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UN: Thousands Fleeing Eritrea in Desperation

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - An Eritrean would-be immigrant talks on the phone at the Lyster barracks detention center for immigrants in Hal Far, outside Valletta, Malta.

FILE - An Eritrean would-be immigrant talks on the phone at the Lyster barracks detention center for immigrants in Hal Far, outside Valletta, Malta.

A U.N. investigator reports about 4,000 Eritreans are fleeing the country every month to escape indefinite national service, arbitrary arrest and other persistent violations of their human rights. The investigator, who submitted her second report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, says the situation in Eritrea has deteriorated since she filed a report last year.

Statistics may not tell the whole story, but they are revealing. Last year about 2,000 people fled Eritrea every month in search of asylum. That number now has doubled. The U.N. human rights investigator for Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, calls this 50 percent spike shocking. She says it shows the "level of despair" that people risk their lives, taking very difficult routes, dying in the desert or drowning at sea in search of hope.

"What is also shocking is that people know those risks ... and, it is like, 'We take it because there is no other choice,” she said.

The U.N. refugee agency reports 13,000 Eritreans have arrived in Italy by boat since the beginning of the year, accounting for 32 percent of all arrivals in the European country.

What is pushing Eritreans to leave in droves is the pervasive and brutal abuse of their rights. In her report, Keetharuth reports Eritreans are subject to disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and long periods of incommunicado detention in inhuman prison conditions.

She says people above all are fleeing to escape the country’s system of national service, which has been ransformed into a system of indefinite forced labor, says Keetharuth.

She says people are paid about $10 a month for their service.

“Originally, it was meant for 18 months and at the moment it has become an indefinite situation where people are conscripted for 14, 15, 20 years from the age of 18 up to 50 years, indefinite national service ... The whole population is conscripted," she said. "So, it is in fact not a sustainable long term solution in terms of running the country.”

The U.N. investigator cites, what she calls “guilt by association,” as the families of those who flee are punished by having to pay a fine or by being detained.

She says detention centers are severely overcrowded and are often underground cells or shipping containers, which are extremely hot. She says people receive little food and hygiene is horrific, conditions that often lead to death in custody.

She warns Eritrea could soon be a country without people inside, and an ever-growing diaspora spread around the world

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