When I met Aisha, Bekele and Dabir, I realised I was in a precarious spot. As we settled in to chat, Bekele smiled sheepishly and told me, “If you hadn’t come with him,” pointing to the Lutheran priest in my company, “we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
Throughout the interview, in fact, I had to reassure the three that we would not reveal their identities: no names, no photos, no saying what their political affiliation was, no saying where we even met. As I would learn over the course of speaking with them, they had every reason to be afraid.
Ethiopia is a country that has been in constant turmoil, it seems. From a crippling famine to war with Eritrea, they held elections last May, about which Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in their 2011 World Report, “Although the sweeping margin of the 2010 victory came as a surprise to many observers, the ruling party’s win was predictable and echoed the results of local elections in 2008. The 99.6 percent result was the culmination of the government’s five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism. European election observers said that the election fell short of international standards.”
Bekele, Dabir and Aisha were among those who chose to dissent. They were involved in educating voters on the different parties available to vote for and what their platforms were. For this, they were arrested, jailed for a couple months, and then released. “But they made us sign a paper,” Dabir said. “It’s a paper they make everyone sign, that says you did something wrong, and that if you do it again, you will be killed.”
No shelter here
This story falls in line with HRW’s findings as well, who reported incidences of political jailing, torture, intimidation and execution. The three, who feared for their lives, crossed the border into Kenya and made their way to Norway.
It would seem to be an open-and-shut case: Ethiopia’s jailing, torture and execution of political opposition a matter of widespread public knowledge—and these three individuals heavily involved in political opposition in Ethiopia—one would expect Norwegian authorities to grant them political asylum to make a new home in Norway.
This would not be the case. In fact, Norway has been seriously tightening controls on Ethiopian asylum seekers, taking away their right to work, as well as their tax cards, effectively driving into the street. This led to a general hunger strike conducted by Ethiopian asylum seekers in Norway last February. And then things got worse.
“They told us, you can’t stay in this country anymore,” Bekele said. “Without the papers to work, we were illegal, and had to leave the country. But we couldn’t go back to Ethiopia. So we were stuck.” Although not for long—last April, police raided an Ethiopian refugee camp in Oslo. The asylum seekers were arrested, loaded into police trucks and cars, driven out of town, and then dropped off and told not to re-enter the city.
With this turn of events, the three decided they had no choice but to leave the country, and set their sights for Canada. Like so many other asylum seekers who’ve tried the same route, they were stopped in Iceland, arrested, and then housed, awaiting a decision from Icelandic authorities.
Their prospects thus far are not very bright. The three are aware of the Dublin Regulation, an international treaty on the treatment of asylum seekers, part of which grants authorities the right—although not the obligation—to send asylum seekers back to their previous point of origin. Iceland’s track record, as many of our readers are aware, has been to deport almost by default. Should they be returned to Norway, they will most certainly be deported to Ethiopia.
As it is now, they live—as most asylum seekers in Iceland do—in a state of limbo, unable to work, unable to really leave their homes, unable to know if they will wake up to hear they are being deported, have been granted asylum, or will be facing yet another long, frustrating day of uncertainty.
At the interview’s close, they had some words for the Icelandic people:
“We are human beings,” Bekele said. “We are educated. We are not going to be a burden for the government. We can work. Anything the government gives us to do, we can do.”
Aisha, who speaks little English and had remained quiet throughout the interview, now felt the desire to speak up, saying, “I ran away from Ethiopia in order to rescue myself. I humbly ask Iceland’s authorities, and its people, to look at us with humanity. We are just running away to save ourselves. Rescue us. I would rather walk into the ocean and die than be deported to Norway.”