After Eritrea signed a peace agreement with its neighbour Ethiopia in 2018, there were hopes that the Eritrean state would end its national conscription programme. Established as a policy in 1995, national conscription is compulsory for all Eritrean citizens, and forces Eritrean citizens to provide labour for the state. This labour is often paid, but salaries are not sufficient to cover basic food and amenities. While commentators hoped that the conclusion of the border conflict with Ethiopia would end or change Eritrea’s national service programme, little has altered and national service still exists in the present day. Speaking to The Guardian in 2018, Fisseha Tekle, a human rights researcher on Eritrea for Amnesty International, stated that “for the last 15 years, they were blaming Ethiopia. That excuse is no longer there, so it is high time for them to stop this scheme.”
Sometimes dubbed “the North Korea of Africa”, the small nation has conducted no elections since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and frequently is listed as a country with one of the worst human rights records internationally. Freedom of movement is prohibited, with Eritrean citizens requiring state-approved passes to move from one region of the country to another. Conscripts are often denied visits to family members.
While Eritrean law states that national service should last a maximum of 18 months, refugees from the state paint a very different picture. In reality national service usually lasts between five and ten years, but can last for much longer – so many Eritreans can expect to work, underpaid and in poor conditions, for the state for several decades. For this reason, national conscription in Eritrea has been labelled as a form of slavery conducted by its government: Eritrean citizens are detained far from family, for many decades, and forced to work for the state. Dissenters are imprisoned.
Eritrea maintains closed borders, and operates a “shoot to kill” policy for those attempting to flee the state. Despite this barrier, many Eritreans try to escape national service by fleeing the country, because of the maltreatment conscripts endure at the hands of the authoritarian state and its military. According to the United Nations, by late 2018 500,000 Eritreans had escaped the country – that’s around 10% of the country’s population. Many migrants are believed to be minors. Some Eritrean migrants attempt to enter the European Union via Italy, but the majority remain in neighbouring countries such as Sudan. Eritreans have routinely suffered human rights abuses at the hands of other states, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, after fleeing Eritrea.
Those who fail in their attempt to leave the country in order to escape national service are routinely imprisoned in the horn of Africa state’s many prison camps, and those who succeed in their aim may find that their parents are jailed until they return.
Social change in Eritrea is unlikely, in part due to the state’s mass prison system, and the limited access to information for Eritrean citizens. All media in the nation is state controlled. Freedom of speech is limited, and dissent or protest against the government is prohibited. In September 2018, a former finance minister of the state was arrested by government authorities after publishing a book alleging the Eritrean president was responsible for the hardships of the Eritrean people. Reporters Without Borders lists Eritrea as having the third worst press freedoms in the world, only being beaten by North Korea and Turkmenistan.
In 2019, humanitarian organisation Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on the use of forced labour in Eritrea’s conscription system, focusing on its education system. Human Rights Watch found that all Eritreans are expected to complete their final year of secondary school at military camps before joining the national conscription programme for an indefinite period. The majority of students undertake this year of military training at the isolated Sawa military camp, located far from any cities and close to the Sudanese border. Students at the facility are reported to be subject to routine beatings and physical abuse. Access to food and water is limited, with many students suffering gastrointestinal problems and malnutrition as a result.
Female students also are reported to have been sexually abused at the camp, and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea has found that sometimes military officials promised women and girls studying at the base food or easier treatment during training in exchange for sex. A witness to the Commission explained that women not formally discharged from national service have few options. Some are compelled into low-skilled jobs while others may be forced into transactional sex in order to survive. Human Rights Watch has noted that many Eritreans attempt to fail end-of-year exams deliberately, in order to prolong their pre-conscription education. The UN also notes that some women opt to marry young, or become pregnant, in an attempt to evade national service.
Human rights violations are not limited to Eritrea’s national service programme. Prisoners in one of Eritrea’s many prison camps are subject to beatings and torture. A non-violent political protester recalled to a UN commission his time in a prison camp, where he was detained in solitary confinement:
“I was tortured for the whole year following my arrest. I was handcuffed from behind day and night for more than two weeks. For more than five months, I was denied the right to leave my cell to get any fresh air, sunshine or any form of physical exercise. After five months of my arrest, I was allowed to go out for fresh air, which was only for 45 minutes per week -15 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Even then, I was not allowed to have any physical movement -I was made to sit on a chair for 15 minutes then drag to me the solitary cell. This wasn’t even regular; sometimes I had be locked five days in the cell.
“I was not allowed the opportunity to even properly stretch my limbs, which were hurting a lot. The situation was unbearable for me and psychologically dehumanizing. The food is very poor and not enough. It is the same type of food for almost whole week and if there is any change it is change of type but worst content. The room is too cold during rainy season and too hot during hot season, as it has no enough ventilation. The light in the room is 24 hours on. It disturbs your sleeping system.”
Religious dissidents and conscientious objectors to national service are a particular target of the Eritrean government. These groups are routinely subject to severe torture. The regime’s use of torture, forced labour, indefinite national service and extrajudicial killing led the UN to declare the state’s actions as crimes against humanity.
The route conscripts take after completing education varies, and is dictated by the government. While some will work in national security or law enforcement, others will be forced to work on national infrastructure projects, such as roads or other building work. This use of under-paid or unpaid forced labour, lasting indefinitely, has led Human Rights Watch to name its latest report “They Are Making Us Into Slaves, Not Educating Us.”
While social reform seems unlikely in the authoritarian regime, activist groups outside the country attempt to lobby governments to sanction the state. In late 2018, the UN lifted its economic sanctions on the country, which included travel bans for prominent state figures and a limit on the sale of weapons to the country. Other activist groups aim to raise awareness of the state’s crimes among Eritrean citizens by emitting radio broadcasts and automated telephone calls from outside the country. One such activist group operates in London. A short documentary on this activism can be found here: