Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been examining events in Eritrea since the country first gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. After a bitter 30-year war, tensions between the two countries remain and border disputes are a regular threat to stability in the region.
For Eritrean citizens, though, border lines are unlikely to top the list of their concerns living in an independent Eritrea.
Human rights in Eritrea were under the spotlight from day one but it was ten years after gaining independence that the situation in the Horn of Africa nation really started to deteriorate. In 2001, the government closed all independent newspapers and arrested their journalists – along with anyone who publicly criticised President Isaias Afwerki.
Now, tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees arrive in Europe every year with horrific stories of human rights violations. meanwhile, Eritrea closes itself off from rights groups and the international community, making it impossible to conduct independent investigations into the reports coming out of Eritrea.
Religious and political persecution
Among the reports from Eritrean refugees, the topic of religious and political persecution keeps coming up. Eritrean Christians are among the most common targets under Afewerki’s regime. As Open Doors USA puts it: “The arrest, harassment and murder of Christians accused of being agents of the West is commonplace. At the same time, Muslims, who make up roughly half of the population, are becoming more radicalized, resulting in increased vulnerability for Christians living in their vicinity.”
Groups of Christians are routinely arrested, tortured and locked in shipping containers where temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the sweltering Eritrean heat. Detainees can spend years in these containers before being released although many don’t make it.
Christians aren’t the only individuals targeting by the regime either.
Family members of those who escape Eritrea are fined or imprisoned, including younger members of the family – some as young as 15-years-old. While the journalists, officials and other critics arrested in 2001 have never been given a hearing in front of an impartial tribunal.
According to Human Rights Watch, “citizens have been imprisoned without trial and abused for practicing religion not sanctioned by the government” while “no independent media or nongovernmental organizations have been allowed to exist.”
Another leading cause for fleeing Eritrea, according to refugees from the country, is the lifetime conscription that still exists there. Citizens are forced to join the army on an indefinite basis, including women, children and anyone able to work. Despite recent promises from the government that people will serve no more than 18 months in the army, Amnesty International found that refugees continue to speak of indefinite conscription – a life sentence spent serving the state for next to no wage at all.
Eritreans make up the third-largest number of migrants trying to reach Europe, after Syrians and Afghans – a large number of whom flee to escape forced conscription.
Human Rights Watch says the Eritrean government is failing to fulfil its promises of improving the lives of citizens and accuses it of trying to downplay the human rights violations taking place in the country.
“We remain very concerned that the government is failing to make critical progress and continues to misrepresent the human rights situation inside the country,” the organisation says. “For example, the recent 100-page “Initial National Report” submitted by Eritrea to the Commission distorted key issues.”