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Refugees told to back regime

Directed to sign petition by Eritrean organization

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Lambros Kyriakakos (centre), with his family, says the petition is voluntary and addresses the issue of continued consular services in Canada.

LINDA WENSEL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Lambros Kyriakakos (centre), with his family, says the petition is voluntary and addresses the issue of continued consular services in Canada. Photo Store

A non-profit organization that provides resettlement services to Eritrean refugees in Winnipeg is directing them to sign a petition in support of the regime they fled.

Tuesday was designated Day of Action by the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations chaired by Lambros Kyriakakos.

Kyriakakos runs the Eritrean Community of Winnipeg Inc. Centre on Hargrave Street in downtown Winnipeg. That's where Winnipeg's estimated 2,500 Eritreans have been directed to sign a petition supporting the consulate in Toronto and the collection of the diaspora tax.

Tuesday's Day of Action blitzed MPs with the petition in support of keeping open the Eritrean consulate in Toronto, Kyrkiakakos said in an email to Eritrean community members.

"They're trying to get people to sign a petition against closing the consulate," said human rights lawyer David Matas. "A refugee resettlement group shouldn't be asking refugees to do that," he said. "It's putting them in an impossible situation. It's abusing their position to support the regime and to get support from people who fled the regime."

Last year, the Eritrean consul was ordered out of Canada for using the consulate to collect a two per cent income tax from expats to fund Eritrea's government -- including its military, a violation of international sanctions and Canadian law. Eritrea was sanctioned for funding armed groups such as Al Shabaab that are destabilizing the region. It has been one of the top 10 refugee-producing nations in the world and referred to as the North Korea of Africa for its human rights violations.

Last month, a parliamentary subcommittee on human rights in Ottawa questioned Kyriakakos about supporting the regime notorious for human rights abuses.

MPs asked about reports from Eritrea of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and the lack of fundamental freedoms.

Kyriakakos responded by saying those reports -- by the UN, U.S., Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- were biased.

Kyriakakos told MPs media reports that refugees in Canada who fled Eritrea were being squeezed for money to send back to the regime are "vexatious and frivolous." No one has been charged with extortion, he noted.

Media such as the Free Press that reported on Eritrean refugees complaining they had to pay two per cent of their annual income to the government they fled have been accused of "discrimination" by Kyriakakos. In 2011, when the Free Press first reported their complaints, Kyriakakos organized a demonstration in front of the newspaper, accusing the Free Press of discrimination.

Kyriakakos told the human rights committee last month his organization has no connection to the Eritrean government. On Tuesday, Kyriakakos said in an email the petition is "entirely voluntary and addresses the issue of continued consular services, which has an impact on all of our constituents.

"The consulate is, for many of our members, the provider of essential services and a connection to their ancestral homeland."

But having people visit the community centre to sign a petition supporting the Eritrean government is a problem, said Matas.

"You've got an Eritrean NGO interfacing with refugees and defending the perpetrators," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2014 A6

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