Yonas’s Story – The Eritrean who returned
An Eritrean – “Yonas” – has fled to Switzerland, from which he was expelled in 2018. His case is important: it proves that despite claims by the Swiss authorities that Eritreans can safely go back to their country of origin, after having settled their relationship with the regime, they are brutally treated when they arrive and tortured by the authorities.
His case comes on top of two recent rulings by the UN Committee Against Torture which harshly criticise Switzerland for its treatment of rejected asylum seekers, especially males who are still at the age to serve in the Military or as National Service consripts.
The first decision, published on 21 September 2021, found that the Swiss authorities had not sufficiently evaluated the risk whether the plaintiff would be subjected to torture or other inhumane treatment under Art. 3 of the UN Convention against Torture.
The second, published on 28 January 2022, found that the Swiss cannot conclude that just because there is a “lack of available and reliable information” on the risk of a returnee being tortured, that it is safe to send them back to Eritrea. In both cases, the Swiss authorities were instructed not to forcibly returning the refugees.
Switzerland was given 90 days to take adequate measures and report them back to the Committee Against Torture.
These rulings are legally binding on the Swiss and undermine their assertion that Eritreans can go home without risk of ill-treatment. “I told the Swiss authorities that I might be killed after returning to Eritrea,” says Yonas. “But they didn’t believe me.”
Yonas, who is today 35, arrived in Switzerland in 2015 having fled Eritrea and claimed asylum. As he was not able to convince the Swiss authorities that he faced persecution in case of return, he fell victim of the gradually tightened asylum practice towards Eritreans which began in 2016. So Yonas was neither recognised as a refugee nor was he granted asylum. He therefore ended up in a legal limbo called an “emergency aid regime.”
Yonas, like more than 4,000 other rejected asylum seekers, among them hundreds of Eritreans, was denied the right to work. He was left living on “emergency aid”, which ranges from $4.5 to $12 a day.
Yonas was also denied the right to leave Switzerland, settle down elsewhere in Europe and find work there. The Swiss literally left him to rot without any alternative. When he went to the authorities he was repeatedly told: “you must voluntarily return to Eritrea and you will be safe there.”
Yonas knew this wasn’t true. He became so depressed he attempted suicide. He survived but finally he could bear it no longer and agreed to return “voluntarily” to Eritrea.
On his arrival at Asmara airport he was arrested, taken to a room and savagely beaten. He bears the scars on his legs to this day.
Yonas was imprisoned, but finally managed to escape. He fled to Sudan, where he contacted the Swiss embassy, giving them his asylum number, but they turned down his requests for help.
Finally, he made it to Turkey and Greece before finally getting back to Switzerland. On arrival, volunteers immediately assisted him in finding legal assistance so that he could claim asylum once more.
In December 2021, the Swiss Migration authorities granted him asylum, as well as a refugee status, but they kept the case secret. Only thanks to the work of an investigative journalist, who had been in contact with Yonas since 2020, his ordeal was finally made public.
When confronted on television with the reality of Yona’s situation, and the proof that their assurances of “safe return” are false, the Swiss officials become shifty and nervous.
Their own internal documents show that they know returning to Eritrea is not without risks, and they now have the proof offered by Yonas. His scarred legs are a powerful testimony tell the Swiss government has been attempting to deny.
The full report from the Swiss paper: Republik
An asylum case that could change everything
Switzerland denies an Eritrean asylum. Back in his home country, he is imprisoned and tortured. Because he managed to escape to Switzerland a second time, the State Secretariat for Migration found it difficult to explain.
By Christian Zeier (text) and Florian Spring (image), May 4, 2022
“Please don’t show my face or call me by my name. Otherwise what I had to experience will happen to my family in Eritrea.”
For years there has been discussion in Switzerland about whether rejected asylum seekers from Eritrea can safely return to their home country. Or whether they are threatened with serious human rights violations there. Now the State Secretariat for Migration has to deal with the case of an Eritrean who claims to have been arrested and tortured after being expelled from Switzerland. This is shown by research by the Republic, the investigative research team “Reflectt” and the SRF program “10 vor 10”.
What is unusual is that if the Eritrean had not made it back to Switzerland, it would not have become known that the original risk assessment that led to his expulsion was wrong. And now his case could change Switzerland’s controversial asylum practice with Eritrea.
Odyssey back to Switzerland
The fact that the case is examined at all has to do with the improbable odyssey of the Eritrean Yonas, whose real name is different. On a Monday evening in April, the 35-year-old sits on the bed in his Zurich apartment and says: “I’ve lived too much.” Then he reviews the past ten years of his life.
How he fled Eritrea for the first time.
How he lost friends to the desert without being able to bury them.
How he applied for asylum in Switzerland and was expelled.
How he drank cleaning supplies to end his life.
How he survived by chance and was forced to leave the country.
How he experienced torture and detention in Eritrea.
And how, after the second flight, he ended up in Switzerland again.
“I told the Swiss authorities that I might be killed after returning to Eritrea,” says Yonas. “But they didn’t believe me.”
“Yonas only has a chance of his case being processed if he manages to re-enter Switzerland illegally.” With this sentence, the three-part Eritrea series ended in April 2020 , which the republic published together with the investigative research team “Reflect”. We tracked down the then 33-year-old Eritrean after his second escape from Eritrea in Greece and reconstructed and verified his story.
Yonas talked about his time in Switzerland, his return to Eritrea, his imprisonment and the subsequent escape. His stories were not very detailed, but if asked, he could describe events or places in detail. For example, the torture scene shortly after his arrival in the Eritrean capital Asmara: They took him into a room with his hands tied behind his back, he says. “They were hooded, one took out his belt and hit me with it, while the other took a stick that was in the room and hit my back.”
To this day, scars on Yonas’ legs bear witness to that night. He can only endure the chronic pain thanks to medication.
At the time, we rated Yonas as believable and his story as substantiated, plausible and conclusive. But as long as he was outside of Switzerland, the local authorities were not interested in his case. “Mr Y. has the opportunity to apply for asylum in his country of residence,” wrote the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) when he contacted the authorities from Greece in 2019. His asylum procedure has been completed and he cannot legally return to Switzerland.
We stayed in touch with Yonas and followed his path from afar. How he made ends meet in Athens with odd jobs. How his Eritrean girlfriend, whom he met in Greece, came to Switzerland. How she gave birth to her child here – and Yonas sounded more and more desperate.
Until one day in July 2021, a Whatsapp message changed everything: “Dear Christian, how are you?” Yonas wrote. “I’m coming to Switzerland. I’m here. I’m here in Switzerland.”
Against all odds, he had made it. Just as the Republic, in cooperation with “Reflectt”, had verified Yonas’ story at the time, the State Secretariat for Migration now had to check his story. Would it reject him because it doesn’t believe the story of torture and imprisonment is credible? Or would Yona’s asylum be granted, and with it confirmation that his eviction was a mistake? That Switzerland then sent him into the hands of his torturers?
In the negative asylum decision of July 12, 2017, the SEM not only stated that Yonas did not qualify as a refugee due to contradictory statements and a lack of credibility. It also states that there are no indications from the files that the Eritrean, in the event of a return, “there is a considerable likelihood of a punishment or treatment prohibited by Article 3 of the ECHR “. The execution of the return does not pose a specific threat and is reasonable. Yonas is therefore obliged to leave the country and thus to return to the Eritrean dictatorship.
What makes the case special: most asylum seekers from Eritrea who receive a negative asylum decision remain in Switzerland despite everything. The regime in Asmara does not accept involuntary returnees – i.e. deportation flights. And because the rejected asylum seekers are afraid of reprisals when they return, hundreds of them end up in emergency aid. Without a work permit, income or prospects. Yonas, on the other hand, gave up and returned to his home country in July 2018. “After all the negative decisions, I was completely demoralized,” he says. “I thought: I’ll either die in Switzerland or I’ll die in Eritrea.”
But things are different. Yonas manages to escape again and he applies for asylum in Switzerland for the second time in October 2021, six years after his first application on August 13, 2015. With the imprisonment and torture after his return and the visit to a demonstration critical of the government in Geneva in the summer of 2016, he asserts new grounds for asylum and, in addition to a registration card from Sudan, also submits the article that the Republic and “Reflect” published about him. Two months later it is clear: Yonas will be granted asylum and recognized as a refugee with status B.
The State Secretariat for Migration therefore assumes that he is exposed to serious disadvantages in Eritrea or must have a justified fear of being exposed to such disadvantages. This includes: threats to life, limb or freedom as well as measures that cause unbearable psychological pressure. Nothing more is known about the positive decision. The State Secretariat has denied both Yonas and the Republic and “Reflect” access to the reasoning – a practice that is common practice and is supported by the Federal Administrative Court.
If his account of imprisonment and persecution were fundamentally questioned because of his political commitment, Yonas would hardly have been granted refugee status. It remains unclear to what extent the State Secretariat for Migration is responsible for the wrong decision. When he first applied for asylum, Yonas made contradictory statements and did not mention, for example, that he had taken part in a demonstration in Geneva that was critical of the government. Spokesman Daniel Bach points out that the SEM relies on correct and complete information in order to be able to assess the specific risk to a person.
For the lawyer Nora Riss from Freiplatzaktion, who represented Yonas in the asylum procedure, it is clear: “The risk assessment was wrong in this specific case.” The question arises as to which reliable sources these and other assessments were based on. “If the source situation is uncertain, you have to be more careful and decide in favor of the asylum seekers,” says Riss. Otherwise you risk exactly those cases in which people are tortured after their return. Other countries are more cautious on this issue, which makes Swiss asylum practice one of the strictest in Europe.
A vulnerable system
Switzerland argues that while there are human rights violations in Eritrea, this alone is not sufficient reason to assume that a person will be a victim of torture on return.
You have to check the individual case. Only asylum seekers for whom there are no valid reasons to assume that there is a specific and serious risk would be expelled.
Since a controversial tightening of the asylum policy in 2016 , significantly more Eritrean asylum seekers have received a negative decision and been turned away – most end up in emergency aid, several hundred have returned in recent years. How many of them, like Yonas, were imprisoned or even tortured is unknown.
If there were any feedback, they would be checked, says SEM spokesman Daniel Bach. “So far we haven’t received any.” And exactly here lies the problem. After their return, the people disappear in the country, which is still very isolated, and there is no monitoring to protect them. The Swiss authorities know little about what happens to the rejected asylum seekers in Eritrea . To date, the State Secretariat for Migration cannot point to any documented cases of returnees who have remained unmolested.
Undoubtedly, there are Eritreans who can safely return to their home country after a negative asylum decision. But not everyone who is actually at risk can make this credible to the SEM. Just like Yonas. Or like the two asylum seekers whose cases ended up before the UN Committee against Torture ( CAT ) in recent years . In 2021 and 2022 , the committee came to the conclusion in two judgments that Switzerland had violated the UN Convention on the Prevention of Torture by expelling it to Eritrea.
The fear remains
It is unclear whether the new findings will change asylum practice. “The practice will be adjusted if there is new knowledge about the threat situation in a country or if the Federal Administrative Court corrects a decision of the SEM in a general way,” says the State Secretariat for Migration. There would be a ban on evictions if one came to the conclusion that all people who return are specifically threatened. That is currently not the case, says spokesman Daniel Bach. “Of course we look at the case. If the threat situation has changed, this could ultimately lead to a ban on deportations.” However, there is also the possibility that information that would have been important for the assessment was withheld from the SEM during the asylum procedure.
That doesn’t matter to Yonas anymore. He is diligently learning German, would like to complete an apprenticeship as soon as possible and says: «I’m ok. For the first time I don’t feel unsafe in Switzerland.” It is true that he sleeps poorly, suffers from the pain of torture and often dreams of people he had to leave behind. But his greatest fear is something else: “Please don’t show my face and don’t call me by name,” he says when he says goodbye. “Otherwise what I had to experience would happen to my family in Eritrea.”
Christian Zeier is a journalist, lives in Bern and works for the ” Reflect ” research team.
Swiss TV programme showing forced returnee