The strength of freedom: Fleeing Eritrea

Sunday, 19 February 2012

©UNHCR / R. Ek. New arrivals from Eritrea in eastern Sudan at Shagerab reception center

As the country appears in a protracted state of tension with Ethiopia, comprehensive military drafting is a fundamental obligation of all Eritreans under the law, and has become the main cause of the flight of asylum seekers.

A group of young Eritrean men told UNHCR about their experiences in Eritrea. They tried to explain what life is like in Eritrea with the government curtailing people’s freedom of expression. One man related his story of a family member being imprisoned for involvement in a public protest. “I have not seen or heard of him in five years,” One Eritrean refugee told UNHCR Malta.

‘I was 16 when soldiers came to my school and forced me outside to their army vehicles. I didn’t understand at first but then I realized they were taking me for national service.”I tried to tell them that I was not yet 18 but they told me that I looked old enough and continued rounding up students from the school’. 16years

Forced army recruitment and political instability continue to push Eritreans into flight. Eritrea constitutes the second largest (after Somalia) refugee community in Malta.

According to the Eritrean law, national military and development service is compulsory for 18 months for both men and women aged between 18 and 40. In practice, it has become indefinite as no meaningful demobilization has taken place so far.

There is no right to conscientious objection. The government has deployed military police throughout the country using roadblocks, street sweeps, and house to house searches to find deserters and draft evaders. The government has also reportedly authorized the use of extreme force against anyone resisting or attempting to flee.

There are widespread reports of conscription with conscripts being used as labor on infrastructure and projects benefiting military commanders. Working conditions are severe. Dozens of conscripts have died from intense heat, malnutrition, and lack of medical care; female conscripts are often victims of rape.

“I was used by the government as free manual labour and never had the right to work for myself or my family. During my time in national service, I never saw any military action because there are no wars. Instead I was used for construction projects, maintenance works, agriculture and farming. They keep you working because they can. No one has the freedom to say no.”

In 2005, Amnesty International claimed that relatives of draft evaders or deserters are often punished through a hefty fine or imprisonment in order to ‘encourage’ the family to produce the missing family member.


In Eritrea there is a complete intolerance of any form of dissent. Authorities reportedly intercept telephone and internet communications and arrest any potential or suspected government critics. “‘Disappearances’ also occur and detained in ‘secret detentions’ but it is difficult to gauge the numbers because reprisals are taken against family members who enquire about the arrest or contact international human rights organizations,” a 2008 Amnesty International report said

The Eritrean Constitution was ratified in 1997 and provides for democratic freedom; however, its provisions in this regard are yet to be implemented.

Author: Fiona Munton

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