MaltaToday | 22 June 2008 | The real life or death matter

NEWS | Sunday, 22 June 2008

The real life or death matter

On World Refugee Day, MATTHEW VELLA meets Bereket*, an Eritrean who explains why he fled his country and the importance of safeguarding human rights.

You read the newspapers and catch a glimpse of the great immigration debate inside Europe: the odd nutter who writes in catastrophic letters to the editor like the whole country depended on it; the politicians who keep the populist rhetorical machine well oiled. But you never feel the humanity of asylum until you meet a refugee who explains his life-story and the utter despair of those who cannot go back to place you cannot call home.
I meet Bereket at the Jesuit Refugee Service, the NGO whose untiring service to asylum seekers and refugees has earned it accolades from abroad (its chief lawyer Katrine Vella was last year’s recipient of the UNHCR’s Nansen award), while here at home it has literally come under attack (the Jesuits’ and Vella's car were set on fire in one of the anti-immigration attacks that even targeted journalists).
There has been no other issue like that of asylum and immigration to Malta and Europe that has betrayed the hypocrisy of even an allegedly devout Catholic nation as Malta. But the problem, as Fr Paul Pace, the director of JRS Malta, explains, is that it’s hard trying to get people to understand who refugees are, and why the right to protection from persecution – asylum – is a universal right enshrined in the Geneva Convention to which all EU countries are party to.
“Malta’s situation is part of a phenomenon that is much greater and even more serious worldwide. World Refugee Day reminds us of our duties, both humanitarian and legal. The Geneva Convention to which Malta and all the EU countries are signatories, defines who is entitled to refugee protection and gives anyone recognised as such the right to be protected, because they cannot be protected inside their own country. And often irregular entry is the only way to gain protection from a country: the question of terminology is never-ending, but both the Geneva Convention and Maltese law accepts that in such cases, illegal entry is not a criminal act. If you are fleeing your government, how can you ask for a passport from this government?”
This is Bereket’s story:
“I am 29. Before I left Eritrea I was a university student, I graduated in sociology, and then I was conscripted into the military, which is mandatory for 18 months. We were taken into detention, which is very harsh, because we opposed a summer military campaign. Later on I got assigned to a military unit again, and I escape from it. I escape from the country because of limitless military conscription. I wanted to practice what I learnt from school, but for me there is no chance. I served for almost two years in the military when it is just one year and a half by law, but it was aimless. I had to leave the country.”
Bereket then left Eritrea by entering Sudan.
“The journey is very hard, very difficult. You have to take the risk. It is not easy to find a way to pass military guards. There are military checkpoints, and you have to cross on foot, spend days and nights on the journey. Sometimes you lose people. They pay for with their life. Some of them, they get shot by border guards. Some of them die of hunger or thirst.
“From Sudan we go to Libya. We had to cross the desert. This is organised business. There are people who are experts in this field. They put you, sometimes 50 people, in a single four-wheel drive car. You stay 20 days to one month in this car travelling the desert with no food. If someone of the people is sick they have to throw them in the desert. They will be very happy if they saw someone seriously sick. They would have already been paid, some $1,000 just to cross the desert.
“In Libya, everyone is ‘police’. It is very difficult to stay there, especially for Christians. Christians don’t speak Arabic. Libya’s slogan is ‘one country, one religion’.”
Soon enough, Bereket had settled the last part of his journey to make it into Europe.
“The destination was always Europe. Because there is respect of human rights. It is important for refugees. For us to stay in a country with our regime, it is very important for us to have these rights. In Eritrea, the media is controlled by the state. So all journalists and freelancers right now are imprisoned. So it is very difficult situation these people face.
“In Libya, there are middlemen for each nationality. The traffickers get the money through middlemen. I speak to the mediator who takes me to the trafficker. You pay $1,000, you are put in a small boat with around 35 people: pregnant women, old people, people with diseases. No one knows if you will survive. If you are caught by the Libyan authorities, you are tortured in prison, and given electric shocks. It’s country without human rights agencies. It’s a matter of life and death: you either pass these obstacles, or you die.
“On the sea we spent five days. I didn’t know about Malta before. And we were put into detention when we arrived: I spent eight months. It’s too long. Detention is not easy.”
Bereket then tells me he has a wife and kids back home. Because of his status, Bereket cannot return to his home country until, if anything, he is completely safe to do so. His family is still in Eritrea, and despite the remote possibility of reuniting with his family – which is governed by a European directive on family reunification – it doesn’t seem likely that Malta is the ideal country to restart his family life. He says it is important for people to understand why others like him have no choice but to leave their homeland, even leaving their families behind.
“We have no protection in our country. Protection should start at home, not abroad. It is for this that people leave their country. But I would like to say that there is nothing like your homeland. First and foremost I think that for peace and stability in my homeland, to have this is not a matter of the European countries but for Eritreans. The change has to come from us first. People are suffering and they must be helped till this change comes.”
Bereket says that despite enjoying protection here in Malta, the future that lies ahead is still riddled with questions.
“So far the people in Malta are friendly and cooperative. Still I am living in Malta even if there is this gap I have to feel… for instance, I have to think about my family, my wife and children, about my future. I have to think about this all the time, but still the future is very vague. Because the chance of going back to my family might take ten years, depends on the situation.”
Fr Paul Pace SJ, JRS Malta Director, says the current amendments to the Refugee Act, which includes the transposition of the Qualifications Directive, will fail to provide sufficient guarantees of protection for refugees and asylum seekers.
“It actually removes many of the legal guarantees in the original Refugees Act and does not replace them with the corresponding provisions of the Directives. Fundamental issues such as procedural guarantees, rights of asylum seekers, protection of vulnerable asylum seekers and rights of people granted protection will probably be regulated by subsidiary legislation,” Pace says, referring to legal notices that do not get approved by parliament.
“The protection of basic rights and the provision of sufficient procedural guarantees cannot and should not be regulated by subsidiary legislation. These are not secondary matters but an essential part of the legal framework regulating the protection of refugees, and should form part of the main legislation, subject to full parliamentary and public scrutiny.”

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