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UN Rights Commission Investigates Eritrea

FILE - Migrants play soccer inside a temporary camp, after a fiery shipwreck of a fishing boat packed with 500 migrants from Eritrea, in Lampedusa, Italy, Oct. 6, 2013.

A United Nations commission is looking into allegations of "widespread and systematic violations" by Eritrean authorities against the country's citizens. The investigation follows reports that thousands of Eritreans are fleeing the country each month. In a statement Thursday, Eritrea said its enemies are encouraging illegal migration and engaging in "smear campaigns" against the government.

The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 6,000 Eritreans have fled to Ethiopia over the past month for fear of being recruited into the national army. The agency recently said the number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe has tripled this year.

The chairman of the commission, Mike Smith, says those numbers are a sign something is seriously wrong.

“That, of course, is a symptom of what we are trying to look at. These people are leaving their country for a reason," Smith said. "People do not put themselves at risk and go through the sorts of traumas, which a lot of these people are doing and to the risk of being exploited by people traffickers, and so on and traveling in unsafe boats across the Mediterranean without having some sort of a reason behind it.”

One of the commission members is the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth. The Mauritian lawyer and human rights advocate has presented two reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning gross violations in Eritrea.

Nevertheless, she and the other two members, independent experts from Australia and Ghana, say they will approach their job in an independent and impartial way.

The commission has sent a letter to the Eritrean government and has met with representatives at the U.N. mission in Geneva requesting permission to enter the country to carry out its investigation.

Smith tells VOA the group has not yet received a response to its request. He says it would be a good sign were the government to grant permission.

“If they were to agree for us to come in, it would indicate importantly that they were prepared to address some of these problems, and I think that would be a very positive thing," Smith said. "And, were we to get in there, we would be talking about the sorts of steps that would need to be taken to rectify the human rights problems that we identify.”

Smith says the commission has not yet firmed up all the places where it will go to gather information. He adds the commission would like to go where there are substantial numbers of Eritrean asylum seekers.

The U.N. Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry in Eritrea in June to investigate a variety of alleged violations. These include extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, restrictions to civil liberties, human trafficking, discrimination against women and sexual and gender-based violence.

The commission will report orally on its findings to the council in March. A final report will be presented in June.

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