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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Eritrea: Land of exodus

Stefanie Duckstein/cm
April 21, 2015

Eritrea is the world's most censored country according to a new list released by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thousands of Eritreans flee to Europe to escape torture and arbitrary arrests.


Mohammed Idris speaks softly as he vividly recalls his journey a year ago. It took him from Eritrea to Europe. "In Libya, it was very hard. I even had to spend a month in prison," says the Eritrean. Then he ventured the crossing to Europe. "We boarded a boat and went across the Mediterranean to Italy."

Unlike many others, Mohammed Idris made it to Germany. Each year, thousands of Eritreans flee the Horn of Africa nation. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, over 300,000 Eritreans fled the nation of 6.5 million inhabitants last year.

It's not just the men, but also many women and their children who risk everything to take the perilous journey across the desert and into the Mediterranean. "The majority of them are very young," Mussie Zerai, a Catholic priest who fled to Italy from Eritrea more than 20 years ago, told DW in an interview.Nowadays, he is involved in helping refugees who are in distress. "Last week, I received distress calls from the Mediterranean sea. I collected the information and passed it on to the Italian and Maltese coast guard and asked them to help these people."

Eritrean Catholic priest Mussie Zerai founder of humanitarian organization Habeshia.
Eritrean born Catholic priest Mussie Zerai has dedicated his life to helping stranded refugeesImage: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Country without perspective

The human rights organization Amnesty International describes Eritrea as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. President Isaias Afewerki has been in power for 22 years. Afewerki is in effect the union head of state, head of government, commander in chief of the armed forces, parliament speaker and leader of the only authorized party, the PFDJ.

"Since 1993 when Eritrea gained independence, it has had only one president, only one party. And no opposition is allowed," says Clara Braungart, Eritrea researcher at Amnesty International. All forms of civil society are prohibited. Media is not independent as there is only one state-run TV and radio outlet. "Against this background, no freedom is possible," says Braungart.

African refugees protesting at a camp at Egypt's border with Israel.
Some of the Eritrean refugees end up in Israel after crossing EgyptImage: Reuters

Mekonnen Mesghena, an Eritrean and expert on migration at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, agrees. He says a climate of fear reigns and people lack any political or economic perspective. "Many people feel trapped in a permanent conflict situation."

In 1998, a simmering border dispute broke out with neighboring adversary Ethiopia. Since then, the government justifies any repression with the argument of a "threat to national security," Mesghena says. Each spark of protest is punished with arbitrary detention and torture.

Torture as a tool for oppression

"We have received many reports of people being tortured. For example, they are tied up, hung by their feet or are exposed to excessive heat," says Clara Braungart of Amnesty International. For these reasons, the people would not even dare to speak out against the government.

Issaias Afewerki, President of Eritrea.
President Issaias Afewerki has lead Eritrea with an iron fist since 1993Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There is only sporadic opposition to Eritrea's government policies. In 2012, the entire Eritrean national football team asked for asylum in Uganda after taking part in a regional tournament. In 2013, dissident military officers occupied the Ministry of Information demanding political reforms. 187 of them were immediately arrested. Last year, four Roman Catholic bishops criticized the political situation in the country in an open letter.

Another reason why many young Eritreans flee the country is military conscription, says Braungart. All men and women from the age of 18 must serve in the armed service for 16 months.

Even students are asked to complete their final year in a military camp. "People often have to serve the military for many years with very little pay," Braungart says. If they refuse, they face imprisonment and arbitrary military service could be extended indefinitely.

A pharmacist stands inside a chemist in Eritrea's capital Asmara.
Eritrea has a rich Italian colonial legacy such as this pharmacy in the capital AsmaraImage: AFP/Getty Images/J. Vaughan

Human rights violations have also been condemned by the international community. In 2012, the United Nations named Sheila Keetharuth as Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea. Since then she has sought to travel to Eritrea with no success.

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