Country report: the worsening refugee crisis in Eritrea

The UN Special Rapporteur to Eritrea reported this week on grave human rights violations in the conflict-weary state along the Horn of Africa. Some 2000 Eritreans are now fleeing the country every month, according to UNHCR estimates, likely as a means of escaping government persecution, including a harsh military conscription policy that leaves many Eritreans subjected indefinitely to forced labor.

For nearly all of its history dating back to independence in 1991 Eritrea has maintained a compulsory national service, drawing from all citizens between the ages of 18 and 50. Although periods of service are theoretically limited to 18 months, many Eritrean youth are conscripted indefinitely and without pay, at the risk of brutal reprisals for failing to comply. Sheila B. Keetharuth, in her report as UN Special Rapporteur, remarked that torture, sexual violence, and extra-judicial killings “continue unabated,” mostly as punishments to conscripts or their families for opposing the national service.

In recent years, an increasing number of Eritreans have sought to flee the country instead of facing the national service. UNHCR estimates that about 2000 people flee every month, a stark increase from the still-staggering figure of 1500/month reported by Human Rights Watch in its 2013 World Report. Many Eritreans seek to travel overseas to Europe, a highly dangerous journey which kills hundreds each year (recall our post about humanitarian concerns for refugees at sea here, including the mention of last year’s Lampedusa incident where over 300 Eritreans died).

Fleeing entails a host of other dangers as well. Those caught fleeing face severe punishments, including indefinite detention, torture, and inhumane treatment. Even relatives are at risk, as family members left behind are forced to pay 50,000 nafka (over US$3,300) to compensate the government, which can lead to detainment or various other punishments if they are unable to pay.

If you would like to read more on the situation in Eritrea, please refer to the following links:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/27/us-eritrea-idUSKBN0E71ND20140527

http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/eritrea

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