By Drs. Tsegezab Gebregergis
De Misleidende en Tegenstrijdige Informatie COA heft Verspreiden over de Verkrachting-Kwestie is van een Ernstige Bezorgdheid voor Eritreeërs!!
Eritreans in the diaspora and back at home in Eritrea have been hearing conflicting reports about an alleged sexual abuse involving some 20 Eritrean teenage girls at an Eritrean Orthodox church in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. According to some daily Dutch newspapers, quoting the Central Organ for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, as many as 22 Eritrean girls under the age of 18, all refugee applicants, may have been sexually abused and become pregnant.
On the basis of such scant and unconfirmed reports, much to the surprise of this author, COA has taken a drastic decision and advised the affected Eritrean teenage girls and others not to attend services at the church where the alleged sexual abuse took place. There were even suggestions to close the church altogether.
However, none of the Dutch news reports are supported by hard facts on the ground. Indeed, the media were reporting the news even before an investigation was started by the Rotterdam police to determine what exactly had happened, who was involved and whether or not the abuse took place within the church compound or elsewhere. Nor do the Dutch newspapers reveal what the victims themselves have said concerning their ordeal and experience.
For the above reasons, and in order to investigate and clarify the issue reported by the Dutch daily newspapers, a task I was given by my fellow Eritrean political and human-rights activists on January 12 2016, I left England on January 15 and travelled to the Netherlands by ferry and car. I arrived in the Netherlands on the same day late at night and began investigating the controversial issue the next day.
Before I left the UK, I had prepared a clear plan for what I intended to do and whom to visit once I was in the Netherlands. I had the names of the organizations and people said to be directly or indirectly involved with the alleged rape issue. These included COA, the criminal police in Rotterdam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Rotterdam, Eritrean communities living in the major Dutch cities, the village and the refugee camp at which the under-aged Eritrean girls were said to be staying and some refugee camps where newly arrived Eritrean refugees were being housed.
In short, the purpose of my trip was to investigate and gather first-hand information which could help us to verify what exactly transpired at the church in Rotterdam. And once my fact-finding mission has been successfully completed, I intend to write a detailed report of my findings and make it public at a press conference to which I intend to invite all those organizations and their representatives directly and indirectly involved in the alleged sex-abuse issue.
Let me now first explain the meaning of COA and its activities.
‘COA- Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers’
COA – the Central Organ for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in the Netherlands – is located at Sir Churchilllaan 366 in the town of Rijswijk. It is a tall building (see picture) housing more than 650 full-time employees in Rijswijk alone. COA also has branches in every corner of the country. The organisation employs a total of some 6,500 full-time employees to run and administer the various refugee camps in the Netherlands. Thus the organisation’s annual budget might be comparable to the large budget of some Dutch ministries. COA, an independent administrative body, falls under the political responsibility of the Ministry of Security and Justice. COA gives account for its operations to the Ministry.So much by way of an introduction.
I will now provide brief an account of the hurdles I encountered during my visit to COA and my overall observations and impressions about the organisation as my investigative research unfolded.
My First Visit to COA Headquarters
The first time I visited COA headquarters in Rijswijk was on January 18 2016. I visited COA because I wanted to discuss with its officials about the unresolved serious issue of the alleged sexual abuse/rape of the 20 Eritrean underage girls at an Eritrean Orthodox church in Rotterdam. During the discussions I had with the COA at its headquarters in Rijswijk, it became revealingly clear to me that COA representatives are not and were not willing to cooperate with an independent investigation of the alleged rape of Eritrean underage girls and I also sensed that the case is shrouded in total secrecy.
In the meeting with two official COA spokespersons, I asked whether COA had already made contact with the police in Rotterdam and, if so, how that contact was made and what was COA’s specific request to the police in matters related to the alleged sexual abuse of the underage Eritrean girls. I was then told that COA had passed the matter to the Rotterdam police in Rotterdam in an orderly manner and that the police were earnestly investigating the case.
With this information, I visited the police in Rotterdam on the January 19 to discuss the pending criminal case with the department in charge of criminal matters. However, the outcome of my talks with the police in Rotterdam clearly revealed serious discrepancies between what COA had told me and what the criminal police in Rotterdam knew about the alleged rape case. In other words, COA’s claims that information of vital importance had been passed to the Rotterdam police and that the police were investigating the alleged rape case were not true at all. Indeed, much to my surprise and dismay, as far as the police authorities in Rotterdam are concerned, no request has been made to them by COA or anyone else to investigate or arrest individuals involved with a rape case. Consequently, after my visit to the police in charge of criminal affairs, I decided to visit the COA head office in Rijswijk again to ask COA to clarify their position regarding these serious discrepancies.
My Second Visit to COA Head Office
On January 26, I visited the COA head office again and had a brief talk with the two nameless COA representatives. I told them about my meeting with the police in Rotterdam and that the police had told me that they had not been informed by COA about the alleged rape case.
I therefore asked why COA had given me wrong information which could jeopardise and distract my independent investigation into the rape allegation. Their answer was: “We have informed and instructed the local police to investigate the rape case and we know through the local police that the criminal police in Rotterdam are also fully informed and that they are busy investigating the alleged rape issue.”
I then asked the two gentlemen representing COA what I was supposed to understand by “local police” and in which city or town were they based?. The COA people, however, as insensitive as they were, flatly refused to respond to my question or to cooperate with me in any manner. I thus departed from them on a rather sour note.
Why is Nobody Arrested by the Police if the Rape Story Leaked by COA was Based on Facts?
Considering the gravity of the alleged incident, if the rape case has really taken place, as alleged, at the Eritrean Orthodox church and with the involvement of church personnel, then the law, the COA and the foster parents of the affected young Eritrean girls would have been actively involved in requesting the law-enforcement authorities to arrest those suspected of involvement either directly or indirectly in the sex-abuse case and to investigate the matter thoroughly.
Similarly, if priests and other Eritreans had been really involved, or had participated in, a rape case at the church, as alleged, why were they not arrested immediately and named and shamed?
Likewise, if the rape case levelled against the Church and its administrators turns out to be utterly false, COA and its associate organisations must openly recant the story, apologise to the Church and its leaders and compensate them for the damages inflicted.
What is more, if the police were engaged in seriously investigating the matter, as COA wants us to believe, one would expect by now that the police would have informed all concerned and the public at large of the outcome of their preliminary investigations.
Some Pertinent Questions Which Beg Honest Answers
In connection with the unresolved rape issue, the following pertinent questions require sound corresponding answers. Why did the COA authorities refuse to discuss the matter with me in an open and transparent manner?
Similarly, why did they (COA) tell me that they had reported the matter to the Rotterdam criminal police when they knew perfectly well that they had not passed on any information nor requested them to investigate the rape case?
What about the alleged victims of rape: are they really under age or did they simply present themselves as under age at the time they requested political asylum in order to get a sympathetic hearing of their case? Are there some monetary, educational or other gains and benefits if a refugee applicant presents themselves as a minor?
Some European leaders have shown that, out of all the refugee applicants posing as Eritreans in Europe, more than 45% are Ethiopians. On the basis of this report, one is justified in asking whether all the alleged victims of rape are Eritreans. Besides, how do the Dutch authorities truly verify whether or not one is an Eritrean refugee applicant?
In other words, what are the criteria they apply to differentiate an Eritrean asylum seeker from an Ethiopian? To be concrete, what have the Dutch authorities done in order to authenticate the more than 20 young Eritrean girls claiming to be victims of rape and abuse at an Eritrean Orthodox church in Rotterdam. Are they really all Eritreans as claimed?
Besides, how is it possible that under-aged young girls have been allowed to stay overnight outside the home of their foster parents? Is this not against the existing Dutch law governing under-aged children?
If so, why has this basic law been violated by both the foster parents and the COA authorities? Above all, why did the foster parents and the COA authorities fail to report the incident first and foremost to the chief of criminal police in Rotterdam and the mayor of the city of Rotterdam where the alleged ugly sexual misconduct occurred?
Why have all these failures, amounting to criminal negligence, happened?
By the way, were the under-aged girls using the church as a cover-up to get permission from COA and their foster parents to leave the camp and go to meet their boyfriends in Rotterdam and elsewhere, or were they really leaving the camp to go to the church to participate in the regular prayers?
Could it also be right to suspect that there might be out there an invisible hand playing politics using the sex-abuse issue as cover-up?
Besides, what is the policy of the Church regarding overnight stays in the building attached to the church? Conversely, why would young Eritrean girls leave their camp and travel all the way to perform sexual acts at a church in Rotterdam?
Wouldn’t the camp where the young Eritrean girls are being accommodated at present, at a very nice house in the village of Oranje, where they have the rights and the freedom to receive and entertain visitors, be the ideal place to perform sexual acts if that was what they wanted to do?
In order to understand the appropriateness of these questions, it is very important for readers to understand that the village of Oranje has been widely reported as the camp where the 20 or more Eritrean alleged under-age victims of sexual abuse are staying.
As the most important place for my investigation, I visited this camp on January 22 and interviewed the young girls assigned to the camp in groups and on a one-to-one basis, assisted by an Eritrean woman. I also spoke to about 10 young Eritrean boys staying at the camp, but I did not find even a single under-aged girl at the camp, let alone 20 under-age victims of sexual assault. They were all adults and they were overwhelmingly surprised, confused and furious when they heard about the damaging reports circulating in the Dutch papers about them.
The Sincerity of COA and Its Representatives Over the Rape Issue
According to my close observations, the way the COA representatives are handling the alleged rape of Eritrean under-age girls at the church in Rotterdam is characterised, to put it mildly, by serious shortcomings and a lack of transparency and openness.
Otherwise, why did the two COA representatives I met adamantly refuse to disclose their names and their positions within COA, nor allow me take their pictures? They refused to cooperate with me despite the fact I had made it absolutely clear to them that, by asking for their details, their positions and their pictures, I was only conforming with the basic rules of research/investigations.
What is more, it is deeply concerning that we know very little detail about so many aspects of the case: the identity of the alleged victims and perpetrators; whether or not the sex abuse really occurred within the church; the suggestion that the police have no knowledge about it and that so far nobody has approached them to conduct an investigation or arrest the suspects; and the fact that COA representatives were not willing to cooperate with someone like me who is on a mission to unravel the controversy surrounding the rape issue. All this gives a resounding indication that COA authorities have something to hide about the case. This is part of the reason why the case remains shrouded in total secrecy.
Besides, what sense does it make to impose a total information blockade on the case when the Dutch press had already given a full-blown but sensational report before an investigation had hardly begun. To be sure, the source of the information leak on the case to the Dutch press was none other than COA itself.
Some Concluding Remarks
For various unacceptable and hidden reasons, until this very day, the alleged sex-abuse issue that I am involved in investigating is shrouded by in secrecy. Nevertheless, if the sex scandal really happened at the Eritrean Orthodox church, as alleged, it means the sex offenders are freely roaming in our ranks after committing a serious crime. Is this not a mockery to the Dutch justice system?
Thus, after all is said and done, someone must be held accountable for fanning contradictory and misleading information and serious procedural blunders committed by COA, the foster parents and, to a lesser extent, the Rotterdam police for their failure to conduct an investigation once they had read the story in the Dutch press. For as far as the Rotterdam police are concerned, their knowledge about the alleged rape comes entirely from the sensational report in the Dutch newspapers, the likes of Volkskrant , Metro, Nederlands Dagsblad and NCR Handelsblad.
The last question I would like to ask here is this: would the Dutch people in general, and the Dutch mass media and the Netherlands government in particular, have reacted in the same manner had the incident which allegedly happened to young Eritrean girls had happened to 20 young white Dutch under-aged girls at a church in Rotterdam? I will leave this question for the readers of Mdre Bahri to respond to.
However, I would like to assure my fellow Eritreans and other readers of Mdre Bahri that we Eritreans love our young Eritrean girls and boys very much and we are therefore prepared to go to any lengths to protect them and their fundamental human rights and dignity and to unravel the complete truth surrounding the rape case which has shocked Eritreans throughout the world.
Hence, the investigation will continue until the truth is fully established.