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Thursday, April 23, 2015
Eritrea - Land of Exodus
In 2012, the entire Eritrean national football team asked for asylum in Uganda after taking part in a regional tournament. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, over 300,000 Eritreans fled the nation of 6.5 million inhabitants last year.
Two of the 10 most censored countries in the world are African, says the Committee to Protect Journalists. Eritrea is the worst in the world, behind even North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia is the fourth most censored country.
"Since 1993 when Eritrea gained independence, it has had only one president, only one party. And no opposition is allowed," says Clara Braungart, Eritrea researcher at Amnesty International. President Isaias Afewerki has been in power for 22 years. Afewerki is in effect the union head of state, head of government, commander in chief of the armed forces, parliament speaker and leader of the only authorized party, the PFDJ. All forms of civil society are prohibited. Media is not independent as there is only one state-run TV and radio outlet. "Against this background, no freedom is possible," says Braungart. "We have received many reports of people being tortured. For example, they are tied up, hung by their feet or are exposed to excessive heat," says Clara Braungart of Amnesty International. For these reasons, the people would not even dare to speak out against the government.
Mekonnen Mesghena, an Eritrean and expert on migration at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, agrees. He says a climate of fear reigns and people lack any political or economic perspective. "Many people feel trapped in a permanent conflict situation."
Human rights violations have also been condemned by the international community. In 2012, the United Nations named Sheila Keetharuth as Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea. Since then she has sought to travel to Eritrea with no success. Only state media is allowed to disseminate news; the last accredited international correspondent was expelled in 2007. Even those working for the heavily censored state press live in constant fear of arrest for any report perceived as critical to the ruling party, or on suspicion that they leaked information outside the country. The last privately owned media outlets were suspended and their journalists jailed in 2001. Many remain behind bars; Eritrea has the most jailed journalists in Africa. None of those arrested are taken to court, and the fear of arrest has forced dozens of journalists into exile. Those in exile try to provide access to independent online news websites and radio broadcasts, but the opportunity to do so is limited because of signal jamming and tight online control by the sole state-run telecommunications company, EriTel. All mobile communications must go through EriTel, and all Internet service providers must use the government-controlled gateway. Access to the Internet is extremely limited and available only through slow dial-up connections. Less than 1 percent of the population goes online, according to U.N. International Telecommunication Union figures.
In 1998, a simmering border dispute broke out with neighboring adversary Ethiopia. Since then, the government justifies any repression with the argument of a "threat to national security," Mesghena says. Each spark of protest is punished with arbitrary detention and torture.
Another reason why many young Eritreans flee the country is military conscription, says Braungart. All men and women from the age of 18 must serve in the armed service for 16 months. Even students are asked to complete their final year in a military camp. "People often have to serve the military for many years with very little pay," Braungart says. If they refuse, they face imprisonment and arbitrary military service could be extended indefinitely.