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Gabriel Tzeggai, Francesca Locatelli, Raya Cohen

For the last decade, Eritrea has held the inglorious record of being consistently among the top 12 refugee-producing countries in the world. This is the second time in the last fifty years that the Eritrean people have experienced such an exceptional mass exodus, the fist one being during the war of liberation.

The country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991 marked the end of a migration process that had seen hundreds of thousand Eritreans fleeing during the thirty-year war. Unfortunately, in this new millennium we are yet again witnessing a mass migration of young Eritreans in search of international protection and asylum. Paradoxically, compared to the pre-independence period, post-independence Eritrean migration has intensified, acquiring quite distressing quantitative and qualitative characteristics.

In 2005,the UNHCR reported an increase of 12.000 new Eritrean refugees. A year later, new Eritrean asylum claims reached 19.400. Every year since then, UNHCR statistics have persistently reported on the exponential increase of Eritrean asylum seekers, with a total refugee population rising to 305.723 in 2012. By June 2013, Eritrea was ranked among the top 10 major source countries of refugees.

These are appalling figures, especially in relation to Eritrea’s population size, estimated to be about 5 million. The undeniable truth is that young Eritrean women and men are fleeing the country in a greater proportion than any other country. 

There are several factors that are causing such an exodus. Knowing them is important in order to understand both the reality in Eritrea and, most of all, the peculiarities of contemporary Eritrean migration.


When Eritrea became independent in May 24, 1991after a thirty-year struggle, it looked like the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity. Over twenty years have elapsed since then, and all the hopes of freedom heralded by that joyful day have long since vanished. Now, the dramatic socio-political situation in Eritrea, which is characterised by blatant oppression and violations of fundamental rights, has become apparent to the international community.

Today, Eritrea is widely recognized for its intolerable humanitarian situation and for being a highly militarized nation. Several individuals and international organizations have repeatedly denounced the widespread violations perpetuated by the Government of Eritrea on its people. Such violations consist of arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, disappearances of citizens, complete lack of freedom of expression, and extreme limitation of movement and faith.

Although a constitution was drafted and ratified in 1997, a real process that would lead to the rule of law and political plurality has never been undertaken On the contrary, during the last two decades the government has imposed several restrictions on human rights.

Except for the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice – PFDJ – no other political party is allowed in Eritrea and the government is known for its harsh treatment of any dissent. Those who have dared to oppose or criticise the president have been imprisoned and several have since disappeared. During the first decade of independence several people were arrested, either on suspicion of ideologically opposing the government’s policies or without any charge. Things degenerated after the border war with Ethiopia (1998–2000) as the already authoritarian regime strengthened its grip by arresting several prominent politicians for criticizing the president’s rule. All private newspapers were shut down and all journalists, except for the few who managed to escape, were imprisoned. Many others who voiced dissent or who were suspected of opposing the government were subsequently arrested. No one has so far been formally charged and all are being kept in secret prisons, with absolutely no external contact.

Contemporary Eritrea has often been described as an “open air prison” and there are several reasons for this.

Movement is severely restricted. No Eritrean citizen can leave the country without a passport and an exit visa. However, passports and exit visas are not granted to men under the age of 54 and to women under the age of 45.

In order to obtain a visa, younger people need to show a certificate of exemption or completion of the National Service. As no demobilization from the army has been undertaken so far, this is equivalent to absolute denial of the right to leave.

Even within their own country, all Eritrean citizens have to pass through several check points while moving from one town to another. In particular, young persons are required to have a permit indicating the dates one is allowed to be away from his/her military unit. Travelling without a permit or returning late to one’s unit entails harsh punishment, including imprisonment, beatings and other forms of corporal punishment.

Freedom of expression is nonexistent.  Eritreans know that speaking openly may be dangerous. They are aware of those private-sector journalists who have disappeared since 2001. They are also aware that any citizen may be imprisoned for months or even years without being formally charged. 
People are aware of what happened in 2001to the group of elders who, in accordance with Eritrean tradition, tried to reconcile the president and his ministers who were opposing him. They were imprisoned for years, without any charge and then released without any explanation and with the strict imposition not to talk about it.        

Except for four officially recognized religious organizations, other religious beliefs are forbidden. In several instances adherents to other religions have been arrested during group prayers and weddings. In addition, young recruits are not allowed to pray in military camps and there are several testimonies of youth who have been imprisoned and tortured due to their religious beliefs.

The military and other security forces enforce all these restrictions through arbitrary arrests and mass round ups, all with complete unaccountability. The excessive power of the state security apparatus results in widespread fear and a very oppressive environment.


All segments of the Eritrean society are suffering, but the youth are most affected by this repressive regime. Although young Eritreans flee their country due to the widespread abuse of human rights, they flee primarily because of the indefinite national service.

The National Service programme in Eritrea started in 1994 and it was formalised the following year through the Proclamation on National Service No. 82/1995.
This Proclamation states that all Eritreans, men and women, between the age of 18 and 40 years “have the compulsory duty of performing Active National Service”. According to the law, the National Service lasts 18 months. However, the law also states that citizens have the “ ...compulsory duty of serving according to their capacity until the expiry of 50 years of age under mobilization or emergency situations...”.

Until 1997 the four cohorts, namely from the 1st to the 4th round, that had participated in the National Service and completed their 18 months service, had been demobilised in compliance with the requirements of the law. However, when in 1998 a war broke out with Ethiopia, those who had been discharged were mobilised again, while those who at the moment were conscripted in the 5th round remained in service. The war lasted two years, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. During this period, regular mobilization of new recruits continued, while, in addition, people up to the age of 50 years were mobilised because of the emergency situation. 
Eventually, the war came to an end in 2000 with a cease fire agreement signed in Algiers.

However, the Eritrean society remains one of the most militarized in the world, as the government continues to keep the country under a state of emergency, thus  indefinitely extending  national service. While all the conscripts who participated in the 1998-2000 war are still in the army, each year all students in their last year of high school, irrespective of sex and age, are forced into military service that is indefinite. As  every year about 20,000 new conscripts join the army, the entire youth’s life in Eritrea  is governed by this open-ended conscription policy. Some of the conscripts have been in the army since 1996, meaning that they have spent half of their life in the army.
In addition to the large, already existing force, since 2012, all men up to the age of 70 have also been conscripted into a new militia. The government claims that such mobilization is necessary as long as Ethiopia does not agree to physically demarcate the border in accordance to the ruling of an international Boundary Commission. However, such a high degree of militarization inevitably entails suppression of social freedoms and paralyzes the economy.

Because  mass mobilization of the youth is very unpopular, the government resorts to a severely repressive system in order to keep an unwilling population under indefinite conscription.

A prevailing characteristics of the National Service is the power granted to military commanders to implement any kind of punishment against conscripts.  No codes or rules of procedure are applied and brutal methods of punishment are common in military camps and military prisons.
Punishment may range from severe beatings, to various types of torture, up to indefinite detention.  The type of punishment and even prison terms are decided entirely at the discretion of military officers. Severe beatings and incarceration, even for minor offences, are common. Many refugees who have escaped from Eritrea, describe punishment in military camps and prison conditions  as extremely harsh and cruel.
There are several accounts of conscripts suffering permanent injury because they have been beaten too severely or tied up in various pain inflicting positions for too long. 

All major sectors of the economy in Eritrea are controlled by the state and the ruling party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The private sector is extremely weak, as during the last decade most import and construction licenses have been revoked. Nowadays, except for minor works, all major construction projects are controlled by firms owned by the ruling party or the army.

Total control of the economy, coupled with the oppressive National Service system, enables the state to exact
unpaid labour from the conscripts, who are forced to work in construction companies owned by the PFDJ, in mining projects undertaken by international companies who connive with the government in the exploitation of conscripts’ work, or in agricultural farms controlled by top generals.
Conscripts are paid 500 Nakfa, less than the cost of 2 kilos of meat.

Women conscripts are the most vulnerable. There are many reports describing how women in the army have been abused by their commanders while in military camps.
Deprived of the right of movement and free choice of work, young Eritrean men and women are unable to form families in a normal way. The only choice for young women, demobilized because of pregnancy, is to live with their own parents or their in-laws, while the men remain in the army.
The detrimental effects of such a hopeless situation on the young and their parents, already deprived of their children support, are evident.

Such all-encompassing restrictions, the violations of fundamental rights and ensuing misery have inevitable repercussions. Disheartened by such a tyrannical system and unable to choose and lead a free life, hundreds of thousands of  Eritrean have left their country in the post-independence period.

Notwithstanding security controls, intensive border surveillance and the shoot-to-kill policy used against those who try to cross the border, the numbers of young Eritreans fleeing their country are really unprecedented. The numbers, in fact, tell it all.

In the year 2005, the UNHCR Global Trends reported an increase of  more than 12,000 of the Eritrean refugee population. The following years, UNHCR reports  depicted Eritrean migration as follows:

Asylum claims


Source: UNHCR – 2006 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p. 10


Source: UNHCR – 2007 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p. 15


Source: UNHCR – 2008 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p.15-16

Refugee population:

Subsequent UNHCR reports indicated that Eritrea continued to remain among the top 10 source countries of refugees.


Source: UNHCR – 2009 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p.8



Source: UNHCR – 2010 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p.15


Source: UNHCR – 2011 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p.14


Source: UNHCR – 2012 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers,, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, p.13



Source: UNHCR – Mid-Year Trends 2013, p.8


A compilation of country-specific indicators from UNHCR reports illustrates the trend of global Eritrean migration:

AMM compilation from: UNHCR Total Refugee population by country of asylum, 1960-2012  and Mid-Year trends 2013.

As no census has ever been undertaken in Eritrea, there are different population estimates, ranging from 3.5 to 6 million. Even in relation to the higher estimate, last decade’s statistics reveal the magnitude of Eritrean migration.

Losing about 5% of a country’s population implies social and cultural disruption, economic loss, and lost opportunities. While most of these losses are not quantifiable, the statistics, however, are clear indicators of incalculable human loss and, most of all, they explicitly tell about the failure of a political and economic system based on total control of the society and wilful and complete violation of human rights.

It is important to note that official statistics do not include all those who flee the country, many of whom are scattered in various countries and remain outside formal UNHCR control. Many others lose their lives while crossing the desert or are kidnapped by human traffickers for ransom.

Young Eritreans do know that fleeing their country is very dangerous, starting from crossing national borders, where shoot-to-kill orders are in force. They also know that, after border crossing, they risk death in the desert or being kidnapped for ransom by human traffickers and that they could be subjected to torture and rape. Nevertheless they keep on fleeing in great numbers. Because when the youth are denied a future, they do look for it, no matter what the cost.