Alemayehu G Mariam
Ethiopians are having a very hard time. Inside their own country, they are victimized by dictatorship, famine and pestilence. Thousands of Ethiopians who have fled political persecution and economic privation caused by systemic and massive corruption and poor governance are facing unspeakable victimization in various parts of North Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Africa.
This past January, I wrote a commentary entitled: “Ethiopia: Middle Passage to the Middle East” on the plight of the tens of thousands of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East and North Africa. Substantial anecdotal evidence showed many of these workers are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, and that they are physically and sexually abused and economically exploited in a system of “contract slavery”. Last August, the daughter-in-law of the late Moamar Gadhafi poured scalding hot water on her young Ethiopian domestic worker totally disfiguring her (video here). Many Ethiopian domestic workers in other parts of the Middle East have faced mistreatment and abuse that would amount to torture under international law (video here). Another young Ethiopian domestic worker was so distraught she confronted a representative of dictator Meles Zenawi’s regime at a town hall meeting and demanded an answer: “Why is that our government does not check on us, follow up on our conditions, ask about us?” (video here). Crying her eyes out, she demanded, “Where is Ethiopia’s flag? I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore…!!!!”
A few of weeks ago, Alem Dechassa, another Ethiopian domestic worker was severely beaten and forced into a vehicle right outside the gates of the Ethiopian Embassy in Lebanon as Ethiopian “diplomats” looked on without lifting a finger or raising a voice (video here). Days later, Lebanese authorities announced that Alem hanged herself while undergoing treatment in, of all places, a psychiatric hospital! In the last few days, it was reported that Ethiopian Refugees in Yemen were beaten by Yemeni security forces as they sought help from the UNHCR office. Some 25 refugees were taken into detention. Another group of Ethiopian refugees protesting at the Yemen Human Rights Office was reportedly attacked by police. In Kenya, the Sudan and even in South Africa, Ethiopian refugees have faced abuse and brutality from law enforcement and vigilante elements. Ethiopians must be the most right-less people in the world!
Ethiopian Political Refugees in Norway
The latest horror story in the tragic saga of Ethiopian refugees comes from Norway. Recently, the Government of Norway put into place a plan to “involuntarily” (forcibly) deport hundreds of Ethiopian political refugees back to Ethiopia. According to human rights sources, some of these refugees have lived and worked in Norway for over two decades. Most of these refugees were given work permits and allowed to live freely and work in Norway when they first entered. Most learned the language and adopted Norwegian culture. Among the refugees include some 450 children born in Norway and living in “asylum seeker reception centers” for several years. Many of these children attend school and some of them speak only Norwegian.
The vast majority of these refugees had fled Zenawi’s ruthless dictatorship by the skin of their teeth. Many of them are ardent opponents of Zenawi’s regime in Norway. As recently as October 2011, many of these refugees flooded the streets of Oslo to protest the arrival of Zenawi for an energy conference (video here). Zenawi’s operatives reportedly videotaped the protesters in the streets, according to sources. Many of these refugees have a long history of activism in Ethiopian opposition political organizations in Norway at the leadership and grassroots levels taking advantage of democratic freedoms in Norway.
The “Memorandum of Understanding”
The basis for the forcible return of the Ethiopian political refugees is aMemorandum of Understanding (MoU), between the Norwegian Government and the regime of Zenawi, which purports to comply with the requirements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other treaties concerning repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin. The objective of the MoU is to facilitate a “dignified process of assisted return”. It provides for the “Government of Ethiopia to carry out the necessary measures for the return of Ethiopian nationals from Norway.” The Norwegian Government is expected to provide “necessary support” for implementation and monitoring. Refugees who agree to voluntarily return are promised a set amount of money upon their arrival. Incredibly, in Annex 3 to the MoU, the Norwegian Government will provide to the “National Intelligence and Security Service of Ethiopia via the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Addis Ababa” detailed personal data on each refugee including, among other things, “personal details”, “passport, national identity, driver license” information, “special circumstances relating to the transferee” and the “observations” of the Norwegian National Police Immigration Service.
Upon signing of the MoU, Norway’s international development minister, Erik Solheim, announced that the regime of Zenawi will receive annual aid in the amount of 350 million kroner. (Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. USD$35 million was paid in the last days of the Derg to let go the Beta Israelis.) Solheim said it is not quid pro quo (refugees for cash). Various Norwegian political leaders, opposition parties and human rights activists have severely criticized and condemned the deportation program.
MoU or RfC?
First, a major clarification. The Norwegian MoU concerning the forcible return of the Ethiopian political refugees is actually not an MoU in any legal sense. Under international law, an MoU is an important legal instrument which falls under the broad category of “treaties” and must be registered in the United Nations’ treaty database. When properly performed, an MoU could serve in the place of a formal treaty. Whether MoUs are binding or not binding under international law depends on the intent of the parties, the position of the signatory officials and the specific terms and conditions.
MoU is a disingenuous misnomer for what the Government of Norway has concluded with Zenawi’s regime. At best the document may qualify as an “exchange of notes” similar to an ordinary private contract. But the MoU is palmed off to the refugees as though it is a binding and enforceable legal document which protects their rights and guarantees their safety and welfare once they are forcibly returned. The MoU provides the illusion of legality and a veneer of moral decency for a despicable act of forcing political refugees to the gates of Zenawi’s infamous prison gulags, which have been widely documented.
The Norwegian MoU is what in the old days used to be called a “gentlemen’s agreement” or “letter of intent”. It is merely a collection of aspirational statements (wishful thoughts, desires) contained in a “memorandum” or a note expressing a general “understanding” (not a binding agreement) about the wholesale deportation of Ethiopian political refugees from Norway. It is a thinly veiled document which expresses the wishes of the Norwegian Government to get rid of the refugees as quickly as possible without creating any legal obligations on the part of Norway or Zenawi’s regime. The MoU contains NO language that is enforceable at law by the refugee third-party beneficiaries (Ethiopian political refugees) and makes no express or implied legal commitment concerning the welfare or safety of these refugees after they are delivered in planeloads to Zenawi. Its enforcement relies entirely on the discretion of Zenawi’s regime. Norway may call its “agreement” an MoU, but to the rest of the world it looks, walks and talks like a RfC (refugees for cash) program.
Delivering Lambs to the Wolf’s Lair
The Norwegian MoU may vaguely remind some students of history the “Munich Agreement” of 1939 selling out Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain victoriously declared, “We regard the agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two people never to go to war with one another again… Here is the paper that bears his name as well as mine…” The world soon found out that the “Munich Agreement” was not worth the paper it was written on. Hitler laughed at Chamberlain.
Concluding an MoU with one who has shredded his own constitution, trampled on his own laws, sneered at international human rights treaties, vilified international human rights organizations, imprisoned tens of thousands of his people, claimed election victory by 99.6 percent, crushed all opposition parties and democratic institutions is an exercise in futility. Concluding an MoU with one who has ignored the plight of 40 thousand Ethiopia domestic workers in the Middle East is an act of willful denial. Concluding an agreement with one who has weaponized famine and uprooted and “villagized” hundreds of thousands of people from their ancestral homes is a colossal act of moral indifference and callousness to the plight and suffering of Ethiopian political refugees.
It is laughable for the Norwegian Government to tout the MoU as some sort of “humane” and “dignified” mechanism for “reintegration” and “repatriation” of Ethiopian refugees denied asylum. The Norwegian Government has gone to great lengths to reassure the refugees, Ethiopians at large and the world of its MoU and eagerly pointed out the signatures on the lines and made lofty proclamations about “humane reintegration”. But at the end of the day, Zenawi will be laughing and the returned refugees will crying their eyes out in one of Zenawi’s secret prison gulags. With its MoU, Norway has delivered these persecuted and long-suffering political refugees to the wolf’s lair on a silver platter.
Do the Ethiopian Refugees Have a Well-founded Fear of Persecution?
How Norway applies its asylum laws are matters best left to Norwegian law and judicial and administrative process. However, Norwegian asylum law must conform to 1951 Refugee Convention (Norway ratified the Convention on March 23, 1953) as amended by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” The Ethiopian refugees are making their claims under Art. 1.
Under Article 33 (1) of the Convention, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion.” The prohibition on forcible return of refugees is also a widely accepted principle of customary international law, the violation of which requires immediate notification of and intervention by the UNHCR. It does not appear UNHCR assistance was sought in this case.
Whether the Ethiopian refugees in Norway have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” under the Convention presents interesting legal questions. The Convention requires states to include in their asylum procedures, among other things, an up-to-date knowledge of all the relevant objective circumstances in the country of origin. Such knowledge should play a critical role in the determination of whether to grant asylum. The burden of proof is on the asylum applicant, but the standard of proof in asylum cases is not “well-founded fear of persecution” beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather proof that it is “reasonably possible”.
For the Ethiopian political refugees, obtaining corroborative evidence of “well-founded fear of being persecuted…” is difficult and sometimes impossible given the extremely oppressive nature of Zenawi’s dictatorship. Because of language issues and inability to legally articulate their factual circumstances, inability to remember all dates, times and places and other minor details and statements that may contain minor inconsistencies or are incorrect for lack of understanding of the process, it is easy to mistake an applicant’s claim for asylum as lacking credibility. Under the Convention, the totality of factors is taken into account in the overall assessment of the applicant’s credibility. If the applicant presents a claim which is coherent, credible and plausible, the Convention Convention urges giving the benefit of the doubt to the applicant as regards those statements for which evidentiary proof is lacking.
The “up-to-date knowledge of all the relevant objective circumstances” in Ethiopia has been documented by nearly every major human rights organization in the world and the world’s major media. The facts are incontrovertible and summarized in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012: Ethiopia:
Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Hundreds of Ethiopians in 2011 were arbitrarily arrested and detained and remain at risk of torture and ill-treatment…Long-term pre-trial detention without charge, often without access to counsel, is common, notably under the Anti-Terror law, which allows police to request additional investigation periods of 28 days each from a court before filing charges, for up to four months. Human Rights Watch is aware of at least 29 opposition party members, journalists, and an actor who at this writing were currently held in remand detention under the Anti-Terror law… The restrictive Charities and Societies Proclamation, adopted in 2009, which prohibits organizations receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad from carrying out human rights and governance work, continues to severely hamper basic rights monitoring and reporting activities… No independent domestic or international organization has access to all of Ethiopia’s detention facilities; it is impossible to determine the number of political prisoners and others arbitrarily detained or their condition.
What Could Happen to the Political Refugees Forcibly Returned by Norway?
MoU or no MoU, the Ethiopians political refugees forcibly returned will very likely face all forms of overt and subtle persecution. Without a doubt, upon their forcible return, they will be rendered right-less. Though the Ethiopian Constitution grants them a panoply of rights fortified by international human rights conventions (Eth. Const., Art. 13), they will have absolutely no constitutional protection. In the absence of freedom of speech and of the press, they will be unable to communicate their circumstances to anyone. In the absence of an independent judiciary, they will have no means of seeking justice or redress for grievances under law or the MoU. In the absence of civil society institutions, they will have no one to champion their cause and defend their rights. In the absence of the rule of law, one by one they will be picked up, jailed and tortured.
Zenawi is a cunning, calculating and spiteful dictator. He knows that in a few months the issue of these refugees will fade out of public awareness. He knows there will be no one to follow on their welfare or circumstances. He knows there are no groups and organizations in the country who will closely monitor the situation of these refuges. Zenawi will bide his time. When no one is noticing, he will nab each one of these repatriated refugees and there will be no traces of them. That is his M.O. It can be predicted with reasonable certainty that in one year’s time, few of the returned refugees will be available for a head count!
The Norwegian MoU, like the Ethiopian Constitution, will offer nothing but lofty words and empty promises to the refugees. It will have little practical meaning or effect in the face of Zenawi’s brutal dictatorship. History will show that the Norwegian MoU will amount to nothing more than just a scrap of paper.
What Would Dr. Fridtjof Nansen Do with the Ethiopian Refugees?
Norway is known for many great things — the Nobel Prize, international peace and the Oslo Accords. Norway was even rated as the most peaceful nation in the world in 2007. Norway is also known for its extraordinary humanitarian service to refugees worldwide. The internationally renowned Norwegian Refugee Council has provided assistance and protection to millions of refugees and returnees worldwide since the end of WW II.
When it comes to helping refugees, few equal the great Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and humanist, Dr. Fridtjof Nansen. Dr. Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of stateless persons (the “Nansen Passport” that was an international identity card for stateless refugees). Because of Dr. Nansen’s work and efforts, the lives of millions of Russian, Greek, Turkish and Armenian refugees were saved. More recently, former Norwegian soccer star Bjorn Heidenstrom cycled from North to South Africa to put the spotlight on millions of forcibly displaced Africans.
Regarding the Ethiopian political refugees, the prominent Norwegian author Jan Kjerstad perhaps described it best: “It is possible this is the right thing to do (deportation) seen from a bureaucratic point of view… Nevertheless, in the big picture, this is an ethical act for which there is only one word: shame.”
If I could ask one question of Prime Minster Jens Stoltenberg and his ruling party, it would be this: What would Dr. Nansen do with your MoU, or better yet your RfC program? I believe he would offer an MOU of his own to his fellow Norwegians: Moral Outrage Urged!
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: