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Why are Eritreans fleeing their home?

Israel is home to approximately 34,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea, the vast majority of whom have escaped from forced labor by the country’s national army. The Israeli government claims that they are migrant workers, yet it hasn’t deported them as it does with other migrants who have entered the country illegally. Such expulsion would be a violation of both Israeli and International Law, as it is forbidden to deport a person to a place that puts their life in danger. The danger in Eritrea is the result of a dictatorial regime, which will persecute and threaten the life of any citizen who has defected or left the country without permission.

Eritrea established it’s sovereignty in 1991 after a prolonged war of independence from Ethiopia. As a result of this war, the country began their sovereign existence with massive debt, poverty, and a dilapidated national infrastructure with a large amount of internally displaced persons. Initially, it seemed that Eritrea had faced the challenges of a new country in a way that that many others had- strict controls in order to stabilize a war-torn land. However, as time passed, it became clear that what had started out as a national response to crisis has become the most repressive dictatorship in Africa. Today, more than twenty years after the war of independence, even though Eritrea is no longer in a state of emergency, it has one of the highest rates of defense spending per capita in the world. It continues to enforce strict military rule, placing citizens under martial law, and suppress any political or social freedoms. Citizens are used to serve at the command of the elites in power, and the needs of the dictator, Isais Afwerki, a former war hero and now leader of the ruling (and only) party.

Compulsory military service was started as soon as Eritrea became sovereign. The goal was initially to help retain the borders that were established after the war of independence as well as rehabilitate the state of the country after the destruction. Like many countries, including Eritrea, national service is defined as a compulsory act for all Eritrean citizens when they reach the age of 18. In theory the service period is supposed to be a year and a half. Civilians who were found unfit physically or psychologically, as well as married women and mothers were released.

This situation began to change in 1998, at the beginning of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War. The Eritrean government re-called all enlistees who had been released, and announced that they would not be giving leave to soldiers. This policy was explained to the public as a “necessity of war” in order to protect the existence of the country. When the war ended in 2000, people expected to be released from their service, and to start their lives. However, the release never materialized, even though Eritrea never changed their law about 18 months of service. People continue to serve in the army, without a livable wage or ability to build a life or family. Those who do not enlist are persecuted and punished without a fair trial or the possibility to defend their rights within the law. People, who dare to criticize the policy or the government, receive incredible punishment including torture, abuse, and prolonged detention in underground prisons.

Credit: David Stanley

The obvious question is why? When Eritrea has the option to exit their “state of emergency” and advance themselves in other areas such as Education and Culture, why do they choose instead to invest their human and economic capital on the military? This decision seems to paralyze the country’s ability to grow economically, and socially. Defense ministers have claimed that a volunteer- army is not enough to protect Eritrea’s independence. Although in practice it seems that drafted soldiers do almost no work related to national defense at all.

Soldiers are sent to work on public roads, construct new houses and streets, build wells and sustain agriculture. Most of this work only benefits a slim few, usually members of the ruling party and the military elite. Much of their construction is to build villas for senior army generals, cut their trees, and plow and sow their fields. The party officials and their families/elites make an incredible amount of money off of the free labor, and then take the profit for themselves. An asylum seeker who left Eritrea for Israel in 2006 says: “They make you go grow vegetables, onions, tomatoes etc… The commander made them do this himself. There are also stories of commanders who sent people to go build houses for the rich. There is a famous accident about soldiers who were supposed to build someone’s house.” This accident refers to an event in 2003, in which soldiers were killed on their way to a construction site of their Colonel’s villa. The news that soldiers were losing their lives, years after the war ended, for the sake of a house for their commander, shocked much of the public. Instead of the country building up a market for this work, a market where people can make and produce products; the elite take advantage of compulsory service as indefinite slavery.

Enlistees receive a monthly allowance that is not even close to a livable wage. They are given 450 Nafka a month (which is about $0.065) which is not enough to travel or buy food, let alone save for the future or support a family. If you are enlisted you cannot hold another job. There is a ban on vacations, and expectations are that you work long hours every day. “We build homes day and night” said an Eritrean asylum seeker. The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that national service in Eritrea is forced labor, and forbidden by international law, that Eritrea has approved.

This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that army is not feeding the people that it is also not paying enough. According to witnesses- the army rations out only bread and lentils that should last for a month, but in-fact when stretched-out thinly only is sufficient for three weeks. Enlistees are given raw flour to make bread themselves, and only can receive vegetables by paying, meat is only given on holidays. This creates a situation of constant hunger and a monotonous diet that is harmful to their health.

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Thus despite the fact that the party line is that national service is intended is to protect, rehabilitate and develop the country- in practice the regime uses it as a tool to protect itself against the restoration and strengthening of civil society. It is in their interest to create a weak and docile population, unable to resist their power. They work to maintain this situation in multiple ways.

In addition to the hard labor and harsh working condition, severe restrictions are imposed on fundamental freedoms. Even questioning the status-quo is sufficient ground to be imprisoned. Soldiers who question or pose concerns about the length of their service, or their compensation, are marked as potential deserters and as such are sent to prison. There, punishments have included torture, abuse, detention in underground containers located under the blazing sun, and sometimes death. Enlistees live in fear everyday from punishment that could cost them their lives. One said “They arrested me because they thought I wanted to leave, and they jailed me for five months without trial […] they put me in the hole. It is terrible to be there. You only shower once a week. It is scorching hot. There are ants and you are in the dark for 23 hours a day, only taken out once in the afternoon to get small food that isn’t enough to live on. The guards will beat you if you ask for anything”.

Women, who are enlisted in National Service, often become the victims of sexual violence and rape, without the ability to resist or defend themselves. Unlike men, it is much more difficult for them to escape from Eritrea to neighboring countries to become asylum seekers; many times because of the difficult journey, where many die on the way. A former soldier in the army of Eritrea spoke about the attitude towards women: “I realized that I was against the government when they refused to let me leave, and when I saw that they were rapping our sisters. They [women] came to [enlist] to service our country, but were constantly raped by their officers. They were told to “come make coffee”. This was a code word for rape […] if they didn’t do what he [a commanding officer] wanted, they are sent to the front lines- where they are constantly terrorized[…] No one dared talked about the rape, for fear that if you did, something terrible would happen to you.”

Beyond the threat of imprisonment, there is widespread abuse of civilians and restrictions on freedom of expression; the government is trying to isolate those who serve. The service is carried out in bases far from the centers of developed areas, people who serve are not allowed cell phones, and if they have it’s probably smuggled/illegal.  Letters that come to the base are opened for discretionary censorship before either being discarded or being given to their recipient in a highly-redacted manner.

It seems that the government also understands the power of relationships, particularly that of the family. Induction into national service begins in school, before people are drafted. An asylum-seeker said: “Every summer there are events [summer-service for students]. When you complete your studies for the year, you are sent to go do two months of work, such as agricultural cultivation, planting trees, and so on. This is done for a purpose- controlling people, even at the early stage. Summer is when you have time to be with your family and your parent. On normal days you are in school, your family works and you do not see them.  The summer is taken from people; they are sent away during the summer and stay there. Then you grow up like this, with weaker familial ties”. As a part of national service, enlistees are entitled to a ten-day vacation during the year- but due to the remote locations of bases, they often spend most of their time on the road, and barely have time to spend with their families. Weddings and events as such are suppose to entitle people to special leave, but in practice permission is almost never granted. According to an asylum-seeker who left Eritrea: “The government is afraid of well-to-do citizens, educated citizens, well informed citizens […], if there is cohesiveness, it will allow for rebellion and overthrow of the government. A strong family means a strong village; strong villages mean strong opposition to the government. So they try to cut it off where it starts…the family”.

So rather than having the military as a defense tool, the government exploits national service in Eritrea as a tool for the economic development of the elite. Compulsory service is primarily an instrument of ideological indoctrination and oppression imposed upon the Eritrean people for political ends. Even if there weren’t severe punishment for deserters, the indefinite period of forced service under slave like conditions should be enough grounds to grant asylum-status to anyone.

The Interior Ministry has rejected tens of thousands of asylum applications, even though a majority of the files are not thoroughly checked. This ignores both the UNHCR  and the Court’s interpretation of the Refugee Convention, which allows Israel to take in these asylum-seekers. Instead, there is tons of bureaucratic abuse, denial of rights, detention in Holot, and a now a policy of indefinitely imprisoning those who refuse to leave to a third country. These things are made possible because the Israeli government doesn’t recognize desertion from the Eritrean army as a justified cause for asylum.

Written by: Emily Oriel

Translated by: Sam Kuttner

*Based on a report written by Assaf Calderon, done as part of a seminar at Tel Aviv University.

UN report on human rights violations in Eritrea, published in June 2015 –