Officials from the Australian federal police and government recently held a meeting with members of the Eritrean community in an effort to prevent potential conflicts at an upcoming cultural festival in the western suburbs of Melbourne this weekend.
Similar events held in Europe and North America in recent months have ended in violence and arrests, as supporters of the African nation’s regime clashed with members of the pro-democracy youth movement Birged Nhamedu.
Much of the Eritrean diaspora around the world sees the festivals as a show of power to intimidate those who have fled the dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki.
The Birged Nhamedu community in Australia has requested the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, to prohibit the festival due to concerns of outside political influence. They have also stated that they will peacefully demonstrate outside the event on Thursday if it proceeds as planned.
According to Hatu Gebremedhin, a representative of the group, the cultural festivals were utilized for propaganda purposes. He alleged that the events featured politically driven displays of militarism and aggressive speeches targeting those who had left the country after Afwerki assumed control in 1993.
Last year at the Melbourne festival, images captured by Birged Nhamedu show children dressed in military uniforms carrying what seem to be fake rifles.
The Eritrean Group Association of Victoria and the Eritrean National Communities Council Inc, who are responsible for organizing the festival, have previously been awarded grants from the Victorian government for the event. This included a $4,000 grant in 2020. However, according to government records, no further funding has been allocated since then.
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Neither of the organizing groups could be reached for a statement. The Eritrean consulate in Melbourne did not reply to a comment request.
An entry visa was granted to a senior member of Afwerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice governing party, despite a UN report holding them accountable for “extensive and organized crimes against humanity”. This visa allowed the individual to attend and participate in the festival held in Australia.
When asked if a member of the government received a visa for the current event, a spokesperson for Giles stated that the minister could not discuss specific instances.
Inquiries regarding worries within the Eritrean population regarding the festival were directed to the Home Affairs department. Officials from this agency were in attendance at the meeting on Tuesday in Melbourne, during which AFP members shared details about Australia’s understanding of foreign interference and regulations surrounding peaceful demonstrations.
According to a statement from an AFP representative, their community liaison officers frequently collaborate with other government and non-government organizations to facilitate community involvement in sensitive law enforcement matters.
According to Birged Nhamedu, prominent figures in Afwerki’s government have been utilized to bully, spread false information, and jeopardize the security and cohesion of the Eritrean community living abroad.
In August, over 50 individuals sustained injuries and numerous others were arrested following confrontations at an Eritrean cultural event in Stockholm. In September, the Israeli authorities opened fire on Eritrean demonstrators in Tel Aviv after their demonstration against the festival became volatile.
There have been reports of clashes at similar events in the US, Canada, and Germany as well.
Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”. In 2016, an inquiry by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council found reasonable grounds to believe the regime had committed crimes against humanity.
A report determined that since 1991, Eritrean authorities have continuously and intentionally targeted and harmed the nation’s non-military citizens.
They have engaged in, and continue to engage in, the offenses of enslavement, confinement, forced disappearance, abuse, and other cruel actions, as well as persecution, sexual assault, and homicide.
Approximately 500,000 people, or 10% of Eritrea’s population, have left the country since the PFDJ gained control. The PFDJ has suppressed all opposition groups, prohibited independent media, and implemented mandatory and indefinite military service for all Eritreans under the age of 40.