Academics and rights activists fear a rapprochement between the European Union and Eritrea, warning that EU policy-makers are making light of the Horn of Africa country’s dismal rights record in their bid to reduce the number of Eritreans who are ready to risk their lives at sea on their way to Europe.
The European Union is considering boosting its aid to Eritrea to fund infrastructure projects and help job creation with the hope that employed youths will cease to embark on the treacherous trek across the Sahara Desert - typically via Sudan, Egypt and Libya - before embarking on Italian-bound boats.
This is a departure from EU policy, analysts note.
In recent years EU aid had, on the contrary, been on the downswing. Of the 12 million euros allocated under the 10th European Development Fund, only 54 million euros were spent in the past six years - primarily in agriculture and food security.
The EU launched last year the Khartoum Process, formerly known as the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, to discuss trafficking of Horn of Africa migrants with Eritrea and other African nations.
Frederica Mogherini, EU High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy, said in a November 2014 statement that participants had to tackle "the root causes of irregular migration: poverty, conflicts, lack of resources", without referring to the Eritrean regime’s rights record.
"The EU is making moves to bring a rogue state like Eritrea into the international fold, which is commendable," said London-based British-Eritrean activist and scientist Noel Joseph. "But it has to be linked to clear changes on the ground."
Activists like Joseph argue that Brussels should use a carrot-and-stick approach.
"The EU approach should be to say 'OK, we will engage with you [but] you have to change x, y and z'," said Joseph in a phone interview.
There are fears that European nations will also make it more difficult for Eritrean asylum-seekers to obtain refugee status in Europe.
The United Kingdom has published new guidelines on Eritrean asylum-seekers.
If they are enforced, it will no longer be sufficient for Eritreans who reach the UK to make a refugee claim based on their fear of persecution under the "National Service", Eritrea’s open-ended military service, that has until now been described as degrading and inhuman.
"It seems that the sole purpose of the Home Office Guidelines is to stem this flow disregarding the consequences on those who desperately need protection against persecution— forced labour — accompanied with severe punishment regimes," wrote Gaim Kibreab, a London South Bank University professor in an op-ed piece in Asmarino.com, a pro-opposition website.
The Home Office Guidelines for Eritrean Asylum-Seekers appear to have come under the influence of a controversial Danish Immigration Service Report that casts recent developments in Asmara in a positive light, citing it 48 times.
"They reported that there was evidence to believe that the indefinite character [of the National Service] was changed but we don’t have that evidence from independent sources," observes Mirjam Van Reisen, an Amsterdam Univesity College political scientist.
The Danish document has been so controversial that Copenhagen has backpedaled on its decision to base its own immigration policy guidelines on it, according to Danish media reports.
"The criticism has led Danish authorities to no longer use the report as basis for policy," according to Van Reisen.
Scholars have joined Eritrean activists and former diplomats to call on Brussels to shun Asmara until President Issaias Afeworki allows UN investigators to enter the country.
A three-member UN Commission of Inquiry has been barred from traveling to Eritrea to carry out its work.
In a damning report to the UN Human Rights Council in mid-March, commission head Michael Smith said the Eritrean regime uses extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions to silence critics.
Afeworki, he noted, uses "pervasive state control and ruthless repression," which has led to a massive exodus from Eritrea, the second largest source of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean.
The UN investigators were able to establish the situation on the ground through oral and written testimony from more than 500 Eritreans in exile.
The Eritrean representative to Geneva, Tesfamicael Gerahtu, rejected commission findings.
"There is no gross and systematic violation of human rights in Eritrea," he said.
Asmara has often blamed is neighbour Ethiopia and the "no war, no peace” situation that has followed the war as justification for its failure to implement the 1997 constitution, which provides for democratic government and fundamental rights.
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management unit declined a request for an interview.