By Kevin Sieff
NAIROBI — The United States is threatening to apply visa sanctions on Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive countries, as leverage to force Eritrean authorities to accept its citizens who could be deported from America.
“Our goal is to get countries to agree to accept the return of their nationals,” David Lapan, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman, toldreporters Wednesday.
Lapan said DHS had asked the State Department to implement the sanctions on four countries, but declined to identify them. The Washington Times quoted unidentified sources as saying they included Eritrea.
It remains unclear whether the sanctions would be imposed or how many possible Eritreans could be at risk of deportation. The State Department declined to comment about whether it was concerned that Eritrean deportees would be jailed or tortured upon return.
Earlier, the State Department said in a statement that it had not yet implemented the visa sanctions.
“We follow a standard process to implement a visa suspension as expeditiously as possible in the manner the Secretary determines most appropriate under the circumstances to achieve the desired goal,” the statement said.
But the new U.S. moves — if implemented — appear to ignore what would likely happen to Eritrean deportees once they are forced to return.
The country — on the Red Sea between Ethiopia and Sudan — has a long track record of jailing and torturing people who attempted to flee the country. Last year, the United Nations reported on the regime’s use of “indefinite national service, arbitrary detention, torture enforced disappearances.”
Ironically, even the State Department last year said that the Eritrean government “tortured and beat … persons attempting to flee the country without travel documents.”
Now, the United States appears eager to send Eritreans back to those very conditions.
Many of those fleeing Eritrea are trying to avoid a lifetime of military service, which the United Nations and human rights groups say amounts to modern-day slavery. Some analysts call the country the “North Korea of Africa.”
Because of the government’s litany of abuses, Eritrea produces a disproportionate number of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 95,000 Eritreans arrived in Italy by boat, according to the International Organization for Migration. For years, the United States has resettled Eritreans stranded in Ethiopian refugee camps.
During his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump railed against countries that were refusing “to take their people back after they’ve been ordered to leave the United States,” as he said in an August 2016 speech.
Eritreans are rarely deported from Western countries, but some have recently been sent home from Sudan and Egypt. Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean radio journalist and human rights activist, followed their cases through their families in Eritrea.
“They all ended up in prison,” Estafanos said in an interview.
It remains unclear which Eritreans would be deported from the United States — whether it would be those accused of crimes or those whose only transgression was entering the country illegally.
As of now, the State Department considers 12 countries to be “recalcitrant” in re-admitting its citizens when they are deported from the United States: China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Cambodia, Burma, Morocco, Hong Kong, South Sudan, Guinea and Eritrea.
The United States is considering additional sanctions for Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone, according the Washington Times, a rare step in trying to increase deportations. Those so-called “visa sanctions” would amount to restrictions on the legal travel to the United States of nationals — including government officials — from those countries.
In the Wednesday news conference, Lapan said immigration authorities have recently released a number of undocumented immigrants from detention because their native countries had not provided travel documents.