Eritrea’s forced conscription policies, which are a key driver for young people migrating from the Horn of Africa nation, are rooted in the country’s educational system – where students say they feel trapped rather than trained for the future, according to a report released Friday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
That report has drawn a quick response from Eritrea, which has found itself under increasing pressure to begin reforming its own government policies since making peace with neighboring Ethiopia and watching that nation’s progress, uneven and often uncritically celebrated though it may be, under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
“Eritrea’s rabid detractors seem to desperately latch on ‘indefinite’ National Service for a new smear campaign as their old tools of harassment have crumbled like a deck of cards on the rock of Eritrea’s resilience, and the prevailing climate of regional peace and cooperation,” said government spokesman Yemane Meskel.
The 84-page HRW report is based on dozens of interviews with Eritrean students and teachers living in exile in other African or European nations, as well as the assessments of 18 experts who looked at what they say is a “pipeline” situation in secondary schools that leads only to forced military or civilian service.
The HRW report also comes on the heels of a high-profile celebration of a system that sends all final year students to the Sawa military camp, which is operated by military officials who impose service-style discipline including forced labor as part of that training.
President Isaias Afwerki was on hand for a 25th anniversary celebration of the Sawa program, complete with military parades, that coincided with the graduation of the latest national-service class. Yet for many the system is so odious that students are known to intentionally fail or drop out in order to avoid the camp but more critically, to avoid the forced career and service options imposed on their futures.
“I just couldn’t see a future there,” said one Eritrean man interviewed for the report. “I lost all hope.”
Eritrea’s system of conscription fuels migration, with an estimated 507,300 Eritreans living in exile out of what HRW, citing United Nations numbers, says is a population of about five million. Many of those fleeing are aged 18 to 24, the report said, with thousands making the perilous journey toward Europe, often as unaccompanied children.
That escape commonly leads to the dangers of lawless Libya, where migrants encounter documented slave markets, extrajudicial killings and other horrific human rights violations. Given the security climate since April, when Khalifa Haftar and the Libya National Army abandoned a national unity process and launched an offensive against Tripoli, it also means the Eritrean migrants risk death in transit from military action. That was the case at Tajoura last month, where Eritreans were among those killed when an LNA air attack rained bombs on the migrant detention center.
The migration pattern also leads to dangers in Europe for those who successfully cross the Mediterranean, as is the case for Eritreans living in makeshift camps outside of Paris or attacked in Germany. If young Eritreans move in an opposite direction, avoiding Libya and the Mediterranean, it can mean being caught up in conflict in Yemen or Ethiopia.
The greatest consequence of migration linked to forced service may be to the future of repressive Eritrea itself, as it watches a generation desperate enough to seek these pathways while taking their talent and treasure with them.
“They serve in the army or in schools, hospitals and public offices, irrespective of their aspirations, with little remuneration,” said researcher Milena Belloni of the University of Trento, writing for Quartz last month. “Brought up in a context where migration represents the main route out of generational and socioeconomic immobility, most young Eritreans I met decided to leave.”
Opponents argue that the education system established under Afwerki during the years of border conflict with Ethiopia, ostensibly to ensure national defense, no longer serves those objectives – if it ever did, the report argues. Yet Eritrea has yet to move forward on meaningful educational reforms to keep up with the evolving era.
“Eritrea’s secondary schools are at the heart of its repressive system of control over its population,” said Laetitia Bader, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now that peace with Ethiopia is restored, reforms on human rights, starting with the rights and freedom of the country’s youth, need to follow.”
Eritrea, however, says it has no intentions of changing its policies on the basis of “seemingly sanctimonious and/or unsolicited advice,” according to Meskel.
“First off, National Service was never indefinite as it is limited to 18 months by law,” Meskel said in his response, adding that any departure that prolonged such service was never a preferred policy choice of the Eritrean government. Nor will national defense be “auctioned or outsourced” to international actors.
“Appropriate reconfiguration of National Service and Eritrea’s defense architecture thus fall within the sole purview and prerogative of the government and people of Eritrea,” he added.
The complete HRW report is available here.
Image: Eritrean government file