The door to justice has finally opened for Eritrean refugees who say they were subjected to inhumane treatment while working at a Canadian mine in their home country.
Eritrean refugees have found rare hope in a Canadian Supreme Court ruling allowing them to continue with a lawsuit against a Canadian mining company allegedly complicit in human rights abuses and forced labor in Eritrea.
Abraham, 32, an Eritrean refugee who requested to use a pseudonym to protect his identity said, “It was hard for me to believe at first, I felt so happy when I heard the news.”
Abraham is one of numerous Eritreans who are suing Nevsun Resources Ltd, a Canadian mining company based in British Columbia. It operates the Bisha zinc-copper mine in Eritrea, located about 150km from the capital Asmara.
The plaintiffs and their team of Canadian lawyers allege that Nevsun engaged two companies that deployed forced labor to construct the mine’s infrastructure and facilities. These companies, they claim, were connected to the government and military in Eritrea and workers faced inhumane and cruel conditions while working on the site.
Nevsun had attempted to convince the courts to dismiss the lawsuit, which was initially filed in 2014 by three Eritrean men who had worked at the mine. But in February 2020, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit against Nevsun, in which it is accused of being complicit in crimes against humanity, slavery, forced labour and torture, can go forward to trial. The plaintiffs are demanding financial compensation from the company.
Abraham, who worked at Bisha as a conscript from 2010 until 2014, described a nightmarish scene. “It was a horrible life,” he said. “We were always hungry and thirsty. We got very skinny. We were eating expired food and we had to drink dirty water.”
Abraham says he was paid the equivalent of just $15 (about R260) a month and was forced to work long hours in temperatures that reached as high as 50℃. “We didn’t get proper medicine and weren’t provided protective equipment, we suffered a lot from illnesses like malaria, diarrhoea and skin and eye irritations. Our supervisors would only provide us basic pain medicine.”
Conscripts claim they were forced to build the infrastructure, toilets, and housing for the Canadian and South African workers at the site, whereas they were made to sleep on the ground outside, without a mattress. Abraham says armed Eritrean soldiers surrounded the mining area, ensuring that no conscript could escape.
“We were treated like animals,” Abraham said. His voice paused for several moments as he repeatedly slapped his hand on his thigh, indicating his rising frustrations. “It was very difficult. There was no justice. I really don’t like to remember it.”
Joe Fiorante, a lawyer from the Vancouver-based firm Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman (CFM), which is part of the legal team, says the court’s decision is “historic” and marks the first time a Canadian court has ruled that a corporation can be taken to trial over allegations of violating customary international law.
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