Eritrea, a forgotten Dictatorship

Eritrea, a small East African country in proximity of the Red Sea, is home to one of the most repressive and long-living dictatorships.

Eritrea became a dictatorship in 1993, when it gained independence from Ethiopia. Since then, the country has been ruled by one president only, Isaias Afwerki. In 1998, a new war with Ethiopia began due to territorial disputes. Fights ceased in 2000 but a peace agreement has been signed only in 2018.

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The GDP of the country is one of the lowest in the world. The economy is mainly based on agriculture, fishery and farming. Italy is one of Eritrea’s main commercial partners.

Eritrea is ranked extremely low for freedom of the press and there are no independent media outlets. All the information sources are controlled by the government. Similarly, there is not independent judiciary body.

Out of a population of 5 millions of people, the UNHCR believes that there are between 500 and 750.000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers living abroad (most of them in refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan). In 2015, about 5.500 Eritrean minors have sought asylum in Europe making up the 6% of all the minors seeking asylum in Europe in that year.

What are the factors that lead young Eritreans to flee their country?

  1. Obligatory military services and forced labour: these represent the main reasons why people flee. Every Eritrean aged between 18 and 50 has to go through military service. The length of the service should be 18 months, but, the actual length is undetermined. During the military service, people are exploited in forced labour in agriculture and infrastructure building.
  2. Freedom of movement: every Eritrean between 18 and 50 cannot freely move from a city to another in the country without a special permit released by the Ministry of Defence. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to obtain a passport to travel abroad. Even tourist visas for foreigners are hardly obtainable.
  3. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment: anyone expressing a political opinion or practising a non-approved religion, journalists, politicians and activists can be arrested and detained without a trial or a lawyer and without the possibility to get in touch with their families. Detention can last an undetermined amount of time and prisoners are regularly tortured and often disappear. Human Rights Watch reputes that in Eritrea each division or subdivision of army has a prison and every police station has a facility for interrogations and detentions.
  4. Freedom of religion: in Eritrea, the only approved religions are Islam and Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism and Catholicism. All the remaining religions are banned.
  5. Freedom of information: in Eritrea there is no free media outlet, the only tv channel is controlled by the government, internet only reaches 1% of the country, in order to get a SIM card there is the need of a special permit from the local authority and the only mobile network is controlled by the government. In 2001, after the end of the war with Ethiopia, all the independent media were closed, and numerous journalists were arrested. Foreign journalists had to leave the country as well. For several years, Reporters Sans Frontières has ranked Eritrea at the last place for freedom of the press and information, at the same level of North Korea.
  6. Government and Constitution: ever since independence in 1993, the country has never held elections, there is only one party, there is no parliament or Constitution (a Constitution was written in 1997 but was never enforced). The government and all powers, including the judiciary, are in the hands of the president Isaias Afwerki.
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Young Women in the Military Service

The military service was instituted in 1995, firstly as voluntary. Initially it was divided in 6 months of military training, followed by 12 months of military or civil service with a monthly salary of about 50 nafca (about 3$). In 1998, when the war with Ethiopia started, the military service became mandatory and with an undetermined length. Ever since then, things never changed and today people are still obliged to serve in the military especially after the implementation of the “Economic and Social Development Program” in 2000, a program based on forced labour.

From 2003, the training starts during the last year of high school, which is undertaken by everybody in the isolated military academy of Sawa: at the end of the year, those who manage to pass the final exam are sent to attend different university courses around the country (the only real university in the country was in Asmara but was closed in 2000). Those who do not pass the exam are automatically forced into the military service with undetermined length. Who tries to escape is killed or arrested.

The monthly salary of a military is 150 nacfa, corresponding to about 9$ and completely insufficient for getting by (bear in mind that a kilo of sugar costs 50 nacfa, a kilo of tomatoes 40 nacfa, a chicken 200 nacfa and a sheep 3000 nacfa). Lately, the salary has been increased by 400 nacfa, but it is still insufficient, especially for families. In cities it is quite frequent to meet women or elderly begging for money. Moreover, soldiers are only entitled to two weeks of military license every six months, meaning that families are continously apart. Women who serve in the military are often victims of violence by their peers and their superior officers. Commercial activities are managed by people over 50 that have been dismissed from the military service or by foreigners whereas women work mainly in factories or in the tertiary sector.

Political repression is so strong to get out of the country’s borders: according to a recent report by Amnesty International, political opponents who are currently refugees abroad are victim of threats by government supporters. Moreover, often there are retorsions towards members of the family of those who fled. The most notable, reported by several Human Rights ONG, is the one of 15 years old Ciham, arrested in 2012. Since then, she disappeared. She was the daughter of the former Minister of Information Ali Abdu Ahmed, who fled in Australia after a fall out with

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Ciham Ali, 15, arrested in 2012

By the end of 2017, the government decided to expropriate an Islamic school for local communities and turn it into a public laic school. Due to the protests, which are usually very rare in Eritrea, the 90 years old dean of the school was arrested, and he subsequently died in prison while 30 people have been killed by the army. In 2001, at the end of the war with Ethiopia, some Ministers and other members of the government and the press who had expressed their dissent towards the war were arrested and are still imprisoned in unknown locations. Two attempts to overthrow the government in 2013 and 2015 have been violently repressed.

Young Eritreans live in a repressive and isolated country, which offers no future prospect except for the military service or prison. The situation has not changed after signing the peace agreement with Ethiopia in 2018, which has formally stopped the war but has not changed the faith of Eritrea people. Lacking an excuse to keep up the mandatory military service, Afwerki should now dismiss the conscripted, enforce the Constitution and set elections. However, all these options are not politically convenient for his regime. Young people keep fleeing to avoid the military service, the repression, the arbitrary arrests and the total control of the regime.

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