As of July last year, more than 320,000 Eritreans had fled the country, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After Syrians, Eritreans are the second most common nationality to arrive on Italian shores. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, who has been in power since de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991, has for decades used the threat of an outbreak of war with Ethiopia as a means of keeping his people under tight authoritarian rule.
The Eritrean government has been linked with “ruthless repression” and systemic human rights violations, including carrying out widespread detention and forcing citizens into indefinite military service, according to the UN’s first inquiry into human rights in the secretive country. Rights abuses perpetuated by Eritrea’s government, coupled with dismal economic prospects, are driving hundreds of Eritreans out of the country every day, according to an interim report by the UN’s commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea.
“Most Eritreans have no hope for their future,” said Mike Smith, chairman of the commission, which was formed in June last year. “National service, whether in a military unit or in a civil assignment, is the only thing that from the age of 17 they can expect to spend their life doing – paid between less than $1 and a maximum of $2 a day.”
Describing Eritrea’s culture of “pervasive state control”, Smith said a network of spies had been created that permeated the basic fabric of everyday life. “A man employed by national security might not know that his daughter is similarly employed,” he said, noting that extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions were commonplace. “Is it surprising that, faced with such challenges, Eritreans leave their country in their hundreds every day?”
Eritrea has long been regarded as one of the world’s most secretive states, even drawing comparisons with North Korea. It was ranked at the bottom of the 180 countries assessed in Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) 2015 press freedom index. “Eritrea systematically violates freedom of expression and information. It is Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, with at least 16 currently detained – some of them held incommunicado for years,” said RWB.
Leslie Lefkow, HRW’s Africa director, said: “The [Eritrean] government’s refusal to cooperate with human rights investigators is symbolic of its broader rejection of essential human rights reforms. Until that stance changes it is impossible to have meaningful impact on the domestic crisis and the massive exodus of Eritreans provoked by the dire human rights situation.”
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