The reality of risk in Eritrea: ‘Everybody is scared to talk … but I am tired of being silent’

Legal Updates

This is a guest post by Sara Palacios Arapiles,  who has a background in law and currently works at the Nottingham Rainbow Project, providing advocacy and support to people seeking sanctuary.

‘Everybody is scared to talk, it is painful […] but I am tired of being silent about it,’ reflected a young Eritrean in Saudi Arabia. This young girl is not alone. Many other Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK, South Sudan and Israel have provided me with firsthand information which enabled me to produce a report which examines and challenges the credibility of recent UK Home Office Guidance on Eritrea.

The Home Office Guidance surprisingly claims that there are signs of improvement inside Eritrea for potential returnees.  Read more about the Home Office Guidance on Right to Remain’s blog here. However, the information provided by Eritreans in Diaspora brings to light the current situation in Eritrea, which forces over 5,000 people to leave the country each month.  These conditions mean that forcible removals to Eritrea would result in grave breaches of the human rights of those removed, making those removals arguably unlawful.

Some of the testimonies collected acknowledge that it was the first time that they had talked about the abuses that they had witnessed and experienced in Eritrea. The trauma that remembering causes, fear of reprisals against their relatives by the Eritrean authorities and the possibility of being spied on by the government has kept them silent.

All quotations from Eritreans in the blog post were given to the author by refugees in the UK, South Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.  For details of the interviews, see the legal report on which this blog post is based.

Eritrean National Service (ENS)

Open-ended service

Professor Gaim Kibreab, an Eritrea expert at London’s South Bank University, is one of many reliable sources that attest that service in Eritrea’s army has been transformed into indefinite conscription following the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia (1998-2000). This is in contravention of the 18 month limit stipulated by Eritrean domestic law.  Earlier this year, the UN Commission of Enquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea acknowledged that ‘the whole society is militarized’ and forced military service is of ‘indefinite nature. Similarly, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO,) after visiting Eritrea in December 2014, confirmed that there is no change in the duration of national service, which remains indefinite.  Eritreans in Diaspora say:

My uncle is still serving in the military, for what amounts to a total of eighteen years.

My brother, who is 24 years old, has been serving in the military service for five years already.

Moreover, Eritreans who have been demobilized from military service, may be at any time recalled to undertake additional military training – the so-called Militia. It consists of military units formed out of civilian elders – up to 70 years of age – who undergo exactly the same tasks as those serving their military service. One Eritrean refugee said that his father, who had already completed his military service, was mobilized again early this year:

My father, a 64-year-old man, was forced to join the militia this year. He had to leave my mum and the job at his shop, and perform military training for two months.

The indefinite nature of national service amounts to a deprivation of liberty as enshrined in the provisions of Article 9 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as interpreted by the Human Rights Committee (HRC),  the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR by its State parties.  Eritrea is party to the ICCPR.

Forced labour

Most conscripts become soldiers after military training. Those that don’t become soldiers perform jobs in the civil service; however, they can be mobilized to serve as soldiers in the army at any time.  Eritreans serving national service are assigned to a ‘wide variety of roles, without any choice as to the nature of the work they are assigned to’.  One Eritrean refugee told how he was forced to build the houses of military commanders:

I would have not minded building either schools or hospitals, but not houses for commanders.

Moreover, conscientious objectors who are unable to perform military service on account on their beliefs or religion do not have the option of performing alternative service in place of military service – such provision of an alternative option has been frequently advised by the Human Rights Committee.  Although the right of conscientious objection to military service is considered as part of Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights – the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – to which Eritrea is party, Eritrean domestic law still fails to recognise conscientious objection to military service.

According to Eritreans in Diaspora, ‘conscripts are only entitled to have a month’s vacation every one year or two years in other cases;’ furthermore, there is no stipulated limit on working hours.  Former conscripts say:

We are prevented from having visitors, even from attending the funerals of [our] closest relatives.

Conscripts are paid less than £6 per month:

From 1995 until 2001 I was paid less than £1 per month.

While serving in the military service from 2010 to 2013, I was paid £5 per month.

The low remuneration severely impedes conscripts ability to ensure an existence worthy of human dignity for themselves and their families.  The testimonies gathered provide evidence that conscripts are deprived of their most basic needs.

Reports produced by the UN Commission of Enquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, or the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, among others, have stated that the ENS should be considered as forced labour.  In the same line, members of the UK House of Commons have recently condemned Eritrean national service as slavery.

Inhuman and degrading treatment

Eritrean national service itself constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment. Conscripts are forced to live in servitude for extended periods of time and under threat of violence (see ‘Conditions under military service’) that amounts – as interpreted by human rights bodies and other organisations – to degrading treatment.  The UN Commission of Enquiry also finds that the human rights violations in the area of service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity.

Conditions in military service

Inhuman living conditions and malnutrition

Eritrean refugees explain that they live under dramatic and inhuman conditions:

We live completely outside – under the trees, in open air.

Numerous accounts reveal that conscripts get only one meal per day, ‘which consists of a portion of lentils and a piece of bread. The only way to get water is to walk until we find a river.’ Malnutrition during military service has been interpreted by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) as a factor amounting to mistreatment.

Unnecessary and extremely tough trainings

Some of the training required from conscripts are disproportionate to the physical and psychological capability of the trainees, and often take place under extreme climatic conditions:

commanders wake you up at night; they order you to carry heavy things, whose weight is around 25 kilograms. They force you to walk through the desert for periods up to four days, without the option to stop, or even sleep. Many people do not resist this ‘training’ and as a result die.

According to human rights bodies, people serving in the military ‘should not be exposed to situations where their lives would be avoidably put at risk without a clear and legitimate military purpose.’

Sexual abuse of women

Female recruits face a high risk of sexual abuse by, among others, military commanders.  Refugees in Diaspora say,

women are punished for resisting abuses by being heavily beaten, or assigned many harsh tasks.

As a result, underage women are forced into marriage, often by their own families, as a means of avoiding the abuses and sexual violence that military training or further military service may involve.

Imprisonment, corporal punishment and extrajudicial killings as penalties for military violations

Imprisonment and detention often occurs in secret and takes place in unknown locations with the individual unable to communicate with the outside world for prolonged periods of time.   Detainees are neither formally charged nor brought before a court, and cannot submit complaints to judicial authorities. All these facts considered together amount to unlawful and arbitrary detention, which is prohibited by Article 9 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Imprisonment takes place in inhuman prison conditions, with prisoners being subjected to corporal punishment, and sexual abuse in the case of women. The testimonies collected confirm:

There are prisons underground where the temperature rises up to 40°C.

Cells are sometimes shared by fifteen people, all sleeping on the floor. Food is inadequate, and access to drinking water is restricted to once per day.

All guards hold a long stick which they regularly use to beat us up. Many of the detainees face brutal forms of torture.


Some people imprisoned die as a result of lack of medical care in prison.

Overstaying permitted leave and disobeying or answering back to commanders are, among a number of reasons, cited by Eritreans that can lead to imprisonment,  corporal punishment – such as beating, whipping, stoning, being tied up –  or extrajudicial killings. Additionally, conscripts who were caught practicing their respective religions or in possessions of religious materials while serving military service are arrested or imprisoned. The Commission of Enquiry also documented cases of severe punishments and extrajudicial killings for the same reasons. Restrictions on the right to practice religion amount to measures of discrimination. Furthermore, conscripts live under a threat to life, which together with the lack of freedom of religion, constitute persecution.

Exemption from national service: Eritrean domestic law vs reality


Students attending 12th grade of school, many of whom are children below the age of 18, are forced into military training at Sawa Military Training Camps. In addition, testimonies assembled by the UN Commission of Enquiry attest that students who fail the compulsory general exam at the end of 8th grade, most of whom are between 14 and 15 years of age, are forced to undergo military training at Military Training Camps. The forced recruitment of minors into the armed forces has been interpreted by the Human Rights Committee as a violation of Article 8 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights – prohibition of slavery and forced labour.

Students enrolled in a higher education programme

A former undergraduate student explained that ‘undergraduate programmes also include military training.’ Moreover, upon finishing higher education, graduates are bound by domestic law to complete the ‘Active National Service’ in order to be awarded their diploma. Nevertheless, Eritrean testimonies indicate that:

due to the indefinite ENS [national service], diplomas have never been issued.

Unfit and disable people

Medically unfit people that have been issued with certificates of exception are now being called up to join military service:

My brother, although he had a certificate of exception due to his health conditions, was called up in March for conscription.

Some others gravely injured or physically disabled have never been issued with such certificates

I lost my eye during the war and I was seriously injured in my left leg, which impeded me from walking properly. However, I was never officially declared unfit. Hence, I was forced into conscription for 15 years, from 1994 to 2009.

Married woman or women with children

Aside from domestic law, there are additional policy exemptions which cover married women and women with children.  Nevertheless, Eritreans refugees explain that according to recent announcements made by the government in some Eritreans cities in April, ‘women were expected to be called up to join military training in the coming weeks.’ Eritreans living in the city of Keren confirmed that people – including married women – were forced into conscription in early May 2015.

Reprisals by the government of Eritrea against ‘traitors’

Evaders and deserters of military service

The UN Commission of Enquiry indicates that individuals forcefully repatriated are regarded as ‘serious offenders, but also as traitors.’ Several hundred Eritrean refugees who managed to escape and were forcibly returned to the country are reported to face detention, torture and other forms of inhuman treatment:

I was deported from ‘Country-x’ when my student visa expired in 2013. I was sent back to Eritrea with many other Eritreans deported from ‘Country-y.  Officials were waiting for us at the airport, and immediately upon arrival they put us in detention. I was imprisoned for two months. Afterwards, I was forced into conscription. In detention, I was mistreated. But some others were really tortured…

The refugee giving this testimony could not continue due to the distress that remembering caused him. After the period of detention, ‘[he] was forced back into the military service.’ The extinguished European Commission of Human Rights held that the mental anguish generated by the anticipation of the idea of returning to a place where the individual had already suffered torture or ill-treatment amounts to inhuman treatment.

Relatives of evaders and deserts often face reprisals by the government. One of the evaders of military service said:

After fleeing Eritrea in late 2013, my mum was imprisoned until my family could pay £1,280 for me and my brother – both refugees in Europe.

They usually imprison your father or mother to put more pressure on you…

It has been also reported by the Commission of Enquiry that ‘parents may be asked to take the place of their children who deserted’ and failed to come back to Eritrea.’ Relatives of Eritreans who flee the country are allegedly deprived of access to medical care. One Eritrean who gave testimony told

my 8-year-old brother died in 2011 after being denied health care at the hospital in Asmara as a result of my father leaving the country illegally.

Political opponents

Approximately 800 houses of Eritrean citizens who were perceived as political opponents have been recently demolished by government authorities as a form or reprisal.  The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the body of 18 independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) by its party states – has interpreted that instances of forced eviction are incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant.  Moreover, this practice, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights in similar cases, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment (see, for example Bilgin v. Turkey, No. 23819/94, judgment of 16 November 2000, paragraph 100)

Eritreans in the Diaspora who do not express their political opinion also come to the attention of the Eritrean authorities as a perceived threat. They are seen as opposition and dismissed and persecuted on this ground (see my full legal report for details). Asylum seekers subject to discriminatory measures combined with other factors, such the government control, and the general situation of insecurity in Eritrea, if taken together, can legitimately claim fear of persecution, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).


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