New Zealand’s first African MP Ibrahim Omer gets standing ovation after speech on escaping war in Africa as a refugee

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian government in 1991, and gained de facto independence in 1993. But President Afwerki has held power ever since, never holding an election. 

“In my home country I saw how politics and politicians ruined people’s lives, and, hence, I gave up my dream to be a politician. My homeland has a long history of invasion and colonisation by, first, the Italians, the Brits, and then the Ethiopians,” said Omer. 

“The impacts of colonisation are still being experienced as I speak here today.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize after signing a peace deal with Eritrea in 2018 which ended a nearly 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war.

But according to Human Rights Watch, Eritrea has no legislature, no independent civil society organisations or media, and no independent judiciary. 

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in 2016 alone, 52,000 Eritreans fled the country, mainly due to indefinite compulsory national service for every Eritrean over the age of 18. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government’s human rights record is among the worst in the world. Some estimates say up to 12 percent of the country’s population has fled – and Omer was one of them. 

‘I left behind everything I loved’

“I was drafted to the national service at a very young age, as a high school student. I was subjected to extreme hardships. The national service in Eritrea is meant to be for 18 months, but in reality, it’s indefinite. Once you are in, there is no way out of it,” Omer said. 

“Gross human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment are normal. I knew I had no choice but to leave before my time came. So I left behind everything I loved: my country, my family, my friends, and my dreams, including the long list of things I wanted to be and do.”

Omer took a huge risk and fled to Sudan in 2003. He made it across the border and handed himself in to the UNHCR camp and Sudanese authorities. He was granted refugee status to stay in Sudan, and five years later left for New Zealand. 

“I had never heard of this place, to be honest, but an immigration officer told me it was one of the most peaceful countries in the world. That was good enough for me, because I was sick and tired of looking over my shoulder.”

Omer said from the moment he landed at Auckland Airport in May 2008 he felt the “manaakitanga and aroha” he heard New Zealand was known for. 

After six weeks in Māngere, Omer moved to Wellington to start a new life. But it wasn’t easy. 

“I got a job as a security guard, but I left it after I was attacked and beaten in the middle of the night. I did farm work, fruit picking, and started cleaning. My low wages meant I couldn’t save to study, and in order to support my family back home, I picked up more and more hours until I was doing 80 hours a week.”

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