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Eritrea: New report into the abuses driving huge refugee flows to Europe

  • European states increasingly rejecting asylum applications from Eritrea
  • Between April and September, the UK rejected 64% of Eritrean asylum cases in first instance
  • Asylum seekers returned to Eritrea at risk of torture
  • Eritrean men can be conscripted to military for 20 years or more

“Eritrea is haemorrhaging its youth. Children are walking alone, often without telling their parents, to other countries, to avoid lives of perpetual forced labour on low pay with no education or work opportunities.” Michelle Kagari.

Eritrea must abolish indefinite conscription into its army, a brutal system so rife with human rights abuses that it has made the country’s nationals the third largest group of refugees trying to reach Europe, Amnesty International said in a new report into conditions in the secretive country published today.

The report reveals that National Service in Eritrea often amounts to forced labour and lasts for decades, with children as young as 16 as well as the elderly forced to sign up. Conscripts are subjected to harsh living conditions, often far away from home, and receive a salary of around just £30 a month.

Those who try to evade or escape conscription, including by fleeing the country, are imprisoned, sometimes indefinitely, in appalling conditions. Detainees are often kept in underground cells or in shipping containers. People attempting to cross the border into Ethiopia risk being shot by the Eritrean authorities.

Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, said:

“The situation facing conscripts in Eritrea is desperate and exposes the lie behind claims made by certain host countries that most Eritreans arriving at their borders are economic migrants.

“These people, many of them children, are refugees fleeing a system that amounts to forced labour on a national scale and that robs them of choice over key aspects of their lives. Conscription continues to be indefinite for a high proportion of conscripts and sometimes lasts for decades.

“Eritrea is haemorrhaging its youth. Children are walking alone, often without telling their parents, to other countries, to avoid lives of perpetual forced labour on low pay with no education or work opportunities. That they choose to undertake such precarious and unsafe journeys to supposed safe havens reflects the gravity of the human rights violations they would face if they stayed at home.”

Eritrean asylum application in the UK

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), at the end of 2014 5,000 people were fleeing Eritrea every month. In November 2014, the UNHCR said that 90% of Eritreans arriving in Europe were between 18 and 24 years old.

Yet, despite the reality on the ground, European states are increasingly rejecting asylum applications from Eritrea. The UK, along with several other countries where Eritreans have tried to claim asylum, has claimed that there have been improvements to the point where those fleeing no longer have grounds for asylum. This claim is in part based on assurances given by members of the Eritrean government late last year that conscription would revert to the 18 months mandated in Eritrean law. In the six months between 1 April and 30 September, the UK government rejected 64% of Eritrean asylum cases in first instance decisions (1,179 refusals in 1,855 initial decisions).

However, Amnesty’s report today reveals that there have been no discernible changes in National Service practices or in the treatment of those caught attempting to avoid or desert the army.

Additionally, there is a generalised risk of imprisonment and torture for those forcibly returned from overseas when their asylum applications are rejected.

Lives of perpetual forced labour

Based on interviews with 72 Eritreans who have fled the country since mid-2014, the report sheds new light on the harsh conditions facing conscripts and the brutal methods used by the military against those who attempt to evade it. Some of the people interviewed told Amnesty they had been conscripted for more than 10 or 15 years before fleeing the country. Others had husbands or fathers still conscripted after 20 years of service.

In some cases, multiple family members are conscripted at the same time and separated, denying them the right to enjoy a family life. One 18-year-old woman told Amnesty how a new requirement for older women to report for duty meant that every member of her immediate family was conscripted or had fled the county.

National Service also impacts negatively on children, with many dropping out of school early to avoid being forced to sign up and girls often married off early in the hope that this will render them ineligible for conscription. Other children, whose parents have been conscripted for a long time, have had to assume economic responsibility for their families.

Not only is national service prolonged and indefinite, the report found, but it is also abysmally paid. Every former conscript interviewed by Amnesty International said it is impossible to meet the basic needs of a family on the salary received.

During conscription, some go for several years without being granted leave and those who take it without permission face imprisonment. If they cannot be found, family members are often imprisoned in their place

The government of Eritrea says the system of national service is necessary for self-defence in light of the longstanding hostility with neighbouring Ethiopia, but not all conscripts undertake military duties. Many are deployed in civilian roles including farming, construction, teaching and the civil service. Despite claims by officials that conscription would be limited to 18 months, this has clearly not happened.

Amnesty is calling on Eritrea to end the system of indefinite conscription into national service and on all states to recognise it as a human rights violation.

For a copy of the report visit


National service, a system established by law in 1995, requires every adult Eritrean to undertake an 18-month period of conscription. However, in practice, national service has been extended indefinitely for a significant proportion of conscripts.

In Eritrea, there is no provision for conscientious objection in the National Service Proclamation to provide an alternative civilian service for those who object to military service on religious, ethical or other conscientious grounds.

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