Refugees have been fleeing Eritrea since the mid-1960s, often in spasms that reflected the ebb and flow of war with Ethiopia -- first over Eritrea’s independence and then over its boundaries. For the past decade, however, the primary driver has been the new nation’s own government, cobbled together out of the liberation front and led by the guerrilla army’s commander, Isaias Afwerki.
What began as a trickle in 2001 after a bloody two-year border war and a crackdown on internal dissent quickly turned into a flood as the regime brandished the threat of renewed conflict with Ethiopia -- or even reconquest -- as a rationale for turning Eritrea into a police state and forcing its youth to remain in open-ended and largely unpaid “national service.” Questioning this policy led to detention and, often, to beatings and torture. Political prisons proliferated and thousands of suspected dissenters disappeared. By the middle of the 2000s, Eritrea, whose population is 4 or 5 million, was hemorrhaging young people.  At the start of 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of refugees from Eritrea at more than a quarter million.