is not clear. It is presumed that they are still held there incommunicado till this day.

The deportation of these 223 asylum seekers from Malta created an international uproar at the time from a number of human rights organizations, and Eritrean civic societies in the Diaspora. Because of international pressure the Maltese Authorities halted the forcible deportation of the Eritrean Asylum seekers, but continued to hold them in detention.

On December 25, 2003, the Maltese government as a good will gesture moved 80 of the detainees to an open center. Furthermore, on the 11th of February, 2004 the rest of the detainees were released with the exception of 6 asylum seekers.

In conjunction with other Eritrean Civic societies and human rights organizations, The Community of Eritrean Canadians in Manitoba was actively engaged in the advocacy for the humane treatment of the asylum seekers from the day they arrived in Malta. After the deportation of the 223 asylum seekers, the community continued to campaign for the release of the remaining detainees in Malta.

Alarmed by the developments in Malta, the Community in October 2003 asked the Canadian government to allow the remaining asylum seekers in detention in Malta to be resettled in Canada. In its efforts to find a durable solution for the detainees, the Community asked many for assistance. Among them were Pat Martin MP Central Winnipeg, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, and the Premier of Manitoba Mr. Gary Doer.

Mr. Pat Martin further circulated a petition in parliament and requested his fellow parliamentarians for assistance in the matter. Even though the support of a number of MPs and Senators was secured, it was not enough to convince the minister of CIC.

The Community further requested the then Minister of CIC Mrs. Judy Sgro to allow the detainees to immigrate to Canada. Mrs. Sgro in her letter of February 06, 2004 to the Community regretfully informed us that,

“CIC works closely with such organizations as the UNHCR to identify and process those individuals most in need of protection. This means that our resources are largely focused ……where needs are greatest and where the UNHCR has identified refugees who are in need of resettlement.” She further wrote that “UNHCR has been advised of your concerns as well as your requests for CIC’s assistance in gaining protection for the Eritreans in Malta. If called to do so by the UNHCR, our officials will assess any applications for resettlement from this group on a case by case basis.”

The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council had also requested CIC on our behalf, to consider bringing over the refugees to Winnipeg under Joint Assistance Program through a blended initiative or by an expedited private sponsorship process. CIC in an emailed response dated 11 February, 2004 to MIIC again regrettably responded that,

“The situation of the Eritrean Asylum seekers in Malta is one that the Refugees Branch has been following closely. We have contacted both the Canadian mission in Rome and the UNHCR to advise them of your concerns and to request that we be kept informed of any developments. ……. However official and UNHCR will continue to carefully monitor the situation. If requested to do so by the UNHCR any applications for resettlement from this group will be assessed on a case by case basis in accordance with our legislation.”

Two years later now the Canadian government has begun resettling the ex-Malta detainees. We would like to thank the people and government of Canada that they have extended their helping hand to these unfortunate victims of persecution who have been forgotten and abandoned by the world and who underwent such gross abuse and immense suffering in the hands of both the Governments of Malta and Eritrea. Once again Canada true it’s tradition has proved that it is a shelter from the storm, a safe haven and a refuge from persecution. We are grateful for this decision and proud of our adopted homeland.


We would like to raise the case of the remaining ex-detainees in Malta again. These refugees even though released from detention are living in Malta without any legal status whatsoever. They have not found any lasting and durable solution to their plight. They live in an open center, with no work, with no future, with no hope and with nowhere to go. Malta is an over populated small island with no or little means to support and integrate these refugees.

These refugees who consist of men, women and children are looking towards us with the hope that we might help them to find a place where they could rebuild their shattered life. In turn as Canadians we hope that the government of Canada would
help us on humanitarian and compassionate grounds to allow them to immigrate to Canada. With some support from the government we can successfully resettle the refugees if given the chance.

Moreover we ask the Canadian Visa Post in Cairo to expedite the resettlement of the remaining ex-maltese detainees who escaped from Eritrea and who are now in the Sudan. These refugees have been given protection by the UNHCR in Khartoum and referred for resettlement to Canada. They are in various stages of processing their application for immigration.

We further request the Canadian government to,

• Cosely monitor the blatant human rights abuse in Eritrea, and press the Government of Eritrea to respect the human rights and civil liberties of all it’s citizen and to abide by international and regional human rights treaties and standards and send a clear message to the Eritrean government to place human rights at the forefront of all it’s domestic and foreign policies.

• To intervene on behalf of the unjustly detained Eritrean asylum seekers deported from Malta in 2002 and who are still in prison in Eritrea and exert as much diplomatic and other measures necessary to secure their immediate release.

• To express concern about the families of refugees and exiles that are detained in Eritrea solely because of their relationship to those who have evaded or deserted military service, and call for their immediate and unconditional release.

• To stand up and speak for religious freedom in Eritrea. Canada cannot keep quite or remain silent and must steadfastly condemn the actions of the Eritrean government. It must stand with the persecuted church in Eritrea and speak out on behalf of the persecuted Eritrean evangelicals when their government wants to rob them of their freedom to worship their God in liberty. And to request for the immediate and unconditional release of all the 1800 and more evangelicals detained in Eritrea.

• To ask the Eritrean government to give the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) access to all prisons and prisoners in Eritrea and to allow their families to visit them.

• And in seeking to stop all forms of persecution including religious persecution, we ask all churches in Canada, human rights and civic organizations and the people of Canada to come together to ensure that their stories are told and the abuses revealed. We as Canadians are obliged by our conscious to stand with them in their time of need.

• To work unilaterally and in conjunction with UNHCR, International NGOs and other governments to establish reception and processing centers for Eritrean refugees in the Sudan and Ethiopia where refugees could be able to get decent and proper services like access to medical treatment, housing, food, education etc., These centers would enable early intervention, and save from the replication of the Maltese tragedy.

Ghirmay S. Yeibio
Community of Eritrean Canadians in Manitoba Inc.
Winnipeg, MB.