Ask the average person what he or she thinks about Eritrea, and it would not be surprising if the response is one of bewilderment. Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, the Red Sea meanders effervescently around the coastline of this secretive African country–except any romanticised imagery is quickly dispelled. Regarded as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, Eritrea’s most notorious accolade is being called the “North Korea of Africa”.
Born out of bloodshed and turmoil, Eritrea initially fought for its independence from Ethiopia for three decades until finally being liberated in 1991. Between 1998 and 1999, a border struggle with Ethiopia–regarded as one of Africa’s bloodiest wars–sealed its fate with further chaos and poverty.
President Isaias Afewerki, the first and only ruler since 1993, has governed his people in a one-man dictatorship, frequently coming under heavy criticism from the UN for human rights violations. His government has implemented strict restrictions on freedom, speech, religion, and movement, and no real judiciary–meaning arrests with no trials and widespread use of torture, beatings and sexual abuse is rampant. Independent media is banned; countless journalists have been arrested and after many years, their whereabouts still remain unknown.
With the highest amount of refugees in the world, over a thousand Eritreans flee every month to escape poverty, persecution, and a compulsory national service, which a UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 labelled as “enslavement.”
Amnesty International Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher, Fisseha Tekle, explained:
“The country enforces a mandatory military service that is extended indefinitely. Many conscripts are held in the national service for decades. Evasion of conscription or deserting national service posts attracts serious punishments including imprisonment in harsh conditions, torture, and ill-treatment. Young Eritreans are forced to leave the country due to the indefinite nature of the national service, which does not offer viable alternatives. The salaries they receive are too low to sustain the families. At the same time, there are no livelihood alternatives within Eritrea–even if people manage to avoid conscription. Without clearance from national service, people are not able to pursue a career, business, or even open a bank account.”
Many have fled to Ethiopia, Sudan, Isreal, and Libya–often in an effort to make it to European countries. This increasing diaspora of refugees, predominantly trying to escape the national service, fall victim to human traffickers.
“Leaving Eritrea without an official permit is a crime punishable with arbitrary detention,” Tekle continued. “Eritreans face serious violations and abuse en-route to Europe like kidnapping for ransom in Sudan and Libya; being caught up in civil war (Libya); or death by drowning when trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.”
A 23-year-old Eritrean man, who was kidnapped by traffickers near Sudan, detailed his ordeal in a Human Rights Watch interview:
“The first group of kidnappers said I had to pay $3,500. They blindfolded all of us and chained our hands and legs together. They threatened to remove our organs if we didn’t pay. Even though my family paid, they didn’t release me but instead sold me to a second group.
“The second kidnappers said we had to pay them $33,000 because they had bought us from the first group, so we had to help them get their money back.
“They beat me with a metal rod. They dripped molten plastic onto my back. They beat the soles of my feet and then they forced me to stand for long periods of time, sometimes for days. Sometimes they threatened to kill me and put a gun to my head. They hung me from the ceiling so my legs couldn’t reach the floor and they gave me electric shocks. One person died after they hung him from the ceiling for 24 hours. We watched him die.
“Whenever I called my relatives to ask them to pay, they burnt me with a hot iron rod so I would scream on the phone. We could not protect the women in our room: they just took them out, raped them, and brought them back.”
Eritreans have made it as far as the United States, generally flying to Central or South America and then going overland to the U.S. border to seek asylum.
John Stauffer, President of The America Team for Displaced Eritreans, has assisted many such refugees over the years. He said:
“The human rights abuses in Eritrea are purposeful and are intended to subjugate the people in order to maintain control. Thus the refugee problem with Eritrea is rather unusual or even unique among refugee-generating countries. From other countries, people are fleeing civil war or disease or poverty; but from Eritrea, they are running away from abuse inflicted by their own government.”
“Our helping hand has provided assistance in detention centres in Libya, Russia, Sudan and Romania; in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Uganda and Botswana; on the streets of Khartoum and Philadelphia and Addis Ababa. From all of these we have received urgent calls for help. And remarkable help has been provided on the ground by UNHCR, IOM, MSF, and by various NGOs.
The Eritrean government remains unwilling to reform or to be open to democracy and so, its people continue to be marred with perils and human right violations.