Elsa Chyrum had never visited Malta before this week, but still, the country holds deeply unhappy memories. In 2002, the Eritrean human rights activist was one of the protagonists in one of Malta’s darkest moments: when 220 Eritrean refugees were forcibly returned to their country to face immediate arrest and brutal torture.
“I wish so much that they had some humanity at the time,” Ms Chyrum tells the Times of Malta, when asked what she would say to the Maltese authorities who made the decision.
“I wish they had the full picture; I wish they had worked harder to understand the regime they were sending people back to. They acted on the spur of the moment, hoping it would stop people from coming, but history has shown it didn’t work.”
According to a 2004 report by Amnesty, the deportees were de-tained as soon as they arrived in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
I wish [the Maltese] had worked harder to understand the regime they were sending people back to
They were taken to the nearby Adi Abeto military detention centre, where some 180 of them were held and tortured over a period of two and a half months. Some tried to escape but were recaptured; three were shot, with one man dying from his wounds.Some attempted suicide.
Thirteen years later, Ms Chyrum said most of the survivors are in “safe places” around the world – from Holland to Canada – but they have not recovered from the trauma of their experience.
“For years I was so angry,” she said. “I campaigned for the EU not to accept Malta’s membership because of the way the authorities treated refugees, until they ac-cepted them as human beings.”
Ms Chyrum, the director of London-based organisation Human Rights Concern Eritrea, recalled a day of frantic campaigning from London in a futile attempt to halt the deportation.
“As a last resort, we advised them to take their clothes off as a sign of protest. They thought it would buy them some time; instead they were beaten, attacked with spray and herded away.”
While in Malta, Ms Chyrum met in person former President George Abela, who was working as a lawyer in 2002, and Fr Dionysus Mintoff from the Peace Lab, who lobbyied from Malta over the emotional days.
“They had been so courageous,” she said, smiling as she recounted their meeting. “It was difficult for them, fighting their own government on behalf of refugees, but they pursued the case until the very end.”
She praised Dr Abela for representing the refugees in court, and recalled how the remaining detainees were released on Christmas, after Fr Mintoff met the Prime Minister a day earlier begging him to soften his stance.
Ms Chyrum’s view of Malta, helped in no small part by the pair’s actions, has improved over the years. She takes some consolation in the fact that after the events of 2002, and the international outcry that followed, refugees’ rights are now better respected and living conditions have improved.
This despite the country coming close to repeating the mistakes of the past just two years ago, when planes stood on the runway as a Maltese Prime Minister once again threatened a pushback.
Ms Chyrum’s anger, instead, is now directed at the Eritrean regime, and at Europe for its tacit support through development aid.
“Thousands leave every month because they would rather die than continue to live like that. Supporting the regime that drives people out is making the problem worse.”