The UN estimates that 5,000 Eritreans are escaping from their homeland each month.
The number leaving has been increasing rapidly since the last months of 2014. There are over 100,000 Eritrean refugees in both Ethiopia and Sudan.
Many migrants are taking the dangerous route to Europe across the Mediterranean. Perhaps 25% of the total is from Eritrea. Why do they risk the people-smugglers and the chance of drowning?
Eritrea is a former Italian colony with a population of six million. This north east African state faces Yemen and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea. Its major neighbours are Sudan and Ethiopia.
Eritrea finally won a prolonged war for independence from Ethiopia in 1993, when a big majority of Eritreans voted for independence in a referendum.
That left Ethiopia land-locked. A further border war in the late 1990s left thousands dead on both sides. The war ended in 2000.
Eritrea is now a one-party state with one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. The misnamed People’s Front for Democracy and Justice is the ruling party and its leader, Issayas Afeworki, has been in power since independence.
Afeworki was leader of the EPLF, which fought for and won independence. He has been described by a former US ambassador as a “cruel and unhinged dictator.”
For the past eight years Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea bottom of its list of states respecting press freedom. The state is more repressive against the press than North Korea and Syria. There has been no independent press in the country since 2001 when non-government-controlled media was shut down and journalists rounded up.
There have been no elections since 1993 and scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections were postponed indefinitely in 2001.
Amnesty International believes there are 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea.
A new United Nations Human Rights Council report (June 2015) details the extent of the abuse suffered by Eritreans. “The commission [found] that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government… Eritreans live in constant fear that their may be monitored by security agents, and that information gathered may be used against them leading to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearance or death…”
“The few attempts to exercise the right to peacefully demonstrate have been crushed by the Government, which arrested, detained and sometimes executed demonstrators extrajudicially.”
Free trade unions are banned and, “the use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it.”
Young Eritreans are conscripted into the army for an indefinite period, perhaps lasting decades. Inside the army there is a violent brutal regime where sexual violence against women is widespread. There seems to be a shoot-to-kill policy operating at the border to prevent people escaping conscription and repression, and a complex pass system operates inside the country.
Religion is tightly controlled and violence has been used extensively against Muslim clerics.
The report concludes, “The enjoyment of rights and freedoms are severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law. The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity.”
Those who are being driven towards Europe deserve our sympathy and help, not our government’s contempt and indifference to their lives.