(1 June 2015) 32 Eritrean asylum seekers are at risk of forced return to Eritrea after a Sudanese court ruled that the group be deported from Sudan after serving two months in prison. The group was found guilty of illegal entry by a court in Sudan’s Red Sea State that borders Eritrea. The members of the group, which includes 14 women and one six-year old child, were denied the opportunity to make a claim for international protection although a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) attended the court session. They are currently serving two month prison sentences, pending deportation, after they failed to pay a fine for illegal entry.
The forced return of asylum seekers without allowing them to first apply for international protection and properly reviewing their cases is a serious violation of international law. Sudan has an international legal responsibility to ensure no person is forcibly returned to a country where they are at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations, regardless of how they arrive in a country and whether they have identity documents.
The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) calls on the Government of Sudan to comply with its obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its own 2014 Regulation of Asylum Act, allow them unrestricted access to the UNHCR and to asylum procedures in order to have their claims reviewed by the competent authorities. Sudan should ensure that no asylum seeker is forcibly returned until they have had an opportunity for the fair and thorough consideration of their protection claims.
According to trusted sources, the 32 asylum seekers were arrested from Agig Port and the Durhaib area, both within the Agig locality of Red Sea state on 1 May. They were transferred to the nearby town of Suakin, charged with illegal entry, and held in police custody before being brought before Suakin Criminal Court on 7 May. The trial lasted for just one session during which the group was found guilty under article 30 (Illegal Entry) of Sudan’s Immigration and Passport Act of 1994. Article 30 (1) provides that “whoever enters or resides in Sudan illegally shall be imprisoned for no less than one year and not exceeding two years, fined or both together. The punishment also includes a deportation order from the court.”
The group was sentenced to serve two months in prison in lieu of a fine of 4000 Sudanese Pounds (around $670 US Dollars), followed by deportation. 14 women and one 6 year-old boy were sent to Port Sudan prison for women while the 17 men were sent to Suakin prison.
Sudan’s own Regulation of Asylum Act, adopted in 2014, provides that asylum seekers should not be penalized for illegal entry or presence provided that they present themselves to the nearest office of the national Refugee Commission or other national authority within one month. Under article 7(1) of that law, Sudanese officials coming into contact with anyone seeking international protection shall refer them immediately to the nearest office of the Refugee Commission for the consideration of their claim.
Human rights groups monitoring the situation in Eritrea suggest that Eritreans who are forcibly returned may face arrest without charge, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture. According to Amnesty International, seeking asylum abroad is considered by the Eritrean government to be an act of treason and anyone within the active national service age bracket of 18 to 40 years old who is forcibly returned to Eritrea will be suspected of national service evasion. UNHCR has asserted that for some Eritreans the act of leaving the country may be sufficient cause on return to be subjected to scrutiny, reprisals and harsh treatment.
Sudan is a state party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. These international legal instruments require the government of Sudan to ensure that it does not remove any person from its territory to a country where they face a real risk of persecution.
Sudan adopted a new Asylum Regulation Act in 2014 which bans the removal from Sudan of any person with a genuine fear of persecution in their country of origin. This Act replaced the Regulation of Asylum Act of 1974. This principle, known as the prohibition on non-refoulement, covers all forms of forced return, including legal or other measures such as extradition, deportation, returns at the border and collective expulsion.
In July 2014 UNHCR expressed concern that Sudan had forcibly returned 74 Eritrean asylum seekers, violating the principle of non-refoulement, in grave violation of international law. The 74 Eritreans were reportedly sent back to Eritrea through the Laffa border crossing point in Eastern Sudan on 30 June 2014, after being convicted of illegal entry into Sudan. They were not given access to asylum procedures in order to have their claims reviewed by the competent authorities.
According to UNHCR, Sudan is the main country of asylum for Eritreans and hosted 109,594 Eritrean refugees at the end of October 2014. 10,701 people arrived in the first 10 months of 2014, with an average of more than 1,000 new arrivals per month. The majority of Eritrean refugees are in refugee camps in the eastern part of the country (Gaderef and Kassala), with smaller numbers in the capital Khartoum.
The number of people fleeing Eritrea is on the increase. During the first ten months of 2014, the number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe was nearly three times more than during the same period the previous year. In Ethiopia and Sudan, the number of Eritrean refugees has also increased sharply. According to the UNHCR, Eritreans have fled primarily due to military conscription, religious persecution and other serious human rights concerns in the country. Recent arrivals to Sudan and Ethiopia told UNHCR in 2014 that they were fleeing an intensified recruitment drive into the mandatory and often open-ended national service. Amnesty International has reported that although official Eritrean policy provides for 18 months of conscription, in practice conscription is extended indefinitely in the majority of cases. The Eritrean authorities require citizens and some foreign nationals to obtain exit visas to depart the country, which are routinely denied. UNHCR’s 2011 Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea assert that, in practice, the punishment for desertion or draft evasion is so severe and disproportionate that it constitutes persecution.
UNHCR has estimated that eighty per cent of the new Eritrean arrivals to Sudan continue their journey onwards, including unaccompanied minors, and many are facing serious protection risks, such as human trafficking.
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