Research by: Phillip Baker, Sam Fletcher, Jonathan Parker, Josh Kneale and Abi Simons.
Eritrea is a country that seldom makes the headlines, indeed it is a state that most Europeans haven’t even heard of, but Eritrea currently has huge implications for the future of Europe. Amidst the migrant crisis that is bringing millions to the shores of the continent, it is often overlooked that a large proportion of the refugees are not fleeing form the more widely known crises in Syria, but from the incredibly oppressive and brutal regime that governs Eritrea – a state from which 5,000 of its citizens flee from each month.
Located in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea forms a long strip of coastal land bordering Ethiopia, a country which it was governed by for many decades. A 30 year long war of independence devastated the country until the final victory over Ethiopian forces in 1991. Independence was recognised by the international community in 1993, and the Eritrean struggle for freedom has been hailed as a “major feat of a people’s fight for self-determination.”
But in the years since independence no national elections have been held. They are repeatedly postponed, and the country has fallen under the grip of an oppressive regime in which only one political party is allowed to function – the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice – and all independent private media was closed down.
This has meant that the rest of the world is subject to an information blackout about the country, and independent accounts of what is happening there are incredibly hard to come by. What little is known about the country’s internal affairs indicate the existence of what has been described as a ‘totalitarian state’ that carries out constant surveillance of its people, causing the population to live in constant fear.
Human Rights Watch reports that the abuses committed against the Eritrean people include; “forced labor during conscription, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and enforced disappearances. Other abuses include torture, degrading treatment in detention, restrictions on freedoms of expression and movement, and repression of religious freedom”.
There is no freedom of movement, and permits are required for people to move out of their communities. Religious persecution is also rife. The government officially recognises four religions; the Eritrean Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Lutheran church and Sunni Islam. But followers of all other religious beliefs are subject to harassment by the state and can be subject to arbitrary arrest, which is not a pleasant fate especially considering the appalling conditions reported in Eritrean prisons.
But the main cause of the mass exodus of Eritreans is usually held to be its system of conscription. While many European nations still practice conscription, this is only a few years national service. But Eritrean conscription is in reality a form of slavery; most of the population spends their life on national service with no given end date. A scathing UN report on the subject stated that conscripted Eritreans are subject to “the systematic violation of an array of human rights on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world.”
There seems to be little prospect of the situation in Eritrea changing, the President has explicitly denied democracy will be introduced and in 2014 he stated that “[I]f there is anyone who thinks there will be democracy or [a] multiparty system in this country … then that person can think of such things in another world.”
International criticism of the Eritrean regime has not been especially forthcoming, if western nations think of the country at all they think in terms of the unwanted asylum seekers it brings to their borders. The European response so far has been to try and stem the flow of asylum seekers by preparing a large aid package to develop the country, and not to try and dismantle the repressive government which is causing the exodus. Meanwhile the tragedy that is the plight of the Eritrean people continues unabated.
This post is written in collaboration with The Richardson Institute.