The huge number of young people fleeing indefinite national service in Eritrea is adding to the global refugee crisis. These people have the right to international protection, a new report from Amnesty International has found.
Just Deserters: Why indefinite national service in Eritrea has created a generation of refugees reveals that, despite claims by officials that conscription would be limited to 18 months, national service continues to be indefinite, often lasting for decades. Conscripts include boys and girls as young as 16 as well as the elderly and conscription often amounts to forced labour.
Attempts to flee national service have resulted in Eritreans making up the third-largest number of refugees trying to reach Europe. Yet, despite the reality on the ground, European states are increasingly rejecting asylum applications from Eritrea.
“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,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“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.”
Based on interviews with 72 Eritreans who 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 International 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 geographically separated, denying them the right to enjoy a family life. One 18-year-old woman told Amnesty International 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.
Some former conscripts described how they had gone for several years without being granted leave. Those who take leave without permission face imprisonment; if they cannot be found, family members are imprisoned in their place.
National service impacts negatively on children. Many children drop out of school early to avoid conscription and girls are 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, 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. The basic monthly conscript salary is 450-500 Nakfa per month (USD43-8) before deductions.
People caught trying to evade or escape national service, including by fleeing the country, are detained, sometimes indefinitely, in appalling conditions. Detainees are often kept in underground cells or in shipping containers. The same fate would likely befall those forcibly returned from overseas upon the rejection of their asylum applications in Europe or elsewhere, and there is a generalized risk of arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment for any returned asylum-seekers.
People attempting to cross the border into Ethiopia are at risk of being shot by the Eritrean authorities.
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.
“Conscription continues to be indefinite for a high proportion of conscripts and sometimes lasts for decades. Older people are re-conscripted, and those who try to escape are arbitrarily detained without charge,” said Michelle Kagari.
“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.”
Amnesty International is calling on Eritrea to end the system of indefinite conscription into national service. The organization is calling on all states to recognize it as a human rights violation.