500,000 Refugees, ‘Slavery-like’ Compulsory Service, No National Elections, Border Conflicts & Secret Prisons: 5 Human Rights Crises in Eritrea
A still image from the new documentary “Escaping Eritrea,” of a refugee camp along the border with Ethiopia. The ongoing exodus is one of several human rights crises in the east African nation.
Isolated from the world by President Isaias Afwerki’s 30-year authoritarian rule, the east African nation of Eritrea remains intentionally unknown.
“It’s impossible, or very difficult, to get an accurate picture, because the government has closed the country so effectively that even those who have successfully fled the country are afraid to speak publicly, out of fear for what could happen to their families,” said Adotei Akwei, an Amnesty International deputy director who specializes in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the new FRONTLINE documentary Escaping Eritrea, filmmaker Evan Williams explores the human rights landscape of one of the world’s most repressive regimes, from compulsory conscription to the ongoing exodus of refugees. The Eritrean government declined to respond to FRONTLINE, other than to say they’d seen many fabricated stories before. Here is an introduction to five of Eritrea’s biggest human rights crises.
No national election has been held since Eritrea’s 1993 independence from Ethiopia. There is no independent legislative or judicial branch and no free press.
After a 30-year war, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993, led mainly by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. The PFDJ became the ruling party in Eritrea, and an unelected assembly named PFDJ’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, president until national elections could be held.
But those elections never came. Scheduled for 1997, when a new constitution was ratified, they were postponed due to a border conflict with Ethiopia.
Today Eritrea remains a one-party state. Regional elections for the National Assembly, as well as some local races, are held periodically but are “carefully orchestrated by the PFDJ and offer no meaningful choice to voters,” according to a 2020 report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights nonprofit.
In 2001 Afwerki banned all non-state media and imprisoned several PFDJ officials, known as the G-15, after they wrote a letter to the president, urging him to hold open elections. As of today, the government has not disclosed the whereabouts of any of the officials nor provided proof of life.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press-freedom watchdog, named Eritrea the most repressive of 180 countries in 2020, worse than North Korea and Turkmenistan.
Dissent is rare, but in 2017, students at a K-12 private Islamic school in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, protested a government plan to ban headscarves and to halt religious education. Al Jazeera later reported that security forces opened fire, killing 28 and injuring 100 others.
Hundreds of thousands have fled Eritrea, making it one of the world’s largest countries of origin for refugees, according to the United Nations.
The most recent global report from the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, ranked Eritrea among the top 10 countries of origin for refugees, with a total count of 505,100. In Escaping Eritrea, Williams reported that thousands of those were unaccompanied children who are at risk of being sent back, due to 2020 changes in Ethiopia’s asylum policy, according to Human Rights Watch.
Experts said that Eritrea’s compulsory national service, which conscripts thousands every year, is the primary reason people flee. “The main way to escape the system is to escape from the country. It remains the main factor which is driving people out,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
But Amnesty’s Akwei said there is a long list of other human rights abuses that fuel the refugee crisis, including restrictions on freedom of expression, movement and religion. The Eritrean government recognizes only four faiths — Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and evangelical Christianity — and adherents of any others, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are persecuted.
Eritrea’s compulsory — and often indefinite — national service violates human rights law, according to the U.N.
Introduced in 1995, national service is compulsory for all Eritreans between the ages of 18 and 50. By law, it’s supposed to last 18 months, but it often extends for over a decade, according to Human Rights Watch. Many conscripts spend their final year of high school at a military training camp. Students are then either forced into military service indefinitely or are sent to some form of continuing education.
National service can range from administrative work to construction to advanced military training. “None of them have any choice in the matter whatsoever,” said Bader, of Human Rights Watch. “The whole civil service system in Eritrea — teachers, doctors, everyone — are conscripts,” who are not paid livable wages, Bader said.
A 2015 U.N. report called Eritrea’s forced labor, among other practices, “slavery-like” and violations of international law. Vanessa Tsehaye, a Horn of Africa campaigner at Amnesty International whose family is from Eritrea, said Eritreans call national service “national slavery.”
In 2018, when President Afwerki and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a peace deal, officially ending the conflict between the countries, Eritreans hoped indefinite military conscription would end, but the system has remained unchanged.
Evading national service, trying to flee the country and getting caught, or expressing dissent lands Eritreans in a highly secretive prison system.
“If you evade national service, then you can be detained,” said Tsehaye, of Amnesty. Eritrea requires exit visas for citizens, which are difficult to obtain. Those caught escaping without documentation are systematically detained, imprisoned and often channeled back into military service.
Sources put Eritrea’s total prisons at around 200, although many say that’s a conservative number. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spent years investigating the prison system but was never allowed inside the country.
“Anything to do with facts and figures and actual statistics is very difficult to get in Eritrea. It all goes to the opaqueness of the system,” Sheila B. Keetharuth, the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, said in Escaping Eritrea. “Any official prison system should be in a position to have a list of all those in their custody. This is not possible in Eritrea.”
The number of prisoners is also unknown, although human rights groups said they’re in the thousands, many indefinitely detained without trial, charges or access to family or lawyers.
Eritrean troops are currently fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, potentially committing war crimes and fueling a humanitarian crisis.
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed launched a military offensive in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, aiming to eliminate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a political foe. Eritrea joined the war shortly after it began, as an ally of Ahmed.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu, a U.N. special adviser on genocide, warned in February of the “escalation of ethnic violence” against Tigrayans, an ethnic minority in Ethiopia. In March, Human Rights Watch documented a massacre in which Eritrean forces “fatally shot and summarily executed several hundred residents, mostly men and boys, over a 24-hour period” in Tigray.
Sexual violence has been used as a tool of war by both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, according to hundreds of allegations by women and girls collected in an April investigation by Reuters. Doctors told Reuters it was more common for women to report sexual violence by Eritrean than Ethiopian forces.
In January, a Tigrayan official announced that at least 2.2 million people had been displaced by the conflict. As of March, the conflict’s death toll had reached nearly 2,000, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium. By April, 4.5 million people in the region were food insecure, according to the U.N.
Ethiopia originally denied any Eritrean presence in Tigray, but on April 16, Eritrea told the U.N. Security Council that its troops were present in the region but that they would be withdrawing — a move not yet confirmed to have happened.