An Eritrean refugee in Halifax killed himself in late February after losing an asylum appeal to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. Habtom Kibraeb, 40, was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Clayton Park area.
Kibraeb had spent several years on the run from Eritrea’s military, says Beku Feshaye, who owns Kilimanjaro Café, a store on Titus Street in Halifax.
Feshaye and fellow Eritrean Nazareth Yemane, a radio show host on CKDU 88.1 FM, raised the money to bail out Kibraeb when he was detained by the Canada Border Services. Feshaye also offered him shelter while his asylum appeal was being processed.
Kibraeb arrived in Halifax from Germany in August 2008. To board the plane that brought him here, he used a fake passport, with a forged signature, that was sold to him by an agent in Germany. While on the plane he shredded the document.
Upon landing he told immigration officers he had destroyed the passport, produced his military ID and asked for asylum.
He was jailed, but later released on the bail provided by Feshaye and Yemane.
Eritrea’s government is led by Isaias Afewerki, the leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war that was fought between 1961 and 1991.
But since winning the war and taking power, Afewerki’s government has allegedly turned totalitarian. Its military has been accused of thousands of human rights violations, and torture and sexual abuse in the army is reportedly horrifying.
Bahlbi Malk, a refugee from Eritrea who lives in Halifax, says he has heard reports of sexual abuse, helicopter torture, underground detention and beatings going on in Eritrean military camps.
Such conditions have forced thousands of Eritrean youth to flee the country.
“In 2008, some 68,000 Eritreans entered Europe as refugees. Many perished while crossing the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea,” Malk says.
He says Eritrean youth flee their homeland for two main reasons: indefinite military conscription without pay and economic deprivation.
Kibraeb joined the EPLF in 1988, at the age of 18, to fight for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. He joined Eritrea’s military when the EPLF took over the reins of government, rising to the rank of captain.
Kibraeb made formal requests to leave the military but was sent to jail for re-education instead, says local immigration lawyer Lee Cohen, founder of the Halifax Refugee Clinic.
When he was finally transferred to a border post, Kibraeb saw the chance for a new life. He slipped across the border in 2006. His road to Canada was not a smooth one. He was jailed in Libya and again in Malta.
Investigators from the Canada Border Services concluded that Kibraeb couldn’t enter this country because Eritrea’s military is deemed by Canada as a violator of human rights.
Although Kibraeb said he no longer supported their ideology, his voluntary entry into the EPLF, his rank in the military and the long years of service were factors that led the border service to deny him entry, says Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic.
“It’s not a valid judgment,” she says. “The notions of duress and of forced conscription were not taken into account.”
An Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada rule that prohibits lawyers from counselling clients during investigations was another factor, says Cohen.
“A refugee may neither have English language skills nor an understanding of the legal process. That being said, those rules limit the fair outcome of a case,” he says. “There were controversial statements made by the client. But if he had the benefit of counsel, that could have changed things.”
Losing the asylum appeal meant that Kibraeb would be deported, something he dreaded because Eritrea does not have an exit policy. Anyone who returns there after fleeing the country is charged and faces a possible death sentence, says Malk.
Feshaye remembers Kibraeb telling him before his death that a military captain would probably be tortured before being shot by a firing squad.
The Geneva Convention on Refugees deems that a refugee may not be deported to his country of origin if there is a well-founded fear of persecution, torture or death upon return. But Cohen says claims of fear of death are so commonplace at refugee hearings that, as it was in Kibraeb’s case, it is often not taken seriously.
“On the other hand, he was not yet determined to be a refugee,” Cohen says.
The night before he committed suicide, Kibreab was asked to report to the Canada Border Services the next day. There, according to Cohen, he was to receive his deportation orders.
Cohen believes Kibreab’s case was “wrongly decided.” He was hopeful for a judicial review but by then Kibraeb had given up hope for a new life, something he had pursued since his flight out of Eritrea four years before. Instead he chose to take control of his life and his death.
“The fact that he chose to end his life on a snowstorm day underlines the point that his fear of being shot by a firing squad on return to his country was real,” Cohen says.