Eritrean refugees fleeing military service should not be sent back, human rights organisations say

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) both released extensive reports on the human rights situation in Eritrea recently, requesting from other countries not to deport Eritrean asylum seekers fleeing military service. Human Rights Watch writes: "Enforced indefinite national service is an increasingly important element of Eritrea’s human rights crisis. Conscripts undergo military training, in itself not illegal. However, they are subjected to cruel military punishments and torture (...). Many may be deployed in what constitutes illegal forced labor. Those who try and evade national service are treated cruelly. Evaders are detained in terrible conditions, and heavy penalties are imposed on the families of those who evade service or flee the country."

"The law states that all Eritrean citizens, men and women between the ages of 18 and 50, have the obligation to perform national service. In normal circumstances, national service is supposed to last 18 months (article 8). This consists of six months military training and 12 months deployment either on military duties or some other national development project. However, article 13 (2) states that even after completing the compulsory 18 months, national service can be extended until 50 years of age 'under mobilization or emergency situation directives given by the government.'"

"Although the war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, in May 2002 the government introduced the Warsai Yekalo Development Campaign (WYDC), a proclamation that indefinitely extended national service. The government had promised to demobilize thousands of conscripts after the war, and did demobilize some, but by 2007 it reportedly suspended the demobilization program. The WYDC was a national effort in which the generation that had fought for independence would join with new recruits to build the nation. In effect, it meant the forced conscription of every adult male up to the age of 50, although some refugees claim 55 is now the upper limit, with other sources claiming up to 57 for men and 47 for women."

The UNHCR writes: "Since 2003, a mandatory final year (12th grade) has been added to the secondary school curriculum, which students must attend at Sawa military training centre under military authority and including military-type training. 65 Students approaching conscription age have reportedly fled the country in the thousands or have gone into hiding".

"Moreover, a pattern of sexual violence against female conscripts exists within the military. Some female conscripts are reportedly subjected to sexual harassment and violence, including rape. There have been reports of female conscripts coerced into having sex with commanders, including through threats of heavy military duties, harsh postings, and denial of home leave. Refusal to submit to sexual exploitation and abuse is allegedly punished by detention, torture and ill-treatment, including exposure to extreme heat and limitation of food rations. No effective mechanism for redress or protection exists within or outside the military, and perpetrators generally go unpunished. Women, who become pregnant as a result, are decommissioned and are likely to experience social ostracism from their families and communities as unmarried mothers, and may resort to committing suicide to escape the cycle of abuse. 95 In light of the pervasive gender-based violence within the military and its serious consequences, women draft evaders/deserters may be at risk of persecution as a particular social group.
Family members and relatives of draft evaders and deserters may also be at risk of persecution due to the practice of substitute service and/or punitive fines and imprisonment, and could be considered, in this respect, as a particular social group. Since 2005, the Government has instituted measures to address the widespread evasion of and desertion from military service, including: arrest of family members, mostly parents, of children who have not reported to the military training camp at Sawa for their final year of high school or have not reported for national service; imposition of fines on families of draft evaders; forced conscription of family members, particularly the father, of the draft evader; and withdrawal of trade licenses and closure of businesses held by members of the nuclear family of a deserter/draft evader.
Furthermore the authorities reportedly do not grant exit visas to those of military age. Among those routinely denied exit visas are men up to the age of 54, regardless of whether they have completed national service, and women under the age of 47, as well as students wanting to study abroad. 102 Individuals of, or approaching, draft age, who leave Eritrea illegally, will be at risk of persecution as a (perceived) deserter or draft evader upon return to Eritrea. This is equally true for those who have completed active national service or have been demobilized, given that all persons of draft age are subject to national service and, as such, are liable to be recalled."

It goes without saying that Eritrea does not recognise the right to conscientious objection. Some Eritrean Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned since 1994 for their refusal to perform military service, and more arrests took place in recent years.

In the light of all the evidence, UNHCR concludes that “most Eritreans fleeing their country should be considered as refugees (...) particularly on the grounds of “political opinion” (both real and imputed) and “religion”.” The primary category which it considers to be “particularly at risk in view of the military, political and human rights situation in the country” is that of “draft evaders/deserters”, and, specifically, within this category, “(c)onscientious objectors, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, may (...) be at risk of persecution, on the ground of their religion, imputed political opinion or membership of a particular social group.”

Sources: Human Rights Watch: Service for Life, 16 April 2009; UNHCR: UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea, April 2009; Conscience and Peace Tax International: Universal Periodic Review, December 2009: Submission Eritrea, 14 April 2009