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UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines on Eritrea: Factual Findings or Recycled Defamation?







I. Background and Overview

In April 2009, the UNHCR issued a 35-page booklet entitled “UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs for Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea”. UNHCR further published the second Guidelines on 20 April 2011. This 37-page document was essentially a replica of the first publication in terms of format, language and substantive contents albeit few, insignificant and inconsequential, updates.

UNHCR’s purported purpose in issuing these guidelines was to “assist decision-makers, including UNHCR staff, Governments and private practitioners in assessing the protection needs of Eritrean asylum-seekers”. The organization flaunted these guidelines as “authoritative legal interpretations of the refugee criteria in respect of specific groups on the basis of objectively assessed social, political, economic, security, human rights and humanitarian conditions in the country of origin concerned”. It further asserted that “the guidelines are researched strictly and are written based on factual evidence provided by UNHCR’s global network of field offices and information from independent country specialists, researchers and other sources which is rigorously reviewed for reliability”.

As we will demonstrate in subsequent sections, nothing can be farther from the truth. First off, UNHCR “Guidelines on Eritrea” do not emanate from a” rigorous and independent fact-finding work” conducted by the agency in Eritrea and elsewhere abroad. This is borne out by the following salient facts:

• Both reports epitomize sloppy, cut-and-paste, desk “research”, characterized as they were, by wholesale regurgitation of prevalent, negative literature on Eritrea from biased and politically motivated entities. This is indeed amplified by a cursory scrutiny of the footnotes and references. The two booklets contain 473 references. The bulk of these footnotes are, however, iterative attributions to i) US State Department of State, Country Report on Human Rights; ii) Amnesty International; iii) Human Rights Watch; iv) Reporters Without Borders; and, v) a couple of notorious Eritrean quisling publications.

• A largely recycled document from suspect entities can hardly qualify for “factual evidences collected and rigorously validated by the UNHCR” or provided by other “independent country specialists”.

• UNHCR’s lopsided methodology of information collection and validation is extremely hard to explain. Along with other UN agencies including the UNDP, UNICEF, and the WHO, UNHCR has a duly accredited and fully functioning UN office in Eritrea headed by a Resident Representative. But there are no indications whatsoever that the “findings” the booklets enumerate largely quoting the usual, Eritrea-bashing sources cited above, have been validated or reviewed by the UNHCR Office in Asmara for purposes of “rigorous factual accuracy and reliability”. If anything, the UNHCR Office in Asmara and UNHCR’s global network of field offices are conspicuous in the booklets for their almost total absence as credible sources of information and/or validation for UNHCR’s “findings and conclusions”.

Secondly, most of the “findings” are replete with presumptuous caveats and qualifications such as “reportedly”, “allegedly”, etc. In view of the gravity of the subject matter and its ramifications for the country in question, UNHCR’s approach accentuates an appalling lack of responsibility and professionalism. This contrasts starkly with, and undermines, UNHCR’s proclaimed standards of “objectivity, accuracy and reliability”.

Thirdly, the UNHCR is guilty of a breach of trust to the host nation. Common sense, normative decency and agreed ground rules dictate that the UNHCR communicate its findings, however unsavory, to the host nation. The UNHCR is also duty-bound to request policy clarifications from the host nation instead of second-guessing them and/or seeking third party interpretation; particularly when the latter are not disinterested entities and/or when they harbor hostile political agendas. In the case of these booklets, however, the whole exercise was shrouded in secrecy in as far as Eritrea is concerned. The UNHCR did not, in fact, communicate its findings formally to the GOE while circulating them to other entities.

The UNHCR tries to justify this wayward approach under the lame excuse that “access to independently verifiable information on the situation in Eritrea is difficult to obtain given the Eritrean Government’s control over virtually every aspect of life in the country, the lack of independent media and the curtailment of NGOs activities”.

In Eritrea as elsewhere, the statutory mandate of NGOs is to carry out humanitarian/development work. Why the UNHCR conflates the development work of NGOs with anti-government, alternative media is difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, there are a plethora of UN agencies in Eritrea that produce comprehensive annual/periodic reports on the country. Eritrea’s development partners (the European Union, Africa Development Fund etc.) also produce periodic reports that focus on their specific projects but that also include the underlying political, economic, security and social realities in the country. More importantly, not visiting the country for any reason, does not give UNHCR any moral ground or responsibility to scavenge on unaccounted, fabricated information on the country’s situation.

In view of these facts, UNHCR’s preference to rely solely and fully on narratives peddled by Eritrea’s known detractors cannot be shrugged off as oversight or poor judgment. It may indeed belie an underlying agenda that may have been imposed on it by its principal funders.



Ministry of Foreign Affaires
16 November 2017


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