The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released a report on June 8th detailing a leading cause of illegal migration to Europe, human rights abuses in Eritrea. The 500-page document exposes a long list of violations, including the systematic imprisonment of political dissidents, religious persecution, and mandatory military service, that have caused an exodus of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape the regime of President Isaias Afwerki.
While the UN was unable to enter the country itself, investigators established their findings based on more than 500 interviews and over 150 written statements about the conditions faced by Eritrean civilians. Of the accounts collected, many involved mysterious disappearances of friends and family members, as well as reports of indiscriminate torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by regime forces. Interviewees commonly discussed how personnel at secret detention facilities practiced electrocution and forced stress positions on detainees. Additionally, refugees spoke of arduous government restrictions citizens’ movement inside the country and people getting shot at if tried to cross the border.
Members of the Italian Coast Guard rescue dozens of migrants crowded onto an inflatable dinghy off the coast of Libya in April. (Photo: AP)
Since 2002, the only recognized religious denominations are the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Catholicism, the Lutheran Church, and Sunni Islam. All other religions are strictly banned and followers of unapproved religions have been known to be stripped of their citizenship, losing their right to work or receive other protections under the law.
Concerns over religious oppression are dwarfed by the style with which the Afwerki regime conducts their military conscription for all citizens when they become 18 years of age. The conscription for national service dates back to 1995, but has evolved from its original six months of mandatory training to indefinite service with barbaric conditions. The treatment of young women and girls in the military is so extreme that it amounts to sexual slavery, according to the UN report.
Political conditions, as well as the shortage of basic human necessities such as food, water, and adequate shelter, have resulted in an average 5,000 citizens feeling the East African every month. Eritreans represent second largest group of migrants to reach the European Union in 2014, according to reports from the EU’s border agency. From 2013 to 2014 the number of Eritreans tripled to more than 34,000 arriving via dangerous and irregular routes across the Mediterranean to avoid detection.
Not only are these refugees creating a humanitarian crisis in European countries such as Italy, where most of Eritreans make landfall, but many others drown while attempting the perilous journey. Collective action to deal with migrants crossing the Mediterranean was discussed at the EU summit on migration on April 23rd, but most policies appeared to focused on better policing and enforcement. Such actions do not focus on the political and economic cause of the refugee flows, rather they only concentrate on a symptom of a larger problem.