‘Eritreans have no choice but to leave their country’

When tragedy struck off Italy's coast last week, it was a Paris-based radio station that broke the news to Eritrea, home to a majority of the 300-plus men, women and children feared dead in the shipwreck.

'Eritreans have no choice but to leave their country'
Eritreans have no other choice but to leave their country. Photo: David Stanley/Flickr

State media in the tiny Horn of Africa nation made no mention of the Eritrean nationals who perished last Thursday near the southern island of
Lampedusa. Their boat caught fire in the worst recent migrant disaster in the Mediterranean.

That came as no surprise from a country where former rebel leader turned president Issaias Afeworki has ruled with an iron fist for two decades,
prompting a steady exodus of refugees.

The country ranked last below North Korea in a global survey on press freedom by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to the
United Nations, about 3,000 people flee Eritrea every month.

But for staffers at Radio Erena, an independent radio station set up in 2009 with backing from RSF, covering the tragedy was "almost a personal mission," said its chief Biniam Simon.

In a country of just five million people, he said, "the loss of 200 to 300 lives could potentially affect anybody: the victims could be your neighbour,
your colleague."

Biniam said the radio station, which ran survivor accounts after the shipwreck, caused a "wave of gloom in Asmara," the Eritrean capital.

The broadcaster was scathing of the manner in which the shipwreck, which has only left 155 survivors, was covered by both Eritrean and Western media.

He suggested the Eritrean media's "shameful coverage" was due to the fact emigres are viewed as traitors by the government.

"They spoke of 'immigrants from Eastern Africa who were illegally crossing the sea' without saying where they came from," Biniam said.

"It was just to discourage others aspiring to leave," added the former Eritrean state television presenter, who decided not to return to his country after a work visit to Japan in 2006.

Despite the silence in the state-run media, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed has offered his condolences to the families of the victims, although he did so from New York.

Mass conscription and forced labour

Biniam charged that Western media outfits had been "improper" in their reporting.

"They speak of illegal immigrants but the Eritreans are asylum-seekers who have no other choice but to leave their country," he said.

Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, has consistently raised fears domestically that Addis Ababa is scheming to re-take the country.

This has allowed the government to conscript most adults into the army or force them to perform compulsory labour.

Mass national service, introduced in 2004, can last decades and military police prowl the streets to round up those shirking service.

"Young men and women are sent to work on big national construction sites with almost no pay and this can last up to age 40 or 50, unless they become invalid before then," said journalist Leonard Vincent, the author of a book on Eritrea.

Thousands have fled to neighbouring Sudan or Ethiopia despite a reported shoot-to-kill policy by border patrols, with families of those left behind risking being punished by crippling fines or imprisonment.

To make things worse, the economy has stagnated and rumours have grown of Issaias's heavy drinking, furious temper and shouting fits at cowed officials.

Although nominally under civilian rule, Eritrea under Issaias has been carved up into zones of control by army generals, who run a flourishing networks of corrupt businesses and cream off lucrative profits.

The Lampedusa tragedy has sparked shock across Europe and highlighted the European Union's flawed asylum policy.

Italy – which has seen some 30,000 migrants landing this year mainly from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria – wants a change in EU rules that force migrants to remain in their country of first arrival while their asylum application is being processed.

But northern European states are opposed to Rome's argument that this puts an extra burden on the crisis-hit southern states. They say they do their share by taking in more refugees than southern Europe once asylum is granted.

Despite the emotion the latest deaths provoked in Europe, Biniam fears "it will not change anything as the problem is not being treated at source".

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Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

In Sweden, a sambo is domestic partner – someone you’re in a relationship with and live with, but to whom you aren’t married. If you, as a non-EU citizen, are in a sambo relationship with a Swedish citizen, you can apply for a residence permit on the basis of that relationship. But meeting the requirements of that permit is not always straightforward.

Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

An American reader, whose son lives with his Swedish partner, wrote to The Local with questions about the maintenance requirement her son and his partner must meet in order to qualify for a sambo resident permit.

“Their specific issue is that they meet the requirements for a stable relationship and stable housing, but have been told that qualifying for a sambo visa based on savings is unlikely,” she wrote, asking for suggestions on how to approach this issue. Her son’s partner is a student with no income, but whose savings meet maintenance requirements. But, they have been told by lawyers that Migrationsverket will likely deny the application based on the absence of the Swedish partner’s income.

How do relationships qualify for sambo status?

In order to apply for a residence permit on the basis of a sambo relationship, you and your partner must either be living together, or plan to live together as soon as the non-Swedish partner can come to Sweden. Because this reader’s son is already in Sweden as a graduate student, he can apply for a sambo permit without having to leave the country, provided that his student permit is still valid at the time the new application is submitted.

The Migration Agency notes that “you can not receive a residence permit for the reason that you want to live with a family member in Sweden before your current permit expires”. So once your valid permit is close to expiration, you can apply for a new sambo permit.

What are the maintenance requirements for a sambo permit?

The maintenance requirements for someone applying for a sambo permit fall on the Swedish partner, who must prove that they are able to support both themselves and their partner for the duration of the permit. This includes both housing and financial requirements.

In terms of residential standards that applicants must meet, they must show that they live in a home of adequate size – for two adult applicants without children, that means at least one room with a kitchen. If rented, the lease must be for at least one year.

The financial requirements are more complicated. The Swedish partner must be able to document a stable income that can support the applicant and themselves – for a sambo couple, the 2022 standard is an income of 8,520 kronor per month. This burden falls on the Swedish partner.

While the Migration Agency’s website does say that you may “fulfil the maintenance requirement (be considered able to support yourself) if you have enough money/taxable assets to support yourself, other persons in your household and the family members who are applying for a residence permit for at least two years”, it is unclear how proof of this would be documented. On a separate page detailing the various documents that can be used to prove that maintenance requirements are met, there is nothing about how to document savings that will be used to support the couple.

Can you apply on the basis of savings instead of income?

Well, this is unclear. The Migration Agency’s website does suggest that having enough money saved up to support both members of the sambo relationship is an option, but it gives no details on how to document this. It is also unclear whether applying on the basis of savings will disadvantage applicants, with preference given to applicants who can show proof of income from work.

The Local has reached out to an immigration lawyer to answer this question.