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Why Do So Many Eritreans Risk Their Lives Fleeing the Country?

Capture d'écran de manifestation des exilés suite au rapport de l'ONU sur les droits humains en Erythrée vidéo de africa news

Screen shot  of a video from Africa News showing exiles protesting following the UN's report on human rights in Eritrea.

In 2014, Eritreans ranked as the second largest group of immigrants arriving in Europe. They also ranked third in terms of the number of migrants arriving on the continent via the Mediterranean in the summer of 2015, while of those who perish attempting that crossing, Eritreans account for more than half.

On June 8, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea published its latest report exposing the totalitarian nature of the Eritrean government and the scope of the crimes against humanity that have been systematically perpetrated in the country over the past 25 years.

In a press release presenting the report, the Commission's president, Mike Smith stated:

Eritrea is an authoritarian State. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions in Eritrea. This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century. These crimes are still occurring today

There is no genuine prospect of the Eritrean judicial system holding perpetrators to account in a fair and transparent manner.

Le service national a transformé l'Érythrée en une prison collective où les forces de sécurité peuvent tirer sur quiconque surpris entrain de s'échapper. Source

Map provided by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In red: formal advisory against travel; in orange: advisory against unnecessary travel; yellow: high degree of caution advised; green: normal precautions advised). National service has transformed Eritrea into a collective prison, and those who attempt to flee the country risk being shot. Source Public Domain

The report uses language that is unusually blunt for the UN in exposing human rights abuses:

The crimes also include imprisonment, enforced disappearances, persecution, murder and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population since Eritrean authorities took control of Eritrean territory in 1991.

The following report from France 24 English seeks to explain why so many Eritreans risk death to escape the country:

Kubrom Dafla Hosabay, former head of the Eritrean Tax Administration, who fled the regime in 2009, explains:

People are escaping because they are stifled. They are not free anymore… you know… without the freedom to work, the freedom to have a family, the freedom to travel, the freedom to go to education, what life do you have?

The young people see that they cannot do any activity as long as that national service obligation exists. It's endless. There's no legal way of going out of the national service.

In the following video,  refugee coordinator for Amnesty International, Denise Graf, explains the living conditions in Eritrea, the uncertainty that families face, and the challenges in obtaining refugee status in Switzerland:

En 2014, ils ont été près de 7000 à demander l’asile en Suisse. Les Erythréens forment aujourd’hui le plus gros contingent de réfugiés en Suisse. A l’échelle européenne on totalise 46000 Erythréens demandeurs d’asile. D’après les chiffres de l’ONU, les départs se comptent en centaines de milliers. Une fuite massive qu’il est difficile d’évaluer, tant l’Erythrée est un pays mal connu. C’est un pays jeune qui a acquis son indépendance en 1993 après trente ans de guerre avec son grand voisin, l’Ethiopie. Mais le pouvoir en place depuis l’indépendance est considéré comme l’un des plus répressifs du monde. Les arrestations arbitraires se multiplient et les jeunes sont astreints à un service militaire parfois interminable.

In 2014, nearly 7,000 Eritreans requested asylum in Switzerland, and today form the largest group of refugees in the country. Throughout Europe, this number reaches 46,000. According to the UN's statistics, the number of Eritreans having fled the country is in the hundreds of thousands but is difficult to evaluate as the country is not well known. It is a young country that gained its independence in 1993, after thirty years of war with its larger neighbor, Ethiopia. The current regime is considered to be one of the most oppressive in the world. Illegal arrests are on the rise and young people are forced into military service which is sometimes endless.

In turn, Amnesty International also explained the burden of the national service system on the population and the plight of children in the country:

Mandatory National Service continued to be extended indefinitely in a system that amounts to forced labour. A significant proportion of the population was in open-ended conscription, in some cases for up to 20 years. Conscripts were paid low wages that did not enable them to cover their families’ basic needs, and had limited and arbitrarily granted leave allowances which in many cases disrupted their family life. Conscripts served in the defence forces and were assigned to agriculture, construction, teaching, civil service and other roles. There was no provision for conscientious objection.

Children continued to be conscripted into military training under the requirement that all children undergo grade 12 of secondary school at the Sawa National Service training camp. There they faced harsh living conditions, military-style discipline and weapons training. Some children dropped out of school early to avoid this fate. Children were also conscripted into training in round-ups conducted by the military, in search of people evading National Service.

In an article translated from Italian to English, published in September 2004 as part of the Looking Beyond projectStefania Summermatter describes the experience of Eritrean refugee Mebrathon:

Mebrathon a été enrôlé dans l’armée à 16 ans. «Au début, j’étais de garde sur la frontière avec l’Ethiopie. Nous avions l’ordre de tirer sur quiconque tentait de passer. J’ai travaillé jour et nuit pour un salaire de 450 naktfa, soit environ 30 dollars». La première fois qu’il a cherché à s’échapper, il avait un peu plus de 30 ans. Mais les soldats l’ont pris, mis dans une cellule souterraine et torturé. Mebrathon allume une cigarette et l’on peut voir que ses poignets portent encore la marque des menottes.

Mebrathon was enrolled in the army at 16 years of age. “At first I was guarding the border with Ethiopia. We had orders to shoot anyone trying to cross. I worked day and night for 450 naktfa, which is about $30 (CHF28).”

The first time he tried to escape he was just over 30. Soldiers caught him, he was put in an underground cell and tortured.

Ordinary citizens and soldiers are not the only ones risking their lives attempting to flee at all costs. In a post published in 2014 on, Franck Gouéry recalls:

Il y a deux ans, le coureur de fond et porte-drapeau érythréen Weynay Ghebreselasie prend la poudre d’escampette en plein Jeux olympiques à Londres. En 2012, le ministre de l’Information profite d’un voyage d’affaires en Allemagne pour fuir son pays. Cette même année, deux pilotes de l’Eritrean Defense Force font défection avec l’avion présidentiel qu’ils posent en Arabie saoudite.errestre

En 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, ce sont des membres de l’équipe nationale de football qui se mettent hors-jeu à l’occasion de compétitions internationales, pour atteindre un tout autre but : l’asile politique. Ceux-là ont fui l’Érythrée dans des circonstances exceptionnelles. Mais tous les Érythréens n’ont pas la chance de partir si facilement.

Two years ago, Eritrea's flag-bearing medium-distance runner Weynay Ghebresilasie defected during the Olympic Games in London. In 2012, the Minister of Information took advantage of a business trip in Germany to do the same. The same year, two Eritrean Defense Force pilots defected using the presidential plane that they landed in Saudi Arabia. In 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013, several members of the national soccer team attended international competitions with the ulterior motive of political asylum. Although these individuals have managed to escape, their circumstances were exceptional; not all Eritreans have the chance to leave so easily.

Eritrea is in a permanent state of war with its only two neighbours by land, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

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