BRADFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two young Eritreans, recent arrivals in northern England after paying smugglers thousands of dollars to take them across the Sahara desert, Mediterranean Sea and English channel, are hoping the British government will let them stay.
While Britain has vowed to open its doors to 20,000 Syrians who are fleeing their home country in unprecedented numbers, Eritreans seeking to escape from violence, persecution, and poverty fear their claims for asylum could suffer.
In Britain the largest number of asylum applications in the year to June 2015 were from Eritrea - but two thirds of claims, 66 percent, were refused in the second quarter of 2015, a jump from a 14 percent refusal rate in the previous year.
Adnom, 25, and Meron, 22, speaking in a cafe in Bradford, 175 miles (278 km) north of London, said they were worried about the tougher stand adopted by the UK government this year which ruled that Eritreans would not face persecution if sent home.
Both say they face detention and violence in Eritrea - Adnom because of his Pentocostal Christian faith, which is banned, and Meron because he ran away from military conscription.
“I never want to go back to Eritrea ... if I go back, I will get killed or go to prison,” said Adnom, adding that he had already been jailed once in Eritrea for his religion.
The two men, who would only give their first names, are among the estimated 360,000 Eritreans from a population of 6.3 million who have fled from the impoverished Horn of Africa nation. Eritreans are the third largest group among refugees and migrants heading for Europe.
Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest and most tightly controlled nations, introduced compulsory military service in 1995. Human rights campaigners argue the open-ended programme constitutes forced labour, and thousands of Eritreans flee every year to avoid the draft.
Adnom and Meron made the journey to Britain separately, not knowing each other before arriving, but took roughly the same route through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Italy and France.
Their families sold possessions to raise thousands of dollars to fund their journeys, with the men paying $3,000 for bus trips across Sudan and through Libya to the coast.
“I saw eight people die along the way. There was no water,” said Meron, dressed in sports clothes.
From Libya he paid $2,200 for a boat across the Mediterrean which was intercepted by the Italian authorities, and he was taken to Sicily. Some of his friends who departed Libya a few hours later drowned after their dinghy flipped over.
“I was lucky,” he said.
Both men then travelled to mainland Italy - Meron living on the streets of Rome for a month, Adnom staying near Verona - but wanted to get to Britain so headed through France.
They both spent time in “The Jungle”, a camp in the northern port of Calais which French authorities say is now home to more than 3,000 people, before stowing away on trains to England, where they arrived in July after several months of travelling.
REFUGEE OR ECONOMIC MIGRANT?
After presenting themselves to British authorities on arrival, they were taken to Wakefield in northern England to be processed before being housed in nearby Bradford, receiving around 150 pounds ($235) each month to live on.
They are now awaiting word on their asylum applications but both fear for their safety if sent back.
Adnom said he worked in the Eritrean army as an electrician for seven years, concealing his religion from fellow soldiers.
But one day while attending an illegal church service, police stormed in and he was arrested, thrown in prison for 10 days and threatened with worse if caught again, he said.
Meron was studying in the Eritrean capital of Asmara before being drafted into the military. After a year working in an army camp he fled, walking to the border with Ethiopia and being shot at by border guards as he crossed.
Zoe Gardner of London-based charity Asylum Aid said she was “extremely concerned” about Britain cracking down on Eritrean asylum seekers, saying the new tougher stance was based on flawed information on Eritrea.
Britain updated its advice on Eritrea in March after assurances from the Eritrean government and a Danish government report which said Eritrea was not as dangerous as previously thought.
However this information has since been disowned by its authors following strong condemnation by rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said Gardner.
“There is a tendency to portray Syrians as ‘genuine refugees’ and Africans as ‘economic migrants’ that is completely divorced from reality,” she said.
A spokesman for Britain’s interior ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation its assessments are based on a “careful and objective assessment” based on a range of sources.
Its guidelines are currently being updated to take into account evidence from a United Nations report in June that highlighted widespread rights abuses in Eritrea, but it does not yet say whether the rules will be tightened or loosened.
Meanwhile, Adnom and Meron have their hearts set on staying. “I like it here, it is a free democracy,” said Adnom.