While the desperate plight of people trying to cross the sea from war-torn trouble-spots such as Syria has made global headlines, there has been little reporting of Eritrea, a country whose residents also continue to flee in escalating numbers.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that nearly half of the 219,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 were from either Syria or Eritrea. Similarly, Human Rights Watch estimates that 3,394 of the 10,500 unaccompanied children who arrived by sea in 2014 to Italy were Eritrean, and that 12 per cent – over 11,000 people – of the 92,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean between January and May in 2015 came from Eritrea.
‘It is absolutely the situation in Eritrea that is causing this, and it has done for many years now,’ Richard Reid, Professor in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and editor of Eritrea’s External Relations: Understanding its Regional Role and Foreign Policy’s External Relations: Understanding its Regional Role and Foreign Policy, tells Geographical. ‘The regime is highly militarised, politically oppressive, and economically stagnant for ordinary people.’
Since gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea has become one of the most repressive nations in the world, regularly featuring near the bottom of global rankings on issues associated with human rights and freedom of speech. This includes coming 182nd out of 187 countries in the Human Development Report 2014 for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as being ranked last in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for the past eight years. A recent report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) entitled Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea concluded that ‘systematic widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Government of Eritrea’.
In a 2010 report entitled Eritrea: The Siege State, Reid writes, ‘Since the 2001 crackdown that ended a brief period of public debate, jails have been filled with political prisoners and critics, religious dissidents, journalists, draft evaders and failed escapees’. Eritreans are unable to travel freely, to openly express their opinions or beliefs, and can be seized and detained at any time on the whim of the government. The OHCHR states that there is therefore ‘an environment of self-censorship whereby individuals no longer trust anyone – not even their own family’.
It is also not surprising that so many people choose to try and leave the country when the alternative is to involuntarily spend their life in the military. ‘The root factor is the militarisation of the regime, and the fact that young people are held indefinitely on national service,’ says Reid. As a separate Human Rights Watch report – The Mediterranean Migration Crisis – states: ‘By law, each Eritrean must serve 18 months in national service starting at age 18. In practice, conscripts serve indefinitely.’ The OHCHR describes it as ‘an institution where slavery-like practices take place’.
Forced conscription has been in effect since 1994, and wielded as a weapon by President Isaias Afewerki and his party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, claiming it is a necessary course of action in the face of potential invasion by Ethiopia. After continued resistance fighting from 1961 and 1991, Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia in 1998, five years after gaining independence. But despite a tense ceasefire which has lasted nearly 15 years, the compulsory conscription remains very much in effect.
As a result, lots of people choose to try and flee the country; as many as 5,000 a month, according to the OHCHR. Registered Eritrean refugee populations number 109,594 in Sudan and 106,859 in Ethiopia, with an estimated 81,100 spread across Europe. Overall, the UNCHR believes that 357,406 people (somewhere between six to ten per cent of the entire population) currently live as refugees.
Not that leaving the country is any safer an option than staying at home as there is significant evidence that the Eritrean Defence Forces routinely execute people for trying to cross the border. The Human Rights Watch 2015 World Report claims Eritrean border guards have ‘shoot-to-kill orders against people leaving without permission’.
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