The border between Sudan and Eritrea is heavily patrolled. (AFP/Thomas Goisque)
The border between Sudan and Eritrea is heavily patrolled. (AFP/Thomas Goisque)

For exiled Eritreans in Sudan, fear greater than most

With the launch of CPJ’s most recent exile report, I will have worked exactly three years for our Journalist Assistance program. More than 500 cases later, I have helped journalists who have gone into hiding or exile to escape threats; those in need of medicine and other support while in prison, and journalists injured after violent attacks. The most harrowing accounts of all, however, come from those crossing from Eritrea into Sudan. And things seem to be getting worse, not better.

Heavily patrolled borders, minefields, and a shoot-to-kill border policy make leaving Eritrea nearly impossible.  If someone does get out, his or her family will pay a heavy price, including a 50,000 Nakfa fine (US$3,300), the equivalent of five years’ average household income, or indefinite detention, according to exiled Eritrean journalists and Human Rights Watch.

Yet thousands leave every year, among them journalists, fleeing one of the world’s most closed and repressive states. An unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia led to the mass militarization of society and suspension of basic rights, including freedom of movement and expression. The mandatory 18 months of national service can extend indefinitely. Detentions are without charge, trial, or access to family, and may include torture and starvation rations.

Of those who escape, more than half flee to the Sudan. As CPJ has documented, life in exile for any journalist generally is filled with fear and uncertainty, in addition to the struggle to find work and fulfill basic needs such as health care. In the Sudan, Eritrean journalist refugees risk kidnapping, physical and sexual assault, humiliation, looting, bribery, detention, and threat of return.

Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean journalist who fled in 2001, survived the Sudan before being granted asylum in Canada. Berhane is a lifeline for those who manage to escape and need advice on how to survive without detection in the Sudan. He advises journalists to stay away from areas heavily populated by Eritreans, “if you want to save your life.” He goes on to say that, “The situation hasn’t changed since I lived in the Sudan–in fact it is worse. With the normalization of relations between the Sudan and Eritrea since 2005, the situation is moving backward instead of forward.”

“No one can tell where the Eritrean authority stops and that of the Sudan starts,” said one Eritrean journalist who escaped into the Sudan in the fall 2011, adding that being sent back to Eritrea “would mean a death sentence for me.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2012 country profile on the Sudan confirms that there has been a rise in trafficking of refugees and that they are vulnerable to, “kidnapping, extortion and physical, particularly sexual, violence. For many refugees and asylum-seekers, chiefly those residing in Khartoum, the absence of documentation creates a constant risk of arrest, deportation and refoulement (forced return).”

“When you escape from Eritrea, you come as you are. You can’t carry documents, it’s too risky,” said an Eritrean journalist who fled in late 2011.

Eritrean journalist Jamal Osman Hamad was arrested in Khartoum on October 24, 2011, and held incommunicado for eight weeks. No charges were filed, and he was released on December 19. Hamad’s detention took place less than a week after an official visit to Sudan by Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki.

On October 17, 2011, over 300 Eritreans were expelled from Sudan to their home country without their cases being referred to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) based in Cairo, Egypt.

According to Human Rights Watch, “under international refugee law, asylum seekers have a right to claim asylum, which applies regardless of how they enter a country or whether they have identity documents. International law forbids countries from deporting asylum seekers without first allowing them to apply for asylum and considering their case.” According to Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UNHCR, Sudan’s expulsion of the Eritreans violated an agreement between the U.N. agency and the Sudanese Commissioner for Refugees. Khartoum has not publicly responded to allegations of forced return and violations of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention as well as the 1974 Sudanese Asylum Act.

Yet there are limitations even to the trust placed in international institutions. “The only structure I trust is the UNHCR office,” said a third exiled Eritrean journalist, who fled in December 2010. “However, I know there are limitations. Once I turned to one protection officer with my fears of persecution [in the Sudan] and was told that I could come to the office if anything happened to me. I doubt security agents would let me go to that office once they have their hands on me.”

“There is even a fear of UNHCR’s Tigrinya language translators that they may divulge the intimate details of who is seeking protection.” Berhane said. “In the Sudan, it is very hard to trust anyone.”