Swiss Court Rules that Eritrea’s never-ending compulsory military service is not adequate grounds for granting Asylum. 

In a ruling published on Thursday 12th July,  Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court stated that rejected Eritrean asylum seekers may still be deported to their home country even if they face punishment and being called up for compulsory national service.

The Swiss court has totally ignored the expert evidence of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea(COI).

  • Perhaps it is relevant to ask “why?”
  • Is it that the court is so concerned to limit the number of refugees from Eritrea claiming and being given asylum in Switzerland that it is “turning a blind eye” to such evidence?
  • One has to ask whether a fair and just assessment of the reality of life for Eritreans is no longer paramount in the court’s concerns?
  • And we must wonder whether it is more convenient to make easy but unjustified assumptions (e.g. about the length of National Service) than to confront the implications of the mass of authentic evidence presented by the UN Commission of Inquiry?


National Service in Eritrea

All Eritreans – both men and women – must complete national military service, which the Swiss court appears to believe can last between five and ten years, though it provided no evidence to support this assumption. The court said the requirement for Eritreans to perform national service for an unforeseeable amount of time “places an excessive burden on citizens”. However, it regarded this argument as not legally sufficient to prevent deportation. In a previous ruling, in August 2017, the same court appeared to view those escaping Eritrean military service as “deserters”. 

The judgement of the Swiss court shows an ignorance of how National Service in Eritrea differs from elsewhere.

It is important to note that National Service in Eritrea is not of limited duration; this is clear from the National Service Proclamation: “any Eritrean citizen from 18 to 50 years of age has the obligation of carrying out national service.” There is no time limit to the duration of Eritrean National Service. Contrary to the above proclamation, many Eritrean men were still enduring National Service at the age of 68 an above. The Swiss court assumption that “it can last from 5 to10 years” has no basis in fact; nor is there any evidence to support it. Eritrean National Service can be for life. So those escaping life servitudes must not be described in the same terms as “deserters” from voluntary military employment or 2-year National Service in any other democratic country.

Sexual Abuse, Assault and Exploitation for Female Recruits

The court admitted that conditions for National Service conscripts can be harsh and that there had been some reported cases of abuse and sexual assault. 

Yet the court was apparently unaware of the expert evidence from the UN of the appalling treatment of female conscripts. The experiences of young women during National Service in the military show that they are frequently subject to severe sexual exploitation, rape and violence.  

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea(COI) found that “officers select the young women they find attractive when the new conscripts first arrive at the military training centre and have the young women allocated to their service team, placing the young women under their control. Young women who are selected have no way of refusing to go to the superior’s quarters or protect themselves from being sexually abused.” The Commission found that “young women are at a disproportionate risk of discrimination and violence within the military training camps and are targeted for sexual abuse on account of their gender”. The Commission considered that female conscripts are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence, stating that it had received reports of sexual violence by military officers against civilian women. It concluded that “Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women in the community by members of the military are an extreme form of violence against women, perpetrated by opportunistic military personnel without fear of prosecution.”

Enforced or Slave Labour

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits deportation of refugees if there are reasonable grounds to believe that there is real risk of a flagrant breach of the EHCHR prohibition against forced labour. 

Yet the Swiss court appears either to be unaware of or to be unwilling to consider the use of National Service Conscripts as virtual slave labourers in mines such as the Bisha mine in Eritrea. Conscripts have no choice as to where they are placed during National Service. There is substantial evidence that thousands are forced to work in industry, agriculture and mining, for derisory payments which amount to nothing more than “pocket money”, and in appalling conditions amounting to the worst forms of slave labour. The UN Commission of Inquiry sums up the practice in these words: “The Commission concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that, within the context of military and national service programmes, Eritrean officials exercise powers attaching to the right of ownership over Eritrean citizens... and that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement, a crime against humanity, in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner.” This practice violates the Convention Against Slavery as well as the Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour.

Danger to Eritrean Refugees Returning to their Country

The Swiss court said that it did not believe anyone returning to Eritrea voluntarily faces a real risk of detention or inhumane treatment. 

The court seems to be unaware that Eritreans have no right to leave their country and that, if they leave without official permission, they are regarded as having committed a crime. 

All Eritrean refugees claiming asylum in Switzerland will have left Eritrea without permission and would be treated as criminals on return. 

The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) stated that “almost all witnesses who spoke with the Commission believed that... they would be punished” if they returned to Eritrea. The Commission clearly trusted the statements of credible witnesses who said “If I went back to Eritrea, I will either be executed or jailed,” and “If I return to Eritrea, I will be killed.” 


Herewith a link to a documentary, ‘Voice of Torture’ by Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) about the recollection of torture and suffering experienced by 234 Eritreans who were forcibly deported from Malta to Eritrea.

It is therefore outrageous and deplorable for any court to ignore the facts on the ground and to make its decision based on assumptions that “in general it does not believe anyone returning to Eritrea voluntarily faces a real risk of detention or related inhumane treatment.” 


Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)

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17 August 2018