Aster’s one-story house in southern Eritrea was painted white and teal. Five front windows overlooked a lawn, where her four daughters could play and donkeys grazed. Her father obtained permission from the government to build in 2002; they began building in 2013. But this September, the military and city authorities came and spray-painted a giant X on the front. Aster (not her real name) gathered her children and left before a bulldozer smashed through the walls. Nothing is left of their home now but rubble.
As huge numbers of Eritreans continue to flee the country, Isaias Afwerki’s regime is increasingly retaliating against their families. The government already demands payments from families whose children have escaped—50,000 nafkas (US$3,333) per child. Families who can’t pay are jailed. Now the government is demolishing houses and seizing property, too.
“They want to punish people,” says her brother, Fikru, 31, who recently arrived in Geneva after seven years of bouncing between countries as an Eritrean refugee. Fikru, who recounted Aster’s story to me, says his other brothers had sent money from abroad to pay for the construction.
Experts say Afwerki needs a constant supply of young people to maintain his police state. A June 2015 UN Commission on Inquiry report on Eritrea documented in detail the regime’s indefinite military conscription. The military has drafted children younger than 15, tortured its own members and engaged in the systematic sexual abuse of women. But despite the report’s conclusion of possible “crimes against humanity”—and an Eritrean government official’s recent admission to a Wall Street Journal reporter that the regime engages in torture—some countries and right-wing political parties in Europe are jostling to send a signal to Eritreans: Don’t come here anymore.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, many of Europe’s right wing parties were quick to insinuate Syrian refugees were to blame and to call for stricter immigration and border controls. But even before the attacks, some European governments were already maneuvering to prevent refugees from entering their countries. Eritreans—who represent one of the largest groups of refugees seeking safety in Europe in recent years—have been a primary target of those who would close Europe’s doors.
Efforts to exclude Eritrean refugees from Europe began over a year ago in Denmark. In mid-2014, the Danish Immigration Service embarked on a fact-finding mission to Eritrea after seeing a dramatic rise in the number of Eritreans seeking asylum. The mission report—based primarily on anonymous interviews in Asmara—declared conditions had improved enough that Eritreans would no longer be recognized as refugees in Denmark. Human rights organizations denounced the report, and two men who contributed to it resigned, saying they were pressured to ensure the report allowed Denmark to adopt stricter asylum practices. After a period of public pressure, the Danish government announced Eritreans would still receive asylum in Denmark, but the report remained public.