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Stauffer's view of Eritrea

Hans-Ulrich Stauffer traveled to Eritrea several times for his current book. (Photo Credit: Kostas Maros)



This Interview was translated from German using online software

Switzerland offers shelter to thousands of Eritreans - is Eritrea the "African North Korea", as claimed by the media? No, says Hans-Ulrich Stauffer. The expert on Africa about the policies of the Eritrean government, the motives of refugees and the lack of commitment in the Federal Republic.

By Philipp Löpfe | Migrosmagazin

Hans-Ulrich Stauffer, your latest book is about Eritrea. How did you discover the country?

In 1973 an indescribable famine prevailed in the Horn of Africa, revealing the questionable nature of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. At that time I came into contact with the Eritrean liberation movement "Eritrean People's Liberation Front".

Why did the liberation struggle in Eritrea move so many people here?

Eritrea was an Italian colony, then under British military rule, then came the forced fusion with Ethiopia and finally the liberation struggle. Ethiopia was initially supported by the USA, then by the Soviet Union, but Eritrea was always on its own. The lonely liberation struggle against Ethiopia - at that time the African state with the strongest army - has led to a nimbus that continues to this day. Over the years, a reduit idea has been established, combined with an avant-garde of the leading people-

Today, Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the "North Korea of Africa".

This comparison is nonsense. Clearly, Eritrea is not a democracy. In the course of the decade-long struggle for liberation, a strong leadership wrought the country's authoritarian rule. But Eritrea has access to information from all over the world at any time. On numerous houses there are TV dishes, and the smartphone is ubiquitous. The people of Eritrea know very well what is going on in the world

Eritrea wants to be independent of foreign countries - as Mao once called for China?

This idea was and is still today in the minds of the Eritrean liberation front and today's government division. The Eritrean leadership is convinced that she knows best what is good for her country; It does not want to be dictated by any foreign experts what it has to do. This does not make them very attractive among the international organizations, especially since Eritrea also closes up to global trade. There is not a single Chinese shop in Eritrea.

The rest of Africa is different.

This is the reason why in most parts of Africa the small trade has gone before the dogs. Seen in this way, the stubbornness of the Eritrean leadership also has positive sides.

In many African countries, a small corrupt elite is in power. Also in Eritrea?

I have often been there, and as far as I can judge, there is scarcely any gap between rich and poor. This does not mean that the members of the government have no privileges. But a private enrichment does not take place - there is no corruption.

And also no tribal and religious wars?

One half of the Eritreans consists of Christians, the other of Muslims. They have long been an unstable balance. For the government, it is important that this balance be maintained. Thus, neither missionaries of American Freikirchen nor Saudi Arabia-sponsored imams are welcome.

They write in your book that Eritrea rely on a biological agriculture.

This is less intention than necessity. For fertilizers and pesticides is simply missing the money. But food security is a top priority. For this reason, over the past 20 years, about 1,000 dams have been built to ensure the supply of water. Agriculture, by the way, is not nationalized, but in the hands of private farmers.

In your description, Eritrea is almost a model country. Why do thousands of young people flee every year?

A shoemaker told one of my friends, a colleague had written to him that he lived in Switzerland for three nights in a three-room apartment and received 900 francs a month. For an Eritreer this sounds paradise, especially since he can not estimate how high the life costs in Switzerland are.

Andreas Glarner of the SVP sees this no different. Are we curling the Eritreans to Switzerland?

We are taking a decision from the Asylum Recursion Commission in 2005. He says that everyone who descends is also politically persecuted. This has quickly spread to Eritrea. There are also human rights violations and freedom of expression is limited. But there is also the human right to food, education, health - and in this respect Eritrea has done amazing things. Eritrea is among the best in Africa as far as the growth targets defined by the Uno are concerned. Child mortality and maternal mortality at birth have also fallen massively. Malaria and HIV rates are low, the economy is growing at an annual rate of eight percent.

Nevertheless, many young men pay about 8,000 dollars to tug organizations and risk their lives to be able to flee to Switzerland.

There are far too few jobs in Eritrea for young people, at least in the cities. Added to this is the National Service ...

... a kind of recruit school, which can last for years and with uncertain outcome.

That is not right. The military service is merely an operational area of the National Service. There are also very many civilian activities, for example service at the reception of a hotel or in a hospital. It is also no compulsory labor; You get a modest wage. The problem is that the duration of the national service is not clearly limited. But, let us remember, Ethiopia still holds a part of Eritrea, despite the international court's arbitration, and refuses to recognize the frontier. Tens of thousands of Eritreans are in military service because of this Neither war nor peace.

Why does the government not put that on the line?

Because she does not know what to do with all the people when they are not in the national service. There is simply no job for them. Therefore, one should consider how to create jobs in Eritrea. This would also be the right approach for Switzerland.

Most of them receive social assistance in Switzerland.

There are actually over 80 percent, and that is a horror. But I do not feel called to make a sound assessment here. But I can imagine that Switzerland is only a stopover for many Eritreans. Actually, they want to go to the UK or to the USA, because most of them speak English. In Switzerland, they find completely unfamiliar living conditions and are often mentally blocked.

As you describe it, there is no good reason to grant Eritreans asylum.

I can not stand this way in general. There are certainly Eritreans who have suffered under the regime. But I am convinced that it is not true for many.

There are, however, two Uno reports that speak of serious human rights violations.

There are also contradictory reports, such as the opinion of the Western European ambassador resident in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and the EU representative. The Eritrea image is changing, also in Switzerland. Today, the refusal of the National Service is no longer an asylum, and a persecution must also be demonstrated. I think this is justifiable.

The Federal Council is under pressure in the refugee issue. Why is he not acting in the case of the Eritreans?

The official Switzerland has been eradicated at Eritrea. Sommaruga, the President of the Council, has once declared that we are not discussing a dictatorship. At the same time she traveled to Ethiopia. That was awkward. Now it's about getting out of this dead end again.

How is this to happen? Eritrea still refuses to take away rejected asylum seekers.

We should have a pause in development policy work. This is difficult, because the Eritreans are stubborn. The Eritrean side must also make concessions and allow more scope.

How can this be achieved?

You can not enter fixed programs. The US, for example, demanded the privatization of all state enterprises. This does not work at all. It can only be done with a dialogue on the same level. At first, however, we must relax the relationship. It would be helpful if a high-ranking Swiss delegation took the trouble to travel to Eritrea. The best thing would be a member of the Federal Council.

Where do you see concrete opportunities for development aid?

In vocational training. Our dual education system is also attracting interest in Africa.

So would you have to send Simonetta Sommaruga with Rudolf Strahm, the specialist for dual vocational training, on the journey?

That would be ideal. Eritrea wants an education system based on the Swiss model. The EU has now approved a development program worth 200 million euros for Eritrea. The focus here is on the development of solar energy in rural areas, for example to drive water pumps. It needs people who assemble and maintain these systems. Switzerland could make a contribution here.

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Lawyer and Eritrea expert

Hans-Ulrich Stauffer (66) is an attorney-at-law, lecturer at the University of Basel and has been Honorary Consul of the Republic of Cape Verde for 27 years. He has been involved in development processes in Africa for more than four decades. In recent years, he has traveled extensively to Eritrea. His book "Eritrea - the second look" has been published by Rotpunktverlag. Stauffer lives with his partner and has two adult daughters.

"Eritrea - der zweite Blick" [Eritrea - The second glance], Rotpunktverlag 2017, available at ex libris
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