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Eritrea: Amnesty wants Malta to seek details on Deportees

Herman Grech

Amnesty International has urged the Maltese government to request the Eritrean authorities to provide it with information as to the whereabouts of the Eritreans deported from Malta in autumn 2002 and to allow an international monitoring agency to be given access to Eritrea to visit them.

Amnesty yesterday wrote an open letter to Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg in connection with the Eritrean illegal immigrants' saga. The letter and its attachments were copied to The Times and to Magistrate Abigail Lofaro, who is conducting an inquiry ordered by Dr Borg.

The human rights agency once again maintained it had given the government several warnings before it deported 223 illegal immigrants back to Eritrea in autumn 2002.

Dr Borg has asked the magistrate to examine whether the process leading to the deportations was regular and legal and whether any individuals or authorities exerted undue pressure for the deportations to be made.

Amnesty welcomed the news of the opening of the inquiry into the deportations and augured that the inquiry would be "thorough and impartial".

Amnesty recommended, among others, that the inquiry would:

¤ be conducted by an expert in domestic and international refugee law;

¤ examine whether the deported Eritreans had access to a fair and satisfactory asylum determination process;

¤ take evidence from all those who had been in contact with the deportees before they were returned to Eritrea;

¤ have jurisdiction to take evidence from ex-Malta Eritrean deportees now in a place of safety and from Eritreans still in Malta;

¤ examine whether UNHCR was informed that the Eritreans being deported included individuals who had applied for asylum in Malta but had been rejected as well as those who had not applied for asylum in Malta but expressed the wish to travel on to Italy.

Amnesty recalled that in September 2002 it had raised with the government a number of issues relating to asylum.

Among other things, Amnesty said it had feared that, unless claims for protection were adequately examined, many could be at risk of serious human rights abuses upon return to their countries of origin.

In its letter, Amnesty said it had underlined the limited nature of the declaration of a cessation of refugee status for certain Eritrean refugees, which had been made by the UNHCR in May 2002.

AI explained that the declaration of cessation concerned only two specific groups of Eritrean refugees: firstly, those who fled Eritrea as a result of the country's war of independence from Ethiopia that ended in 1991 and, secondly, those who fled the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998-2000.

Eritreans who have fled the country at other times, including since 2001 up to the present, were not affected by the declaration of cessation.

These asylum seekers should have had their claims heard in a full and fair procedure without there being any presumption of them not having a valid claim for protection, AI said.

Amnesty added that at the time Eritrea could not be regarded as a "safe" country with regard to asylum seekers and some could be at risk of serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment.

AI also provided the minister with a 24-page report, which it had published on September 18, 2002 on the human rights situation in Eritrea, noting that there had been a pattern of major human rights violations over the preceding year, which was still continuing.

Amnesty maintained it had information that the Eritreans returned by Malta were all detained on arrival at Asmara and sent to the nearby Adi Abeto military detention centre.

Amnesty wrote to the Eritrean President that same day, expressing concern about their possible treatment on return.

On October 9, 2002, following the forcible return of more Eritrean citizens from Malta to Eritrea on October 3, Amnesty wrote to the minister informing him about their fate.

Amnesty pointed out that the Eritrean authorities had "neither acknowledged the detentions nor revealed the whereabouts of the detainees to their families or the public".




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