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Explaining the Exodus From Eritrea- the "North Korea of Africa"

25/08/2015 10:08 BST | Updated 24/08/2016 10:59 BST

With the many bloody and brutal conflicts engulfing the modern world, it can be easy to forget about peaceful societies in which citizens nonetheless live in fear of terror at the hands of the state. The situation in Eritrea is illustrative of this phenomenon, as is the international community's response, or lack thereof.

It may come as a surprise to many readers that in 2014, more Eritreans claimed asylum in the UK than from any other country in the world. Moreover, a report from the UN Human Rights Council claims that up to 5,000 Eritreans flee the country every month, but other estimates put the figure as high as 7,000 per month. This would make Eritreans one of the world's largest groups of refugees, second only to Syria.

Perhaps unusually for a country situated in an area of high volatility, Eritrea is a relatively peaceful nation, making these figures seem misplaced. But the fact is that the Eritrean government is one of the mostly deeply repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world, a reality that has only recently begun to receive attention.

Following on from a brutal 30-year-long independence war with neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea has struggled with the transition into a stable democracy and with economic development. Shortly after a peace deal was brokered with Ethiopia in 2000, its National Assembly imposed a ban on the creation of political parties, a move designed to bolster the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)'s grip on power. Consolidating the regime is the fact that there are no privately-owned media outlets. Restrictive economic regulations have also hindered the country's development, making Eritrea one of the world's poorest nations. In 2009, UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea following accusations that the government trained and supported al-Shabaab insurgents, resulting in stunted economic growth. The government also refuses aid packages, insisting it will not be "spoon-fed" by Western nations.

But what specifically drives the scores of Eritreans to attempt the perilous journey over the Mediterranean every month seems, at first sight, to be fairly innocuous. According to the Constitution of Eritrea, every able-bodied woman and man must serve in the Eritrean Defence Forces for 18 months. The national service has been described by the government as "cultivat[ing] capable, hardworking, and alert individuals," but for the servicemen and women on the ground, the reality is quite different.

In practice, everyone is enlisted for an indefinite period. Regulations promulgated in 1998 permitted military commanders to keep conscription open-ended, and more often than not, it is a matter of the commander's discretion, without any checks and balances, or means to appeal. Those who are lucky will serve no more than a few years' extra on top of the constitutionally mandated period, and successful completion of the service will entitle them to pursue a university degree or formal employment. Those who are less lucky will spend several years essentially in forced labour. Research by Professor Gaim Kibreab of London South Bank University has shown that the average length of service is six and a half years. However, of the 215 former conscripts interviewed, many were made to serve for twice as long. Currently, around one in twenty Eritreans are undertaking military service, severely restricting the available workforce in an already floundering economy.

Work conditions have been described as appalling, prompting many to attempt to flee to neighbouring Sudan. Conscripts are subjected to severe violence and have no means of resisting or reporting their commanders, as no accountability mechanisms exist within the military structure. Food rations are reported to be poor, torture is commonplace and female conscripts have reported being subjected to sexual abuse, including rape. As for those who attempt to remain under the state's radar and avoid military service, they are effectively confined to their homes without the opportunity to enjoy formal employment. Police roam the street in civilian areas, searching for people who have dodged national service. Citizens routinely carry their identity cards and national service papers with them. In this context, it is unsurprising that thousands of individuals risk their lives to reach Europe's ports.

The Eritrean government has long been criticised by human rights organisations, who have described the military service program as "modern-day slavery". This is a charge that the government has quickly dismissed, citing national security concerns as a justification for conscription. As a small country in the Horn of Africa, surrounded by security threats and haunted by the fear of aggression from Ethiopia, having strong national defence is a necessity, it argues. Eritrea now has one of the largest armies in Africa, with defence spending making up approximately 20.9% of its GDP.

It is true that relations with Ethiopia continue to be hostile, seemingly justifying the existence of a strong military force. But that would not account for why the majority of conscripts are involved in largely civilian tasks. A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch revealed that conscripts have been made to work for Segen Construction Co., a state-owned construction company, building infrastructure at a gold mine from which the government would reap the profits. This example is far from anomalous: conscripts are routinely engaged in tasks such as construction, mining and even street-cleaning. How this strengthens Eritrea's security situation vis-à-vis a military adversary, as the government has long maintained, is unclear. It is this reality that has led commentators to christen the state as "the North Korea of Africa".

The choice faced by Eritreans is a grim one: either accept a life of slavery in a repressive and unprosperous regime, or attempt to survive a dangerous journey to a barely safer neighbouring country, or on a cramped boat over the Mediterranean. Yet with many European leaders remaining obstinate in their refusal to support asylum seekers, and absent any signs of liberalisation, there is next to no prospect of improvement in the near future.

If Europe is unwilling to accept more refugees or to treat them with the humanity they deserve, they must at least apply pressure on the Eritrean government to cease its abuse of conscripts and civilians. The international community owes a duty to its most vulnerable- it must not fail to protect them again.