Visit the new AsenaTv Website

Human Rights Abuses of Eritreans, At Home and Abroad

Testimony of Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa Director, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Co-Chairman Hultgren and members of the Commission, thank you for the invitation to testify today. Thousands of Eritreans, many of them

Testimony of Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa Director, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Co-Chairman Hultgren and members of the Commission, thank you for the invitation to testify today.

Thousands of Eritreans, many of them young, flee Eritrea every month. This means Eritrea is losing a significant percentage of its population – by far the largest of any country not wracked by active conflict. UNHCR reported that at the end of 2016 there were 459,000 Eritreans who had claimed asylum worldwide in African states, in the Middle East, in Europe and here in the United States. Eritrea does not release population statistics, but estimations put that at more than 10% of Eritrea’s current population.

Based on Human Rights Watch research, Eritreans’ most predominant impetus for flight is to escape what is known as “national service.” By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. Eritrean law requires Eritreans leaving the country to hold an exit permit which the authorities only issue selectively, severely punishing those caught trying to leave without one, including with jail time.

To be clear, limited terms of national conscription do not, in themselves, constitute human rights violations. But it is not limited in Eritrea. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits. Many conscripts are forced to serve indefinitely. Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of Eritreans who were forced to serve a decade or more before they decided to flee — in one recent case, a man had been in forced national service for over 17 years.

While some fortunate conscripts are assigned to civil service jobs or as teachers, many are placed in military units assigned to work on “development” projects in agriculture and infrastructure. None have a choice about their assignments, the locations or length of their service.

In the past few years, more and more unaccompanied children have fled Eritrea. When interviewed in Europe, they’ve explained they feared being forced into possibly indefinite military service. Many children told us they had observed what had happened to their fathers, older siblings, or other close relatives who had been conscripted and didn’t want to suffer the same fate.

It’s not just the length of time that causes so many conscripts to flee. What happens to them during their years of service is also devastating.

Pay during national service is below subsistence, although the Eritrean government has recently announced increases for some conscripts. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2015 correctly called Eritrea’s national service a form of “enslavement.” During service, commanders subject conscripts to physical abuse, including torture.

An 18-year-old boy, interviewed by Human Rights Watch summed up what many have told us: “We love our country, but when you finish Grade 12, you become a soldier for life. You cannot feed your family and you’re the property of the army. And I did not want that, so I was forced to flee.”

The abuses in national service are long standing and well-documented, and recent interviews reveal that, sadly, nothing has changed in recent years.

National service may be the leading cause of the Eritrean exodus but there are others of significance.

Citizens cannot express their views or question government policies affecting them. There is no legislative representation, no independent press, no independent non-governmental organizations to which citizens can turn. The judiciary is tightly controlled by the government. President Isaias has refused to implement a constitution approved by referendum in 1997 that confers some citizens’ basic rights.

Eritreans who criticize or question government policies during government-called community assemblies, or in more limited fora, have been punished without trial or means of appeal. Suspicion alone may be enough to lead to arrest; often a prisoner is not told what “crime” he or she has committed. Indefinite imprisonment is a usual punishment, sometimes accompanied by physical abuse. Imprisonment can be incommunicado; relatives are not told of the whereabouts of a prisoner, much less allowed to visit.

Relatives of those that speak out are also punished. They are denied government ration cards to buy scarce but essential provisions.

Eritreans are punished for having the “wrong” religious beliefs. Since 2002, the government has “recognized” only four religious groups: Sunni Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical (Lutheran) churches.

At times, security personnel raid private homes where devotees of unrecognized religions meet for communal prayer. Arrests and imprisonment of attendees usually follow; so, sometimes, does physical abuse. Repudiation of his or her religion is typically the price of a prisoner’s release.

Even adherents and leaders of the “recognized” religions are not necessarily immune from punishment. [as Father Thomas will already have explained to the Commission in detail.]

But unfortunately, abuses do not stop when people leave Eritrea. Fleeing Eritreans are often victimized by their smugglers especially those trying to reach the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. Abuses are rampant in Sudan, Egypt and Libya en route and hundreds have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who survived have told Human Rights Watch interviewers of horrific stories about the dangers they encountered during their journey but insisted it was worth their escape from oppression. One boy, interviewed in Italy after his three-month journey from Eritrea, told Human Rights Watch: “I fled my country [Eritrea] because of all the problems I had while I was in the army. I don’t want to be a soldier but they beat me and tortured me when I was caught trying to escape. When I finally got out I thought I would be free, but I was beaten and tortured even worse in Sudan and Libya by smugglers. Crossing the sea was terrifying, but I am so relieved to finally be here.”

There are steps that the Eritrean government could take to stem migration, and importantly address the human rights crisis that has wracked the country. Eritrea could end indefinite national service and begin the process of demobilizing conscripts. It could penalize military commanders and security officers who authorize torture and other forms of severe physical punishment. It could unconditionally release political prisoners or bring anyone it considers an offender before a truly independent court of law. It could stop interference with all forms of peaceful religious expression. It could allow establishment of an independent press and non-governmental organizations. It could publicly affirm – and enforce – rights to freedom of expression, opinion, religion, association, and movement.

Unfortunately, the Eritrean government has steadfastly refused to change. In the absence of willingness by the Eritrean government to end its abuses and bring abusers to justice, other countries should investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with their national laws.

Countries concerned by human rights abuses of Eritreans, and their efforts at migrating should work to undercut the Eritrean government’s public excuses for repression and protect the Eritreans who have fled from being repatriated to suffer further abuse.

With a new Secretary of State confirmation underway we expect to see some change at senior State Department levels [and this could mark the beginning of a new approach on Eritrea.] During Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing he said he was a “talent hawk.” If that is the case, we hope he will fill the position for Africa Assistant Secretary quickly and nominate someone who is well versed in issues and challenges related to the Horn of Africa – and not just counterterrorism or security related ones.

In 2002 an international boundary commission was established to demarcate the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The United States was a guarantor of an armistice agreement ending a 1998-2000 border war that established the international commission. While both sides agreed to accept the findings of the international commission as binding, Ethiopia refused to accept the findings when the final decision was to award a key piece of territory to Eritrea. President Isaias uses the border issue – of “no peace, no war” – as the principal excuse for his repressive policies. While both sides have been firmly entrenched in their positions, there may be an opening for reconsideration as Ethiopia’s new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed recently expressed his desire to resolve disputes with Eritrea after, in his own words “years of misunderstandings.”

The United States and other countries should urgently take steps to protect the Eritreans who have managed to flee the government’s oppression, should take into consideration the pattern of serious human rights abuses in Eritrea in examining asylum claims, and ensure that no one is returned to a threat of persecution or torture.

Last September, the U.S Departments of Homeland Security and State announced an intent to repatriate about 700 Eritrean individuals. The government should take care to ensure that all of those individuals have a genuine opportunity to advance any claims for protection in light of human rights conditions in Eritrea, if they have not done so already.

By shedding light on what’s happening to Eritreans in Eritrea and in countries of potential asylum, this Commission is performing a welcome and important public service.

Thank you.


Review overview
  • Degoli April 19, 2018

    Eritreans had seen abuses for decades in the hands of Ghedli and now in the hand of the evil Higdef regime and the Arab human traffickers in the savage Arab world. Here is a sample some Eritrean would be websites would not report. Truth is very painful:
    A Witness’s Story

    When I see the detainees [former trafficking victims detained in Sinai police stations], I see burn marks on hands and arms, I see cigarette burn marks on their cheeks. Some have dislocated wrists and broken fingers. They tell me it is because the traffickers bend the wrists and fingers backwards and into other bad positions. In some cases I saw amputated fingers, usually the middle finger. Some have head injuries. Some can’t walk because the kidnappers tied them up for so long or beat them on the soles of their feet or legs and they need someone else’s help to stand.

    When I ask about the injuries, Eritreans always tell me what happened to them. Most women say the kidnappers raped them and they are ashamed. Some of them tell me only indirectly, for example by saying they missed their period. They tell me the traffickers gave them electric shocks, hung them from the ceiling by the hands, sometimes with their hands tied behind their backs, beat them all over their body, including their head.

    Many are obviously traumatized because of the torture. Many are dehydrated and have lost a lot of blood.

    The police don’t take people to hospital. Some detainees tell me the police refuse to take them and some say they saw other detainees die in the police station of their injuries. When I identify someone who is particularly badly injured I ask the police to take them to hospital. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they say no. And when I speak to doctors in the Arish hospital, some of them ask me why they should treat migrants who are trying to get to Israel where they will be turned into fighters and then attack Egypt.

  • Degoli April 19, 2018

    A Trafficker’s Story

    I buy Eritreans from other Bedouin near my village for about $10,000 each. So far I have bought about 100. I keep them in a small hut about 20 kilometers from where I live and I pay two men to stand guard. I torture them so their relatives pay me to let them go. When I started a year ago, I asked for $ 20,000 per person. Like everyone else I have increased the price. I know this money is haram [shameful], but I do it anyway. This year I made about $200,000 profit.

    The longest I held someone was seven months and the shortest was one month. The last group was four Eritreans and I tortured all of them. I got them to call their relatives and to ask them to pay $33,000 each. Sometimes I tortured them while they were on the phone so the relatives could hear them scream. I did to them what I do to everyone. I beat their legs and feet, and sometimes their stomachs and chest, with a wooden stick. I hang them upside down, sometimes for an hour.

    Three of them died because I beat them too hard. I released the one that paid. About two out of every 10 people I torture pay what I ask. Some pay less and I release them. Others die of the torture. Sometimes when the wounds get bad and I want them to torture them more, I treat their wounds with bandages and alcohol. ….

    • k.tewolde April 19, 2018

      Degoli, you keep harping on this sad story over and over again which everybody is aware and is happening right now as we tap on the keyboard,are you a masochist who gets high on this gruesome human misery or have underlying message to covey.It is as clear as day light who the victims are,how they got into the opportune hands of their captors and why, and for Gods sake what it takes to put a stop and give a final and decisive blow to the human calamity of this tiny nation.If you have a contribution to make towards this humanitarian cause you are welcome otherwise you sound like a broken record. Please spare us time to grieve.

      • rezen April 20, 2018

        Quote “Please spare us time to grieve.” Unquote

        Greetings, k,tewolde,
        With sadness, I say >>>you said it ALL in six words, equivalent to thousand words. Wow!
        rezen, as always

        • k.tewolde April 20, 2018

          Hi rezen,they are his brothers and sisters by extension too,no need to rub this human catastrophe in our nose day in and day out.

      • AHMED SALEH !!! April 21, 2018

        I used to call him PAPAGALO for repeating the same comments and
        ASSENNA NEFAHITO for changing his skin color to conceal his identity .
        We observed weak people to entertain their political beliefs at the expense
        of their young brothers/sisters unfortunate fate .
        XEGIBOB , KEDEAT …… blabla , baelu mihret yewrdelna mbal yihayish . .

  • amanuel April 19, 2018

    The usa and europe should allow immediate families and loved ones to sue government officials like yemane monkey who are linked directly to the open day light crimes committed to their loved ones like incomunicado inprisonments that many are serving with out due process. Protecting them to roam usa and europe freely amounts to encouraging and helping them commite more crimes.

  • Nahon April 19, 2018

    A manuel

    You came up with a really good idea.
    After identifying who is a USA citizen, people like Yemanes/Kisha should be sued in US courts for committing crimes in Eritrea.

    • amanuel April 19, 2018

      I do not practice law but strongly believe there should be a way a case can be opened by usa citizens like durue’s son, ali abdu, petros solomuns daughter against yemane and likes who are directly involved in such barbaric and grusome crimes. Every eritrean concerned about such crimes can contribute to cover legal expenses. Other alternative is to take the law in to our hand and kill them instead of stabbing to death innocent girlfriends, friends or wives. That would replace the bad history with a good eternal history that the future generation and the country can remember.

      • Nahon April 19, 2018

        “Other alternative is to take the law in to our hand and kill them instead of stabbing to death innocent girlfriends, friends or wives. That would replace the bad history with a good eternal history that the future generation and the country can remember.”


        Although these criminals deserve punishment, I totally disagree with the one you are suggesting. Extra judicial killing is the worst form of justice.
        It breeds violence and revenge. We want justice, not revenge. It’s in the interest of Eritrea.

        • amanuel April 20, 2018

          “Kab himak zigebruka himak zimuhruka” zibehal alo nahon. Silezi niska lbi aebika selamawi megedi temerexka kalie seb mirchau kemtinatom violence kikewin yikiel eyu. Dahray dima braedi nizimexeka amaraxiwin yeblkan abmewedaeta.

  • በረከት April 20, 2018

    መንነት ኣያታትካ ምድርባይኮ ክዳንካ ደርቢካ ዕርቃንካ ካብ ምውፃእ ዝከፍኣ ዕብዳንዩ! እዞም ናይ ሎሚ ተቃወምቲ ናይ ትማሊ ጀብሃ ይኩኑ መሪሂነት ሻዕብያ መንነት ኣያታቶም መሊዖም ዝደርበዩ ኣብዚ ዓለምና ተራእዮም ዘይፈልጡ ነውራማት’ዮም። እዚ ተርእዮ’ዚ ንሂደት መሪሂነት ህግደፍ ዝምልከት ጥራህ ከይኮነስ ንኩሎም ወለዶ ኢሳያስ ዛጣቃልል ብምኳኑ እቲ ምህረት ዝወርድ ማእጂጆም አሪጎም ካብዛ ዓለምና ምስ ዝእለዩ ጥራህዩ።እዞም ሃሱሳት እባያት አስመራ መንነቶም ደርብዮም ዘይንሶም ክመስሉ ሃለውኳ እንተበሉ እቲ ጀግና ሀዱሽ ወለዶ ግና ነዞም ጥፉኣት ሃንጀል መንጀል ገሊፉ መንነት ኣያታቱ አላልዩ ክብርታት ወለዱን ባህሊ ወለዱን ካህድስ ኪነጥፍ ምርአዩ አዝዮ ዛህብን ተግባር ብምኳኑ ኩላትና ክንዋሳእ እላቦ!

    • AHMED SALEH !!! April 21, 2018

      Bereket ,
      Never mind . enjoy the free speech . But the hallow dream of TIGRAI-TIGRIGNI will spin your
      head unless you accept reality .