‘We Should Negotiate With Eritrea’


“The tunnel view of the human rights situation will not do justice to Eritrea.” – Hans-Ulrich Stauffer

Switzerland should negotiate with Eritrea
Switzerland should negotiate with Eritrea in order to make possible voluntary return of rejected asylum seekers, said Swiss lawyer and Eritrea expert Hans-Ulrich Stauffer. (Photo: Samuel Schumacher)


The Basle lawyer and Eritrea expert Hans-Ulrich Stauffer paints a positive picture of Eritrea in his new book. He wants to “relax” the discussion, as he explains in an interview with the “Switzerland on the weekend”.

Q: Mr. Stauffer, your book is called “Eritrea – the second look”. Is Eritrea different from what we expected at first sight?

Hans-Ulrich Stauffer: Our Eritrea picture is characterized by the fact that some 35,000 Eritreans came to Switzerland as refugees. Such a great escape movement leads to questions and assumptions about the motivates. I understand that refugees present their case as dramatically as possible in order to receive asylum.

Q: So, is your book a corrective?

The discussion about Eritrea is about to kick off. I believe that the current debate does not do justice to the country. Many developments happening in Eritrea that are not discussed: that Eritrea has achieved six of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals; food supply is guaranteed; child mortality rate is lower than in other African countries; and the girls’ mutilation rate decreased to a a lower level.

Q: Nevertheless, Eritrea is on the 186th rank of 188 on the human development index. There are also serious human rights violations.

The tunnel view of the human rights situation does not do justice to the country. We should look at Eritrea through the same lens as other countries. When I was in Eritrea recently, an ambassador told me: today is Friday, and someone in Saudi Arabia, is being executed today. These are also violations of human rights. Nevertheless, half the world maintains economic relations with the Saudis. I find this unequal treatment disturbing.

Q: You want to put Eritrea in a better light and justify that Switzerland can negotiate with the regime.

I will leave the assessment of the refugee question to others. Without giving the young people in Eritrea a perspective, they will continue to leave the country in large numbers. The information about life in Europe is coming to home. And whoever hears that in Switzerland he receives 900 Swiss francs in social assistance a month, he will start his journey without knowing that you can hardly survive with 900 francs here.

In addition, other nationals also use the “Eritrea bonus” in Switzerland: about 30 percent of the alleged Eritrean refugees are not Eritreans.

Q: Do you think that as a European you can see the “true Eritrea” during a visit to the country?

I could move freely and without accompaniment. The statements in my book are based on more than 100 interviews that I have had with people from simple farmers to Ministers. I do not think that all paid actors by the regime.

Q: You write that it is the lack of economic opportunities and not the compulsory National Service, moved young Eritreans to escape. Many Eritreans deny that. They say: What are the economic prospects for me if I have to serve half of my life as a soldier?

Only a small part of Eritreans doing national service in the military. Many work in civil professions during the period, where they have recently start earning 3000 Nakfa (about 200 francs, note) in a month. That is a lot by African standard. It is true, however, that the actual unlimited duration of the national service is a problem.

Q: And then there are about 10,000 political prisoners.

This number has been used in the world years ago. There are no evidence for this. I have very good sources that I can not disclose, which go out not more than 100 real political prisoners. But that is by itself too much!

Q: A recent decision of the Federal Administrative Court states that the illegal exit from Eritrea alone is no longer a reason for asylum. Is that correct?

The decision corrects a 2005 decision in which asylum has been granted to a deserter. This decision has led to a boom in Eritrean asylum applications in Switzerland. The message was clear: in Switzerland, you just have to say you were cut off from the National Service, then you get asylum. The new ruling corrected this situation.

Q: You can not return Eritreans anyway. The regime does not want to take them back.

A voluntary return is already possible today. There are two aspects 
to be considered: where would all the young Eritreans be, if they were to return? There are hardly any jobs. Secondly, it is known that all Eritreans in the Diaspora send money home and thus indirectly helping to keep up the supply of the population.

Q: Would Eritrea be a safe country to return?

This is going to happen. Switzerland would now have to negotiate with the Eritrean authorities frankly, in order to make possible, as a first step, the voluntary return of rejected asylum seekers. I have spoke in Asmara with returnees, for whom the return was no a problem. The government in Eritrea has recognized that the young Eritreans who leave their country lead to a brain drain.

Q: What do you say to an Eritrean refugee in Switzerland who comes to you and says: With your book, you legitimize me to be sent back to an unjust state, and I have to go there to languish indefinitely in the National Service.

I tell him: learn German as quickly as possible and do an apprenticeship, then one day you will be able to return to your family and do some valuable construction work.

* Software translation from German