The UN likens Eritrea’s forced conscription – sometimes for decades at a time – to slavery. Hundreds of thousands have fled. Here’s why.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Eritrea has been consistently one of the top five biggest source of refugees in Europe for the last decade.

Since the Eritrean government began indefinite national service in 2002, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean youngsters have been conscripted into military and civil service for the state. Sometimes, that "service" can mean over a decade of hard labour at the behest of the state.

This system of organised forced labour has led to a massive emigration to the neighbouring African countries and Europe.

“The youth can’t establish family as no one knows what the future holds; they can’t do business as it has been outlawed for more than a decade; they can’t get proper education as there is systematic impediment against quality education; even if they study they can’t get decent jobs later as they are all required to work on national service,” Abraham Zere, Executive Director and Chief Editor of PEN Eritrea, told TRT World.

The government says its national service is vital for a cohesive national identity and safety in the impoverished north-east African country. 

Here are nine things to know about Eritrea and the struggle of its people:

1. National service was introduced in 1994, three years after the nation gained its independence from Ethiopia.

It consists of military training and community service. On paper, both men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 must complete 18 months of service to the state.

2. The length of service can stretch to a decade or more, diplomats and those who have fled the country say.

This is because the government reserves the right to extend the length in periods of emergency.


Under Eritrean law, violations of the national service, including evasion through fraud, self-inflicted disability and other methods are punishable with two years’ imprisonment. (Reuters)


3. All sectors of the Eritrean economy rely on conscripts, according to a UN commission charged with investigating human rights abuses in Eritrea.

Before being assigned to jobs, most citizens begin military training as part of the last year of high school.

However, sometimes children as young as 15 are conscripted.

Their assignments include forced labour for construction firms, farms or manufacturers.

4. Conscripts receive an inadequate salary to support themselves and their families.

“We were always tired and hungry, and fell ill very often,” said Mihretab Yemane Tekle, who worked at a mine operated by a Canadian company in north-west Eritrea.


With an annual per capita gross national income of US$480, Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest nations, according to the World Bank. (AP)


5. They are often harshly treated.

Physical abuse amounts to torture sometimes and female conscripts are often sexually abused by commanders, according to a report released by the Human Rights Watch in 2016.

There is no mechanism for redressing abuses.

6. The UN has said the conscription program in Eritrea is “similar to slavery in its effects.”

Based on more than 500 interviews, the UN revealed in 2015, that the Eritrean government engages in “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations” and said these violations occur “in the context of a total lack of rule of law.”

7. Asmara says the conscription is vital for Eritrea’s future.

The service is based on an ideology of the reconstruction of the country, strengthening of the economy and creation of a joint Eritrean identity across ethnic and religious dividing lines.

8. Eritrea feels unsafe with the government saying it fears any possible attack by its far bigger neighbour Ethiopia with whom it has fought long, intermittent wars.

The nation declared its independence after a referendum in 1993, but the two neighbours remain bitter enemies.

Their troops still eyeing each other along the fortified frontier. The two nations have long exchanged accusations of attacks and backed rebels to needle each other.

And HRW says President Isaias Afwerki, who was a Marxist guerrilla leader before independence, uses the pretext of “no-war, no-peace” to keep his people under “totalitarian control.”


The vast majority of those who leave Eritrea do it illegally as they don’t have exit visas. They do this either by using professional human smugglers, people well acquainted with the local border areas or they travel on their own. (AP)


8. The conscription program is not the only reason behind the Eritrean exodus.

“Nationals are denied of all forms of basic freedom such as freedom to worship, freedom to associate and organise, freedom to express themselves, etc. Such renunciation of all forms of freedom is coupled with total disregard for the rule of law and the smallest means of supporting oneself.” said Zere.

They either seek asylum in neighbouring countries or risk their lives by making dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

According to UN refugee agency UNHCR, around 5,000 people flee Eritrea each month.

Zere said there were currently about 12,000 Eritreans in Uganda; 150,000 in Ethiopia, around 30,000 in Israel, and 125,350 in Sudan, as of 2015. In that year, more than 47,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe.

“The neighbouring countries can barely sustain themselves and each one of the host countries in Africa are known for their notoriety of maltreatment of their own citizens,” Zere told TRT World.

“Europe too is currently plagued with economic hardship and a great surge of anti-refugee sentiment,” he added.

9. The Eritrean government has been accused of descending into a fiefdom.

“It is even hard to call it a government nowadays,” said Zere. “But rather, the country has turned into a personal fiefdom of the despotic leader, President Isaias Afwerki.” he continued.

Eritrean citizens were required to provide free labour to build dams for the last two or three years, Zere gave as an example.

“At the cost of everything the president and his clique have leased the port-city of Assab to UAE and the Arab coalition to wage war in Yemen. Now they are also openly taking sides in the current Gulf-crisis without assessing the implication to the substantial number of Eritreans currently working in Qatar.”

Author: Zeynep Sahin