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Each year, thousands of Eritreans flee to refugee camps in northern Ethiopia to escape forced military inscription, persecution, and torture. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently announced that Ethiopia is now the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa. According to UNHCR, Ethiopia is host to 629,718 refugees. The largest refugee population is South Sudanese (247,000), followed by Somalis (245,000), and Eritreans (99,000). UNHCR says that, over the past seven months, almost 15,000 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia.

As the Eritrean government targets the families of young men who flee the country to avoid forced conscription, more women and children have also fled Eritrea seeking refuge in Ethiopia.

Upon reaching safety, however, many continue to experience the severe physical and psychological effects of their traumatic experiences. Our healing project in Ethiopia was started in 2013 to address their complex needs.

June 26 - International Day in Support of Victims of Torture - banner in the Adi Harush refugee camp in Ethiopia

June 26 – International Day in Support of Victims of Torture – banner in the Adi Harush refugee camp in Ethiopia

Once Eritrean refugees arrive at the camps, many hope for resettlement to third countries—a prospect that is difficult for most. Given that those refugees who cannot be resettled are also unable to return to their homes in Eritrea, some choose to make the dangerous and illegal journey through Sudan and Egypt in hope of reaching Israel or elsewhere to find work. Along the way, they face the risk of torture, detention and imprisonment at the hands of security forces and human traffickers.

Last November in The Huffington Post, CVT Executive Director Curt Goering called upon the international community to do more to provide for the basic human needs of Eritrean refugees.

During the recent 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Sheila B. Keetharuth, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, issued her second report on human rights violations in that country with a particular focus on indefinite national service (conscription) and arbitrary arrest and detention. Her first report, released in 2013, listed several widespread and systemic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, inhumane prison conditions, and sexual and gender-based violence.

Much of the information Ms. Keetharuth has collected for her reporting is based on first-hand accounts of Eritrean refugees living in other countries.

Second report findings on indefinite national service:

  • “… [Eritrean] Government has transformed the national service into an indefinite conscription, through which conscripts spend most of their working lives in the service of the State.”
  • “The military police carries out routine conscription round-ups, known as ‘giffas,’ in homes, workplaces, the street or other public places, with the aim of rounding up persons considered fit to serve, draft evaders and those who escaped from national service; including minors. Opposing such a round-up can lead to on-the-spot execution…”
  • “… Children below the age of 18 are forced into conscription in Eritrea.”

    “In cases where draft evaders and deserters remain untraceable, members of their families are often punished instead, in line with the ‘guilt by association’ policy.”

Second report findings on arbitrary arrest and detention:

  • “In Eritrea, the police, the military police and internal security regularly arrest and detain citizens without due process and often use force while doing so.”
  • “Torture and ill-treatment are prevalent, with prisoners being more vulnerable during the early days in custody, for example during interrogation and investigation, if any.”
  • “Incommunicado detention and solitary confinement are also prevalent, their nontransparent nature raising many questions, especially with regard to aspects of solitary confinement that are not regulated by law.”
  • “Women detainees are reportedly under the responsibility of male staff mainly, as the majority of the guards at detention centres are men, which exposes them to multiple forms of abuse, including sexual violence, rape or threats of rape and sexual harassment.”

On June 27, 2014, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry, to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea. Additionally, the Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea for one year. In a resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, “… the Council strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms committed by the Eritrean authorities, including arbitrary and extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, and the widespread use of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment…”

On July 24, UNHCR called on European governments to do more to prevent increasing refugee and migrant deaths at sea. Many people from Eritrea, Syria, and elsewhere fleeing violence in their countries and seeking refuge attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe. Tragically, many die or are reported missing. According to UNHCR, more than 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain, and Malta by sea in first half of 2014. Most come from Eritrea, Syria, and Mali. Among the thousands of children, a large number, mostly Eritreans, were unaccompanied or separated from their families.

For more information on the human rights situation in Eritrea, the U.S. State Department’s Eritrea 2013 Human Rights Report is a good resource. It is part of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.