Since its hard-won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, Eritrea has been governed by former freedom fighter Isaias Afewerki. The country’s future looked very promising at the start. However, since the border war with Ethiopia (1998–2000), a state of emergency has prevailed. Afewerki’s regime is using this to legitimize a year-long period of compulsory national service. Promised elections were never held and the constitution has still not been implemented. Independent media and civil society organizations have been banned. Opposition activists have been imprisoned or left the country.
In 2016, 5,000 Eritreans left their country every month. Over 150’000 Eritrean refugees are registered in Ethiopia and about 100’000 in Sudan. Switzerland is one of the most important destination countries for Eritrean asylum seekers in Europe.
In light of the relatively high number of applications and the very high protection quota, there has been some dispute in Europe since 2014 regarding the actual situation in Eritrea. Politicians in particular keep trying to paint the situation facing the civilian population in Eritrea as not that bad, which would make it possible to send Eritrean refugees back. The enforcement of removal orders to Eritrea from Europe is not possible at this time. In Switzerland, the State Secretariat for Migration tightened things up in 2016. Under this new approach, persons who could not give any reason for seeking asylum other than illegal migration were no longer recognized as refugees. The EU has taken various measures to stem migration beyond Europe’s borders, with its plans, for example, to support Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya with their border security.
Given the dramas people face on their journey to Europe, the European countries should focus on legal migration options and resettlement sites instead of isolation. For as long as the situation in Eritrea fails to improve, the Swiss Refugee Council sees no justification for tightening asylum policy.