Eritrean Information Minister says there were no plans to scrap or cut Eritrea’s notorious national service, seen by many as the root of the Eritrean migration crisis. This will come as a shock to EU officials, as the regime promised to reduce military service in order to secure a €200 million aid package just last month.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghevremeskel told Reuters News in Eritrea that there were no plans to scrap or cut national military service, despite promises as part of an EU-Eritrea aid deal amounting to €200 million. The EU-Eritrea National Indicative Programme was signed in January 2016 and will see €175 million earmarked for the Eritrean energy sector and €20 million to improve governance. The Eritrean side of the bargain was to cut national service, although this news sheds doubt on this. Many experts criticised the EU for signing a deal based on empty promises instead of tangible results. There were also concerns that Eritrea’s lack of financial transparency would strengthen a dictatorial regime instead of helping those in need.
“The government is doing the utmost that it can do, under the circumstances,” Ghebremeskel told Reuters, saying salaries would rise but there were no plans to scrap or cut national service.
The EU strategy of engaging with the Eritrean regime and resuming development assistance aimed to address the “root cause of irregular migration”. Experts are highly critical of the deal. The EU has opted for an economic measure to stem the flow of political refugees, which many see as an attempt to reframe the refugee crisis. In addition, political actors in European countries – including the UK, Denmark and now Switzerland – have sought to re-categorise Eritrean asylum seekers as “economic migrants”.
Although the Eritrean regime claimed it would limit national service to 18 months, this statement shows that it will continue to be indefinite. The UN reports that up to 5,000 young Eritreans flee the country each month in order to escape this policy and other human rights violations. Asylum seekers in Europe claim that national service can last decades and conscripts receive low pay or none at all. Human Rights Watch describe this policy as “indefinite conscription and forced labor”.
The Eritrean regime maintains that national service is necessary due to ongoing conflicts with its neighbours. The 1998 border dispute which grew into the Eritrean-Ethiopia war ended with a fragile peace deal in June 2000. Since then, there have been a number of border conflicts and skirmishes with both Djibouti to the south-east and Ethiopia to the south, especially for control of the border town of Badme. Although there has been relative peace with its neighbours over the past years, the Eritrean regime constantly fears an escalation of hostilities.
A secretive state, Eritrea is often described as the “North Korea of Africa”. It has turned down foreign aid in the past, claiming it would create dependence not development. The small African state received EU funds until 2011 when Asmara decided to stop the foreign aid programme.
International organisations like Human Rights Watch claim that Eritrea’s dismal human rights situation, which is exacerbated by indefinite military conscription, has led thousands of Eritreans to flee. Indeed, the Eritrean government is considered one of the most totalitarian in the world. Freedom House labels Eritrea as the ‘Worst of the Worst’, scoring the lowest scores in freedom rating, political rights and civil liberties – a repressive full house. But it is not just international think tanks and advocacy groups that voice these concerns.
A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea published in June 2015 outlines the “systematic, widespread and gross” human rights violations that have been and are being committed under authority of the Eritrean Government – some of which may constitute crimes against humanity. The Commission found that Eritrean citizens live under constant fear and are subject to abuse, exploitation and slavery. The UN report outlines a number of recommendations to the Eritrean government, including but not restricted to, halting gross human rights abuses, ending indefinite national service and forced labour, and promoting equality for women.
This article was originally written for and published on EEPA, see here