Learning the hard way | Elizabeth Chyrum

Elizabeth Chyrum of Human Rights Concern Eritrea is sceptical about the monetary aid pledged for development in Africa in the wake of the Valletta Summit, while she also tells Teodor Reljic about the harrowing ordeal Eritrean refugees suffered after Malta agreed to deport them back to the beleaguered African state

Elizabeth Chyrum:
Elizabeth Chyrum: "I don't think the Maltese authorities understood what kind of government they were dealing with"

The Maltese cannot avert their eyes from the human rights tragedy they – perhaps inadvertently – had a hand in facilitating. This was one of the many messages imparted by Elizabeth Chyrum, the director of the Human Right Concern – Eritrea. Based in London, the Concern aims to “promote and protect human rights of Eritreans inside and outside of Eritrea”, and last week’s Valletta summit on immigration brought Chyrum to our shores to discuss the various implications of migration for Eritrea in particular. 

But Chyrum’s experience of Malta is both extensive and harrowing. Back in 2002, the Maltese government of the day deported around 250 Eritrean migrants fleeing their homeland from the brutal regime. An act of diplomatic pragmatism that led to the brutal, systematic torture of many of their number. 

“I actually had to deliver the news that they were going to be deported,” Chyrum tells me, downcast as she recalls the harrowing days that ensued. “Nobody had told them. And I even advised that they take all their clothes off as a sign of protest, because I thought perhaps the authorities would show some sympathy towards their situation…” This, however, was not to be. 

“Spray was used, they were beaten because they refused to leave the detention centre, and one detainee was seated in the middle of the plane with two Maltese soldiers to either side of him.”

“They were sent away from Malta and then just thrown into prison…” She goes on to describe the harrowing scenes of torture that the regime systematically inflicted among these people – an account that would make even the hardiest of journalist wince with horror and disgust.

“They were tortured and interrogated – forced to confess who let them leave the country. Some tried to escape, one of them was shot outright, some were left paralysed by the torture forced upon them.”

Some even tried to kill themselves, Chyrum adds, before recounting a truly horrible example. 

“After they were moved to another prison, they were kept in dismal, inhumane conditions for a long period of time. One of the men who tried to escape was tied in the ‘helicopter’ position – with both hands and feet tied behind his back – for 55 days, under the 50-degree sun…” 

By the end of this ordeal, the man’s skin had peeled off and turned blue, only for him to be forced to live with one hand and one arm tied behind his back for a total of eight months. 

The fact of matter is that the deportation “placed Malta on the map”, and Chyrum is of the opinion that it was crucial to giving Malta a more conscientious backbone to their subsequent dealings in the sphere of migration. 

“The thing is, I don’t think the Maltese authorities even tried to find out what kind of government they were dealing with, at the time,” Chyrum says, concluding that the unfortunate episode stands as “a big lesson for both Malta and the international scene”. Indeed, the 2002 case is routinely brought up in any EU-wide discussion of human rights abuses, as a cautionary tale against mass deportation to volatile nations like Eritrea. 

However, while the disastrous aftermath of that episode can never quite be erased, Chyrum also tells of those who survived.

“Out of all that misery, some good has emerged. I’ve met quite a few refugees from various African countries now – some are working, and some are studying… and the man that I just spoke about? He’s studying law in Canada…”

She’s also cautious not too sound too admonishing a note towards Malta’s government on that fateful day of deportation. 

“Malta had never seen that large an amount of migrants arriving to its shores, so it’s understandable that people were concerned, and that the government was reacting to this concern. We also need to remember that, of course, Malta wasn’t yet a member of the European Union at the time, so it could not follow the EU standards,” Chyrum says, adding that while “there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” 13 years after that fateful deportation, “the people and the government are at least helping the Eritrean refugees”.

In the hopes of getting to the core of the issue, I ask Chyrum to possibly single out some of the main reasons that lead Eritrean people to flee from their country. The regime is unsurprisingly the root of the problem, but Chyrum elaborates just on how insidious – and not just brutal – the workings of the regime are, and how the combination of inhumanity and economic inequality leads to an intolerable situation. 

“People are just living on what amounts to $10 per month. Tell me, what can you possibly do with that? They’re also conscripted into the military for 20 years of their life – that’s 20 years of your life wasted. Even education is militarized – children are just given a military education after a certain age… prior to that, parents are encouraging their children to fail their exams and remain in the school system, because otherwise they would be co-opted into the military…”

Coupled with the fact that the government encourages spying on its citizens – Chyrum even describes how members of your own family could potentially be made into government spies – and that healthcare is at a dismal state, it’s no surprise that people opt to flee. 

“With this in mind, you can bring yourself to understand why people would rather die at sea, or as they cross the Sahara Desert, than continue to live in that situation.”

Talking about the plight of those who undertake that dangerous crossing leads us directly to the matter at hand: the Valletta Summit, and Chryum’s thoughts on it. An ultimately abortive attempt between my colleague and myself to interview some of the migrants at the New Tiger Bar in Marsa made it clear that migrants themselves are completely sidelined from the summit conversation. But Chyrum made it clear that beyond such intrinsic issues of human sensitivity, it is even the political dimension of the summit that is deeply flawed. 

The decision to allocate €1.8 billion for development aid in Africa is met with complete cynicism by Chyrum. Nobody would blame her for taking this position as an Eritrean – especially after what she’s just told me about how the regime operates. 

“Do you honestly think the money will be going towards development in Eritrea, considering what the regime is like? It’s not interested in education, in its people or in helping build up the infrastructure of the country. And it’s not borne out by evidence either – the last time Eritrea was given development aid, things got worse, not better.”

Regime change is the dream Chyrum shares with many of her fellow Eritreans, though of course even starting to think about ways in which this can go ahead is already something of a challenge. Yet another key problem in the way the current regime operates is through the employment of systematic silence: it is not only those who speak out against the government that are punished – even those who leave the country run the risk of allowing their families to be taken in by the regime.  

“The government needs to understand that there are around 4,000 people leaving Eritrea every month. The country is emptying itself, and we need a serious reform – if the current government doesn’t care about the country, then they need to step aside and allow someone who does in fact care to take over. Ever since Independence, we haven’t had a single election. We want rule of law to be about people, and not the president being given supreme law.” 

Understandably enough, no easy solutions are in the offing. But Chyrum is adamant to pass on the message of necessary change. 

“In Eritrea, thousands of people are imprisoned because of their thought. We have no independent media – all of our true journalists are in prison, and the media is entirely controlled by the State – so both Eritrea and the rest of the world are getting just one side of the story…” 

Chyrum suggests that pressure needs to be put on the Eritrean government, both from the inside and by the international community, for things to change. Eritrea needs brave people to speak out and expose the truth about this brutal regime. People who aren’t intimidated by the insidious workings of a corrupt government. In other words, people not unlike Chyrum herself. 

Pushback to torture

How Amnesty International documented the fate of the Eritrean asylum seekers deported back to Malta in 2002

"Robel Goniche, a young man from Asmara [deported from Malta and detained at Adi Abeto prison] was shot at the edge of the compound trying to escape and later died. All 27 who tried to escape were badly beaten, flat on the ground, until some were bleeding on the head with teeth and lips cut. One had an arm broken, which never healed straight, and another had his leg cut with a bayonet.”

Former Adi Abeto detainee deported with him from Malta

“Ermias [detained in Dahlak Kebir island, a returnee from Germany] escaped twice. After four days free in his second escape attempt he was caught trying to get a boat out of the island. 10 guards surrounded him and two other captured escapees, including Habtom Tekleab, an ex-Malta deportee. They beat them in front of us until they were vomiting blood. They tied them in ‘helicopter’ method for 55 days outside in the heat. Ermias’ skin colour changed, his body swelled and he couldn’t walk. For the first two days he was refused food, but the prisoners fed him. I don’t know if he is still alive.”

Former Dahlak Kebir island detainee