Eritreans in Canada shaken down by despot back home

By Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press
November 25, 2011

WINNIPEG — They thought coming to Canada would free them from the oppressive Eritrean regime, but many new Winnipeggers from the small nation in the Horn of Africa are being squeezed for money by agents of the government they fled.


Daniel Awshek told the Winnipeg Free Press he was shocked when he first arrived and attended a community gathering — where he was hit up for money to support the one-party state headed by President Isaias Afewerki and the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.


“They asked every family to pay $500 each for the Eritrean Defence Forces to fight against Ethiopia,” said Awshek, a nurse and refugee minister at the Eritrean Pentecostal Church.


“That’s crazy. Let’s focus on child development and community development,” and not support fighting, he added.


When Awshek needed a transcript of his public health degree from the University of Asmara in Eritrea’s capital, he had to pay two per cent of his income and provide a copy of his income tax return. And anyone who wants a visa to visit Eritrea or an official document has to pay the annual two-per-cent tax.


He said it’s wrong to ask people to support the government that’s driven them out.


Men and women are conscripted out of high school and expected to serve the military for 16 months — but that commitment can end up being years.


One man who came to Canada in 2008 said he fled the country when he realized his 16-month mandatory military service would never end. If he stayed, he believes he’d be stuck in the military for life earning 432 nakfa (about $10) a month.


He doesn’t want to be identified because he fears it will put family back in Eritrea at risk. His father was fined 50,000 nakfa by the government when it found out he left, he said.


In Winnipeg, he found a full-time job and wanted to register for university classes. He refused to pay the Eritrean agent in Winnipeg the two per cent tax to get his transcript from Asmara.


He’s even more adamantly opposed to pro-government agents in Winnipeg handling Eritrean refugee sponsorships.


As a government-sponsored refugee, he didn’t know where to go to sponsor his nephew and a friend. He applied through the Eritrean Community in Winnipeg Inc.


“Last year I got a call — ‘can you come to the community centre? We have your sponsorship papers. There are errors. We want to correct it with you.'”


He gave up a shift at work for the appointment.


“When I got there, there were 100 people,” he said. “I thought it was just me.” There were no documents for him to correct.


Instead, he said an agent for the Eritrean government got up and berated the crowd for sponsoring young people to come to Canada.


He was shocked.


“I just felt as if I was in Eritrea,” he said. “I was scared.”


The people running the community centre support the Eritrean government and are receiving information about the people being sponsored, where they’re staying and what they’ve said about the regime, he said.


“It compromises the integrity of the sponsorship program,” said Ghezae Hagos, a journalist and refugee from Eritrea. He wants the Canadian government to make sure groups that sponsor refugees aren’t working with the government of the country they fled.


“We need to become aware of the concern,” said John Nychek with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. “If some impropriety is confirmed then I think we need to take a serious look at the sponsorship agreement holder to see whatever concern is and address it and alleviate those concerns.”


In Winnipeg, the president of the community centre said it has nothing to do with the government of Eritrea.


But a copy of a financial report one of its members gave the Free Press shows the biggest expense of the Eritrean Community in Winnipeg Inc. in 2000 was a $12,237.38 donation to the Eritrean Defence Forces.


“The community centre is one leg of the government of Eritrea,” said another refugee, through a translator.


Eritrean people in Winnipeg are afraid to criticize the regime or question it, he said. He fears if he spoke out publicly he’d never get a visa to visit family in Eritrea — even if he paid the two per cent tax. And, even if he received the visa, he’d be too afraid for his personal safety to go.



Leak reveals big squeeze


In a classified report made public by Wikileaks, U.S. Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen said the two per cent tax on Eritreans in the diaspora collected by embassies and local community centres accounts for 11 per cent of Eritrea’s GDP. Proof of payment is required to maintain family and property ties, he said.


“. . . Many Eritreans in the diaspora choose to remain silent rather than speak out against a government they disapprove of . . . it is common for the (Eritrean government) to arrest or harass family members of outspoken individuals.”


A resolution before the UN Security Council would stop the Eritrean government from collecting remittances from abroad. The UN already imposed sanctions against Eritrea demanding it cease arming, training and equipping armed groups and their members, including Al-Shabaab, which aimed to destabilize the region.


Sources: 14/12/2009: Engaging the Eritrean Diaspora, United Nations

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