The Home Office updated its country advice on Eritrea in March, claiming that citizens who left the country without permission – many of them to escape itsinfamous indefinite military service – would not face persecution if they returned. The advice resulted in the number of Eritreans granted protection in the UK plummeting from a 73% approval rate in the first quarter of 2015 to 34% in the second quarter.
But the two researchers behind the report, Jens Weise Olesen and Jan Olsen, who conducted the fact-finding mission in Eritrea for the Danish Immigration Service (DIS), have revealed that they are appalled by the report written by their department off the back of their research and have since resigned from the DIS.
“[The report] was so simplified that it hurt,” said Weise Olesen, who along with Olsen visited Eritrea in 2014.
In an interview with the Amnesty International Denmark members magazine, the pair, who worked for DIS for more than 20 years, claim their superiors limited their questioning in Eritrea and tried to conclude the mission before they had conducted the necessary interviews. When they returned to Denmark, Olsen and Weise Olesen say there was a “showdown” and they both eventually resigned from the immigration service. They claim they have been branded “whistle-blowers and disloyal employees”.
The only named source in the DIS report, Professor Gaim Kibreab, director of refugee studies at London South Bank University, has also distanced himself from its findings.
“They distorted what I said, quoted me out of context,” he told the Guardian. “One example: they quoted me saying that I knew people who had returned back to Eritrea without problem. What I told them was I know of a few who returned who are connected to the government, who are naturalised and have English passports and Danish passports – they didn’t mention that I was talking about a few who were connected. They left out so many things. The way they did it, there was an unnamed anonymous source and then they brought in my name to support their views. It was very disingenuous,” he said.
In contrast to the report’s findings, Kibreab said: “Nothing has changed in Eritrea. The Home Office is rejecting most Eritrean asylum applications even though nothing has changed on the ground. The Home Office has disgraced itself doing that.”
On the issue of whether deserters and evaders of the military service in Eritrea can now return to the country without the risk of abuse, which is the crux of the report and led to a change in the asylum advice in both Denmark and the UK, Weise Olesen said in the interview: “It may well be that some could [return to Eritrea without harm]. But there is no one who can say exactly who is arrested and ends up in a black hole and who is let through. We could not.”
Olsen and Weise Olesen told Amnesty International that their superiors put pressure on them to deliver a specific result, saying their head of department, Jakob Dam Glynstrup, openly speculated to them several times on what kind of asylum result the government was hoping for.
‘“Jakob said that the last thing the government wanted in a future election campaign was a growing number of people seeking asylum and for refugees to become an [election] issue,” the men said in a written statement to the Danish ombudsman, which is investigating the issue.
“I saw it as pressure to deliver a particular outcome,” Olsen said. “It was a dream scenario for bosses to present brand new information on the situation in Eritrea.”
In an email to Amnesty International, DIS denied the allegations: “Jakob Dam Glynstrup totally rejects the two claims. The Immigration Office rejects categorically all the other claims and insists that this is a staff matter.”
The Home Office said its guidance on Eritrea “is based on a careful and objective assessment of the situation in Eritrea using evidence taken from a range of sources including media outlets; local, national and international organisations, including human rights organisations; and information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
However, in the Home Office guidance, the DIS report was cited 39 times, making it the most referenced source in the report by a significant margin. The next most-cited source was a proclamation by the Eritrean government outlining the national service programme, with 16 mentions. By contrast, Human Rights Watch publications were referenced seven times and Amnesty International publications were referenced five times.
A Home Office spokesperson also claimed that the country advice on Eritrea is being updated to take into account the United Nations’ report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea which was published in June.
Dr Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, condemned the Home Office for including the Danish report as a source in its country guidance. “For it to be discredited by some of the researchers shows even more powerfully how the information cannot be relied on for making life and death decisions. If any part of that evidence is shown to be in doubt, it should be removed from the guidance immediately.”
“What we’d like to see is for the government to immediately change its guidelines, then review the cases of Eritreans who were refused under that guidance,” she said.