By Felix Horne
Apr 08, 2019
Ethiopia’s transition to democracy has hit a rough patch. It needs support from abroad
Ethiopians rally in 2018 in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa. (Yonas Tadese / AFP / Getty Images)

The ascent of Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the post of prime minster in Ethiopia a year ago was a rare positive story in a year filled with grim news globally. Within months of taking office, his administration released tens of thousands of political prisoners, made peace with neighboring Eritrea, took positive first steps to ensure free and independent elections, and welcomed previously banned groups back into Ethiopia. It was an astonishing turnaround in a short period.

But the progress has created new challenges. Ethiopia’s rapid transition away from authoritarianism unleashed waves of dissatisfaction and frustration that had been crushed by the ruling party for decades. If Abiy (Ethiopians are generally referred to by their first names) can’t maintain law and order and come up with a plan to address the causes of that anger without repressive measures, his country’s considerable gains will be threatened.

There aren’t many success stories around the world as nations transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Ethiopia has a chance to become a model, but it will need significant help confronting its challenges.

There’s no evidence that Abiy’s administration has a clear strategy for addressing these growing tensions.

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As Ethiopians have become less afraid of voicing opinions, long-standing grievances have taken on new intensity. Disputes over access to land and complex questions of identity and administrative boundaries have led to open conflicts and score-settling, often along ethnic lines. Dissatisfaction has also been growing over long-standing questions about who gets to govern and manage the rapid growth of the capital, Addis Ababa. The rising tensions across Ethiopia have led to the displacement of more than2 million people since Abiy took office. And as tensions increase, this number is likely to rise.

Social media, meanwhile, has grown in popularity, and it is awash with hate speech. Firearms are flooding into many parts of the country. And local and federal authorities are losing control over security in many parts of the country. It’s a toxic mix with critical nationwide elections coming up in just over a year.

Progress is hampered by the lack of action from Abiy’s government, which has done little to calm inter-ethnic tensions and remedy the underlying issues. And institutions that could resolve such complex grievances are not yet seen as independent enough to address them in a nonpartisan way, following years of ruling party control. And perhaps most worryingly, there’s no evidence that Abiy’s administration has a clear strategy for addressing these growing tensions.

As Abiy’s popularity has waned, so has support for his reform agenda. There is mounting concern that Ethiopia risks becoming ungovernable if conflict and insecurity continue to rise. Some insist that if that happens a return to authoritarianism is the only way to keep the country together. It is not too late for Abiy to turn this situation around and build on the seeds of democracy he nurtured in his first few months in office. But a plan of corrective action, restoration of law and order, and some confidence-building measures are urgently needed from Abiy’s government.

Many Ethiopians living in the diaspora, including in the Los Angeles area, have backed Abiy’s effort at bringing democracy to Ethiopia. Ethiopians living abroad have raised more than $1 million to help some of those displaced by conflict.

Their efforts should be backed by the U.S. and other Western nations who have key long-standing partnerships with Ethiopia, including in the areas of migration, counter-terrorism and economic growth. They need to ensure that Abiy’s experiment with democracy succeeds. Should it fail, there would be dire humanitarian consequences for this country of over 100 million, many of whom protested against bullets and arrests from security forces for years in the hopes of a transition to a more rights-respecting government.

The United States and its allies can best support Ethiopians by continuing to offer praise for the reforms while also asking sometimes difficult questions about how Abiy’s government plans to restore law and order and address underlying grievances, and by determining what role the United States and other allies can play in making this happen. In Abiy, Ethiopia has a leader who, based on available evidence, genuinely wants that transition but may need a helping hand.

The next year is likely to determine how history remembers Abiy — and how democratic principles fare in Ethiopia.

Felix Horne is the senior Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch.


The growing popular call of ‘’ ይኣክል! كفى! -- Enough is Enough ‘’ to the cruelties of the Asmara regime by waves of Eritreans at home and abroad is a real threat – probably the final blow – to  Isaias Afeworki’s several decades old dictatorship. And when the threat is real, Isaias Afeworki always uses religion and external enemies as his most trusted and so far effective weapons to fight back.

Dictator Isaias did this in a subtle manner throughout his political life extending to a half century. Recent examples are how he and his clique distorted and manipulated the 2013 incident of an Eritrean army unit led by Wedi Ali and that of a private Islamic school of the great patriot, nonagenarian Haji Mussa, in 2017. May their souls rest in peace.

To again try to use that weapon, the one-man dictatorship’s Ministry of misinformation released on 3 April 2019 yet another official lie. The released statement aimed to win back regime’s former gullible listeners by trying to tell them that Eritrean Muslims and their co-religionists in the region are their enemies. What a shame, and what a shameless regime!!

The Eritrean dictator is not a religious person. He has no religion. Yet, he until this year  knew how to play around religions in order to survive and stay in power.  

The 3 April statement by the Eritrean authorities said that enemies of Eritrea are re-organizing ‘’the obscure ‘Eritrean Muslim League’ under the mantle of ‘Eritrean Ulama’s League/Eritrean Rabita-i-Ulama.’’

But why now mention a non-existing Eritrean Muslim League in connection with the formation of a civic organization of Arabic speaking Eritrean intellectuals who have all the right to form such an association?

In simpler terms, the evil regime in Asmara wanted to invoke the word ‘’Rabita’’ – an innocent Arabic word that means ‘league’ or association – in a desperate attempt  to create new a bogyman, a new  enemy at a time when Ethiopia and its ‘Woyane’’ are no more enemies.

Only to stress, it is quite clear to the majority of Eritreans today that the PFDJ statement wanted to appeal to the erroneous and distorted perception built long ago around the Arabic phrase ‘Rabita Islamia’  for the Eritrean Muslim League of the 1940s which, to many elements opposed to Eritrean nationhood at that time, was an organization of ‘traitors’ allied with enemies of ‘‘Christian Eritrea and Ethiopia.’’ But will that Isaias -- that old master of deception -- succeed to use religion also this time round? Measuring by the political climate building around the call for ‘’Enough is Enough’’, one can assume that the vast majority of Eritreans today are of the belief that he will not succeed.

For the sake of the new Eritrean generation, one should repeat affirming the truth that ‘Rabita Islamia’ or the Eritrean Muslim League of the 1940s was not a negative force, as the dictator in Asmara and his fast dwindling clique repeated and in different forms wanted to mislead people. The Eritrean Muslim League was a great patriotic organization that can claim a lion’s share in the history of the slow and costly growth of Eritrean national awareness. It was around the love for a national Eritrean flag, a National Assembly, an Eritrean constitution with democratic rights, among others,  that Eritrean nationhood was built. The great patriots of the day, on top of them Woldeab Woldemariam and Ras Tessema Asberom, were the closest friends of the Eritrean Muslim League and its energetic nationalist leader, Ibrahim Sultan Ali.

Only to cut a long story short, I will quote below excerpts from my own article posted in Eritrean websites on 19 November 2000, sub-titled: From the Satanic Utterances of Isayas:

‘’… by his own admission, Ibrahim Sultan had to name his party after Islam ("al RabiTa al Islamia"), not because of his religious belief but because he and his group of militants found it the only easy and feasible way of rallying the majority of the Eritrean Moslems for independence [at a time when Ethiopia was winning their compatriots through religious appeal]. Al RabiTa al Islamia was not a party of religious fanatics as detractors insinuated. To my knowledge, Eritrean Moslems have never been fanatics, and in general, never deserved that epithet [to be called fanatics]…… In recent years, when political Islam mobilized masses for fundamentalist wars elsewhere, Eritrean Moslems continued to give deaf ears to any call for Jihad, a stillborn movement in our country, whose nominal existence was aided and abetted by the actions and omissions of the regime in Asmara.

‘’To stress, we never came near to religious strife save the infinitesimal incidents of 1949-50, which were the making of foreign powers, Ethiopia included.  Yet, there have been satanic writings and teachings by Eritreans repeatedly used to make believe that we had ugly mass murders, genocides and ethnic cleansing of worst degrees in contemporary history. [Read this shocking quotation by you-know-who]:

’If I were not aware of our own situation, I would have described the grisly mass murders in Somalia, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Liberia as barbaric crimes perpetrated by backward peoples. I would have said 'we are different, we are not like them'. But what we had gone through in Eritrea was not different from what is going on in other countries. We in Eritrea suffered mass murders, one ethnic and geographic group cleansing the other in a cowardly and inordinate manner. We have now come a long way from that past, and the present and future generations [in Eritrea] who had not seen what we did would be surprised of what is going on in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Liberia. The surprise comes because they did not know what had happened in our country. Seen from this angle, it would appear that the present and future generations would benefit from knowing about it. But unless done in a constructive way, making the new generation aware of a black spot in its history is a bit difficult’.

‘’If you [reader] had forgotten or if you are not aware of who said this and when, you better be reminded. The words were uttered by the Eritrean president, Isayas Afeworki, 'proudly' speaking to issue volume 1, number 1 of Reporter, an Amharic language magazine of Addis Ababa published in September 1997. The message was very clear - as clear as a similar poisonous messages he conveyed [in the long past]. …’’

To conclude, this quick writing and the excerpts from a lengthy old article cannot fully depict how much the current dictator in Eritrea has been working hard to divide Eritreans on religious and other bases. However, the time has come that he will not make it. At least I believe so.

April 06, 2019 8:17 PM
Chief of Mission Natalie E. Brown, far left, and Deputy Chief of Mission Stephen Bank, far right, pose with Rep. Joe Neguse, Rep. Karen Bass, Eritrean Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh and Rep. Ilhan Omar. The members of Congress were on an official visit to Eritrea.

Ciham Ali Abdu was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Eritrea. In December 2012, Eritrean officials apprehended Ciham when she attempted to leave the country without a mandatory exit visa. Her family hasn’t seen or heard from her since, despite attempts to learn about her whereabouts and well-being.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, called for Ciham’s release in social media posts Friday.

“I was in Eritrea just last month,” Bass wrote on Twitter and Facebook. “The country’s leaders should release Ciham, who had a birthday this past week, and all of Eritrea’s political prisoners to send a message that the country is embarking on a new path that includes respect for human rights.”

Bass visited Eritrea and Ethiopia with Reps. Joe Neguse and Ilhan Omar, both of whom joined Congress in January. Neguse represents Colorado’s second district. His parents emigrated from Eritrea to the U.S. in 1980. Omar, a Somali-American, came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1992 and represents Minnesota’s fifth district.

It was the first congressional delegation to visit Eritrea in 14 years, according to the U.S. Embassy in Asmara.

Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before her arrest on December 8, 2012, when she was 15. (Photo courtesy of the family.)
Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before her arrest on December 8, 2012, when she was 15. (Photo courtesy of the family.)

Official denials

The Eritrean government refuses to acknowledge Ciham’s citizenship, or even her existence.

Bass, who represents California’s 37th District, near where Ciham was born, is the highest-ranking U.S. official to put a spotlight on her case. The U.S. State Department hasn’t officially confirmed Ciham’s imprisonment, saying only that the U.S. government is aware of reports about Ciham’s detainment.

Bass told reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month that she had just recently learned about Ciham’s case, according to the Associated Press. Human rights groups have for years called for the 22-year-old’s release.

At a town hall meeting Saturday in Los Angeles, Bass said she was committed to working with both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, along with the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, to secure Ciham’s freedom.

Seyoum Tsehaye, 66, was a war photographer during Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence. He later held various positions, including head of the state-run television station Eri-TV.
Seyoum Tsehaye, 66, was a war photographer during Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence. He later held various positions, including head of the state-run television station Eri-TV.

Vanessa Tsehaye founded One Day Seyoum, an organization focused on securing the release of her uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye, an Eritrean journalist who has been imprisoned since 2001. Tsehaye spoke to VOA Wednesday, on Ciham’s birthday.

“She has been in prison without a trial, and it can’t, it simply cannot stand,” Tsehaye said. “Even the excuses they try to use for people, like journalists or politicians, or [raising] issues about national security. And those kinds of excuses don’t stand when you are talking about a girl who was 15 when she was imprisoned for simply attempting to leave the country.”

The United Nations, Amnesty International and other rights groups have accused the Eritrean government of human rights violations designed to suppress dissent, including arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture.

The government has denied those claims and criticized the U.S. and U.N. for seeking to undermine its sovereignty. VOA’s attempts to reach the Eritrean embassies in London and Washington went unanswered.

After fighting a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea gained international recognition in 1993. The country has not held a national election nor ratified its constitution since then, but recent peace overtures with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia have raised hopes for reform and justice for detainees like Ciham.

“We think that there’s a chance that Ciham might hear and see our messages,” Tsehaye said. “So we want her to know that there are people fighting for her and that she is being remembered and that we will stand in solidarity with her until the day she is released.”

Recent diplomatic initiatives in the Horn are a positive step, but the region needs much more to achieve lasting peace.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, attend a meeting in Juba, South Sudan on March 4, 2019 [Jok Solomun/Reuters]
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, attend a meeting in Juba, South Sudan on March 4, 2019 [Jok Solomun/Reuters]

Following his recent efforts to achieve normalisation with Eritrea, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on a shuttle diplomacy mission across the Horn of Africa. Since the signing of the landmark June 2018 peace agreement between the two long-warring nations, Abiy held several bilateral and tripartite summits both in Addis Ababa and in other Horn of Africa capitals to help resolve some of the region's deep-rooted problems and kick-start a process of political integration.

In September 2018, a tripartite cooperation agreement was signed between Abiy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo following a meeting in Ethiopia

On February 20, 2019, Ahmed met Muse Bihi Abdi, leader of the breakaway northern Somalia territory of Somaliland, in Addis Ababa to strengthen bilateral ties, discuss regional security issues and try to meditate in its dispute with the central government in Mogadishu. Somali President Farmajo, who was reportedly invited to the meeting, refused to participate, but later voiced his administration's appreciation of Abiy's mediation efforts and Bihi's willingness to work with the Somali government in a tweet

On March 4, Abiy met Afwerki and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in Juba to further the Intergovernmental Authority of Development-led peace process in the country.

Three days later, Abiy, Farmajo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta got together in Nairobi to try to resolve the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia. However, this meeting failed to produce a tangible solution, with Mogadishu making it clear that they will wait for the decision by the International Court of Justice.

While Abiy's shuttle diplomacy received praise, admiration and positive media coverage both in the region and across the world, it clearly failed to produce any practical results on the ground and even led to some new concerns and tensions. 

The tripartite cooperation agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, for instance, has spawned new concerns among neighbouring countries about Ethiopia's plans for the region. Somaliland took Ethiopia's undertaking to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia fully as indicative of a change in Ethiopia's policy that might not be in Somaliland's interests. Furthermore, Ethiopia's renewed diplomatic ties with Eritrea and Somalia caused its traditional allies, Sudan and Djibouti, to feel sidelined.

Abiy's mediation efforts and other Horn of Africa leaders' willingness to take part in them are undoubtedly a positive step towards political integration, sustainable peace and meaningful cooperation in the region. Diplomatic shuttles and media coverage of rapprochement efforts play an important role in generating the political will for, and public acceptance of, such a process.

However, shuttle diplomacy alone cannot resolve major international problems. For such efforts to have practical consequences, they need to be backed by well-deliberated and radical actions - actions that have the potential to bring down the multiple barriers that currently make political integration an impossibility in the region.

The first barrier to integration in the Horn of Africa is pervasive and entrenched distrust between states.

Real political integration requires a regime of free movement of people, goods, services and money; and this can only be achieved if there is a high degree of trust between all involved actors. Unfortunately, in the Horn region, such confidence is in short supply.

Historical animosities, security threats within and beyond borders as well as deep-rooted suspicions among state officials about the motives of neighbouring states increase the trust deficit. 

Ongoing conflicts, and serious transboundary resource disputes, which together have displaced more than 10 million people and resulted in the presence of four peace missions (in Darfur, Sudan; the Sudan-South Sudan border; South Sudan proper and Somalia) and the continuing presence of more than 50,000 UN and AU peacekeeping troops in the region pose another barrier to political integration and feed into the trust deficit. 

Border disputes between South Sudan and Sudan over the future of Abyei, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the control of towns such as Badme still persist. Kenya and Somalia are locked in a dispute over their maritime border in the Indian Ocean, and Kenya and Uganda are still competing over the tiny Migingo Island in Lake Victoria.

Foreign interference in the region is yet another obstacle to deepening cooperation and integration. Strategically positioned at the major geopolitical and geo-economic nexus of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the Horn is also a battleground for global forces fighting for the control of large national markets and maritime domains. The region currently hosts tens of thousands of foreign troops, with new military bases in Djibouti and other countries in the region.

Several secessionist movements are alive and kicking in the region, with South Sudan and Eritrea providing living examples as to how de jure independent states can be established by any one of these movements under the right circumstances.

Somaliland and its push for independence from Mogadishu also provides a cautionary tale for all the nation states in the region. The suspicion that secessionist threats are being fuelled by neighbouring states and foreign forces is making many countries in the region reluctant to push for further regional integration.

There are still ongoing tensions between states with devolved and federated systems across the region. Forces pushing for decentralisation, as well as internal border disputes between subnational units, are also causing insecurities in many federated countries, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. 

There is a persistent danger that small isolated wars may erupt any time between autonomous subnational entities, threatening the security of both the host states and their neighbours. Intent on manipulating these volatile political fault lines, governments in the Middle East - and from more distant regions - have lent their support to various conflicting parties. 

Fuelled by new changes and old tensions, traffic in small arms and light weapons has proliferated, while the Horn has become highly militarised. 

These peace and security challenges make political integration an agenda hard to sell in the Horn of Africa, especially when pushed to include too many countries too quickly.

Mediation and integration can only succeed if they come on the back of serious consultations and institutionalised efforts to build inter-state trust and end historic animosities. One such attempt can be the transformation of artificial borders drawn by colonial forces into drivers of integration that reflects the socio-economic realities on the ground, including traditional movements of people, infrastructure and commercial ties.

This type of progress cannot be achieved in a day or over a short summit between a couple of leaders. First, institutional and financial arrangements would need to be made to sustain a long peace process. Second, geographic proximity, commonly shared interest and vision should be used to lay a foundation of economic integration and eventually political one. Third, plans need to be drawn and efforts made to establish a strong political union under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

In this context, it is clear that Abiy's well-intentioned diplomatic efforts are doomed to failure, as they lack the depth and capacity to heal the region's trust deficit and to propose resolutions to the multidimensional conflicts and threats it is currently facing.

What is needed to bring political integration to the Horn of Africa is not diplomatic shuttles and official meetings, but well-thought-out initiatives and long-term plans with institutional support from IGAD.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


Statement by country’s information ministry arose out of misinformation, says foreign ministry

Beyza Binnur Dönmez   | 06.04.2019
 Turkey disappointed over allegations by Eritrea


Turkey expressed disappointment Saturday after Asmara accused it of obstructing the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

"We are saddened to note the baseless allegations about Turkey in a press statement dated April 3, 2019 by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"We believe this statement arose out of misinformation.”

The ministry said that as a strategic partner of Africa, Turkey maintains multi-dimensional cooperation with African countries and attributes "great importance" to the security and stability of the continent.

The ministry also emphasized that Turkey’s appreciation of the normalization process between Ethiopia and Eritrea and developments towards the stability of the Horn of Africa has been made public on many occasions.


April 5, 2019 News

A photo taken on July 22, 2018 shows a general view of Old Massawa with the port and the train tracks that leads to the Eritrean capital Asmara. Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP

Eritrea’s Capital Is Lovely. But Scratch the Surface and You’ll Find a Terrifying Reality

Source: Haaretz

People are jailed in cellars of houses, a network of informers has destroyed trust between people and hundreds of thousands have fled. A rare visit to the ‘North Korea of Africa’

ASMARA, Eritrea – The streets in the city center are spotless. There’s very little traffic, people walk in the center of the road, no one honks. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, appears to be one of the loveliest and most pleasant cities in Africa. Orderly and quiet, the place seems like a sort of souvenir from the 20th century. As in Cuba, the cars are mostly old, from the 1960s and ‘70s. The many VW Beetles stand out. Italian architectural gems evoke the pre-World War II colonial period.

A stranger visiting the city won’t sense that anything is amiss. Outwardly, nothing suggests that this is one of the most insular dictatorships in the world, the North Korea of Africa. President Isaias Afwerki has ruled the country with an iron hand for 25 years. In Afwerki’s Eritrea, men serve in the army from age 17 until as late as age 50. Until recently, soldiers deployed along the borders were under orders to shoot anyone trying to flee to one of the neighboring countries. And throughout Eritrea, citizens are entangled in an extensive government-run network of informers: Students betray friends who have deserted the army; housewives inform on neighbors who criticize the regime and so on.

But there’s no hint of any of this in the streets. The only indication that life here is, after all, not as good as it may seem, is the lack of material goods. In the stores and markets I encounter the same products time and again. Bananas, toilet paper, mineral water. There are few clothing stores. Some fruits and vegetables are available in the main market, and old spare parts from cars and other items are on display on sidewalks, but there’s no doubt that in comparison to other cities in Africa, the range of products for sale is limited. With insularity comes dearth.

Next to the market, in the very heart of the city, is the notorious Karsheli Prison, which has both political and former military inmates. Actually, Eritreans often refer to their country as “one big prison.” No one knows how many people are imprisoned in Eritrea, but according to reports from the United Nations and other international organizations, 14,000 people are incarcerated in military prisons alone. Inside Karsheli, which is surrounded by cafés and private residences, inmates undergo torture, according to refugees in exile. Eritrea has a particularly brutal way of eliminating opponents of the regime: They’re thrown into shipping containers under the broiling sun and left to die from heat and thirst.
Tamara Baraaz

ISIS and civil war

After half a year of trying, I was informed that I would receive a visa to visit Eritrea. I wanted to see close up the circumstances that have sparked the waves of departure – what has prompted what seems like an entire generation of young people to turn their back on their homeland and scatter far and wide.

There’s something almost biblical in the scale of this exodus and in the dangers that lurk for the escapees afterward. Wherever they turn, Eritrean refugees are in existential danger. Many set their sights on Libya. Some have been caught by ISIS, some made it onto boats to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. Others escaped to Sudan and South Sudan, just as civil war erupted there. Those who headed for Egypt discovered that criminal organizations in Sinai have made a habit of kidnapping refugees, torturing them and demanding a ransom from their families for their release. Tens of thousands of Eritreans entered Israel from Sinai until the high barbed-wire border fence between it and Israel was erected some six years ago.

The visa came and I’m here at last, in Asmara. As I expected, it’s not easy to engage random citizens in conversation; Eritreans are naturally reticent and admit that they don’t tend to confide in strangers. When you add the fear and terror fomented by the state authorities, it’s easy to understand why no one is in a hurry to get into a candid conversation.

To break into the expected circle of silence, I’d been in contact earlier with representatives of the Eritrean underground – a network of clandestine movements and organizations. As I make my way along the streets of the capital to meet my liaison person, Tesfai (the names of all interviewees here have been changed for their protection), I notice I’m being followed. Tesfai explains: “That person has been following us in order to make sure that other people were not following us. He stayed around to observe, so that if someone should decide to ‘disappear’ me, they’ll at least know where it happened.”

The two men both belong to the Eritrean Liberation Democratic Movement, which aims to create “democracy, justice and a flourishing future in our country,” according to the group’s Facebook page. Abroad, its members openly work to advance their cause; here in Asmara, where even the slightest suspicion of criticism of the regime can land you in jail indefinitely, all their activity takes place underground.

Tesfai, who’s in his 20s, points toward the street I came from: “Do you see that building? In the past there was a government office there, and below it was a cellar with prisoners. When the neighbors found out what was going on there, the prison was moved elsewhere and the cellar was rented out. Every house here could be a makeshift jail.” Many of the people who disappeared, he adds, ended up in those jails, some of them in the basements of apartment buildings.

Just a few days earlier, Tesfai relates, agents of the regime arrested a group of young people in a bar. The charge: unlawful assembly. According to him, any gathering of more than five people is forbidden in Eritrea, but the law is enforced arbitrarily. The regime doesn’t usually intervene in cases involving family celebrations.

“They’re afraid of groups that will conspire to topple the government,” Tesfai explains. “But young people won’t give up their social life. People take the risk. In this case, people in civilian clothes showed up and announced that everyone was under arrest for unlawful assembly. No one has seen them since, and no one knows the real reason [they were apprehended], either.”

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP

Disappointing peace

How did Eritrea become a dictatorship that’s being abandoned by its citizens? Until the early 1990s the country, which has a population of about five million today, was still part of Ethiopia. In 1993, after waging a prolonged guerrilla war, the Eritreans dissociated themselves from the Addis Ababa government and gained independence. But the disputes didn’t end there. The struggle for independence morphed into a protracted conflict over control of areas along the two countries’ borders. In 1998, when a particularly violent confrontation broke out between them, President Afwerki declared that citizens would be subject to lengthy, mandatory military service – even up until the age of 50.

As the confrontation continued, there were increasing signs that the country was shifting to a regime of one-man rule. Things took a turn for the worse in 2001, when a group of members of the opposition and journalists publicly called for democratic reforms. In response, the president’s loyalists arrested everyone in the group – they are still categorized as missing persons. Since then, the situation has only deteriorated: Independent media outlets were shut down, some religious streams were outlawed, among them Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, in 2017 the government imposed a ban on Muslim girls wearing a veil to school, on teaching religious subjects and on gender-separated classes. Ultimately, public criticism of the government was prohibited. Eritrea grew ever more insular and eventually became one of the world’s major exporters of refugees.

Last summer, there was a surprising development: After nearly three decades of conflict, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement. Families that had been separated by the border for so long were reunited. Foreign investors and tourists discovered that Eritrea was starting to issue visas and to show initial signs of openness. Swept up by euphoria, Eritreans hoped that the protracted mandatory military service would also be cancelled.

That was eight months ago. Photographs of President Afwerki with his Ethiopian counterpart Sahle-Work Zewde during the reconciliation talks can still be seen in restaurants and shops in Asmara, but the hope for any real change has been largely dashed. Military service was not abbreviated. The human rights situation remains dire. Expectations have been disappointed with respect to any mass return of Eritreans from self-imposed exile. In fact, the opposite has occurred: The flow of people fleeing the country increased.

At present, a large number of Eritreans continue to perform what is in essence, at least for men, open-ended military service. Some are assigned to combat duty near the border with Ethiopia, some are posted to office jobs and many are forced to engage in Sisyphean manual labor in the service of the state in mines, construction, paving of roads and so on. They receive a monthly allowance equivalent to 200 shekels ($55), but are not allowed to take another job. For most of the year they are unable to see their families.

A soldier’s date of discharge is decided arbitrarily by a commanding officer. Service can indeed last until the age of 50, but many are released after one or two decades. Bribery can play a crucial role in securing an early release, too. But even when a soldier is discharged, he can be mobilized again by law at an officer’s whim.

Preference for death

Just over a year ago, I visited Bor, a small town in South Sudan. Not long before, it had been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting during the civil war that broke out in the fledgling state in 2013. The presence of Eritrean refugees was immediately noticeable at the time. Many parts of South Sudan were on the brink of starvation, but the Eritreans seemed to have found their place. I asked some of them why they had come to a place whose local residents had until recently been burying the victims of the war. “We would rather die here than go back to our country,” they told me.

Tekeste, whom I meet in Asmara, also fled to Sudan, but is now back in his native land. He asks me whether I like Eritrea. It’s nice here, I reply, the streets are quiet and pleasant. “That’s because all the young people have left,” he says. “This country has emptied out. The situation here is crap.” A friend immediately interrupts and advises him to be quiet, but Tekeste continues: “She should know what’s going on here, so that she can share it with the rest of the world. Someone has to know about the situation here – that it’s all one big lie.”

When Tekeste finished high school, the dictatorship had been entrenched for two decades. He knew very well what lay in store: that he had to choose between devoting his best years to the army, or leave Eritrea. He made it across the border to a neighboring country but was eventually caught there, along with other refugees, and deported back to Eritrea.

Veronique DURRUTY / Gamma-Rapho

Back home, Tekeste was immediately jailed as a deserter. “We were 400 prisoners in one cell,” he recalls. “It was so crowded you couldn’t lie down. There was also a shortage of water. Once every three weeks, each inmate received a liter of water so he could shower. Other than that, inmates didn’t shower.”

According to a UN report, the families of soldiers who flee Eritrea are also liable to be severely punished. In some cases, they will lose the right to receive food-ration coupons. The coupons are used to purchase the basic commodities that are available once a month at government-run centers, and thus constitute the basis of subsistence for many families. In the past, loss of coupons was sometimes accompanied by a steep fine; nonpayment led to arrest and incarceration.

But the price of lengthy military service is also paid by families of soldiers who obey the law; such families are doomed to a life of poverty and only get to see their loved one after long periods of time. Binti has lived for years without her husband, who was inducted early on in their marriage. Every month he sends her a pittance equivalent to 125 shekels – about 60 percent of the allowance he gets – an amount that condemns her to extreme poverty.

“He gets one month of leave a year,” Binti explains, “and the rest of the time I don’t see him. In the 20 years of our marriage, we have spent a total of two years together. We had a daughter early on, and now she has also reached draft age. She was sent to serve in another city and I was left alone, to live off the small amount my husband sends me.”

How has Eritrea’s regime succeeded in subjecting the populace to its whims? Actually, for one particular class in the country – for example, business owners with connections to the regime – life isn’t so bad. Impressive buildings, cafés and restaurants line the capital’s main boulevard. In the evening the street comes alive and well-dressed young people come to guzzle beer and sip espresso. During the day, groups of cyclists go by – bicycling is the country’s leading sport. Quiet, peaceful streets branch off the boulevard. Yonas, a local resident, says it’s safe to walk around. “If someone finds a wallet with cash, you can be sure he’ll turn it in to a police station,” he says.

But the ostensible normality of the main boulevard and surrounding streets is deceptive. The state preserves stability through a national network of informants that keeps everyone intimidated. “People in Asmara will always assume that they are being spied on,” says Abraham Zere, an Eritrean journalist who lives in the United States, in a phone interview. “There’s a great deal of below-the-surface monitoring going on, and people are aware of the danger. So, despite the dire situation, when you ask someone how he is, he’ll say ‘Fine’ and smile.”

Spying on friends

A 2015 report of the UN’s Human Rights Council describes Eritrea’s domestic espionage network as a large, ramified body that encroaches on all spheres of life. The authorities recruit informants ceaselessly and in large numbers, so everyone lives under constant fear of being under surveillance. “In Eritrea everyone is a spy, local housewives, farmers, etc.,” the report quotes a witness as saying. “So they know when you arrive and when you leave. Your own neighbors report you to the authorities.”

Another young man testified that someone had asked him to spy on his fellow students: “Whatever information I gave him, he already knew of it. I came to understand that I was not the only one ‘on the ground.’ Other people could also know what I was doing… In a room with 10 people, maybe three could be spies. These people that are mandated to do surveillance work do it for a number of reasons: easy money, little labor, exemption from national service.”

Tesfai, the underground member, says that years ago, intelligence personnel attempted to recruit him too to spy on friends. “They asked me whether I would be willing to do everything for my country,” he recalls. “I replied that of course I would. Then they asked if I would report on an offense that could harm my country, and I understood what they were after. I replied that I would be ready to report murder or theft or any offense that is harmful to society, but I made it clear that I had no intention of reporting on my friends’ opinions or on remarks of acquaintances about the regime.” He was lucky: They authorities left him alone. Others paid for refusal with incarceration.

YokoAziz 2 / Alamy Stock Photo

The UN report notes that the Eritrean espionage network operates overseas, too; staff at its embassies even try to recruit collaborators among the exiles. In return, they promise to provide jobs and assistance in various matters. One of the sanctions used against opposition activists who voice criticism abroad is loss of rights of their family members still in Eritrea, and in some cases their incarceration. Such measures explain the fear of Eritrean refugees to critique the regime or talk about the crimes they’ve witnessed.

According to Tesfai, “It’s impossible to truly hide from the regime’s network of informants. Everyone knows everyone. You’re better off being open about most things and hiding only what is explicitly forbidden. In Eritrea everyone is slightly in favor of the government and slightly against it. If you praise the regime during a family event, everyone will agree with you and praise the president. If you complain about the situation, they will accept that, too, but the conversation will end when someone says, ‘So go demonstrate on the streets, let’s see you.’ But still, family is family. No one will inform on you for things you say at home. The authorities have succeeded in destroying the basic trust between people, but not in destroying the family unit.”

And if someone in the family is a government informer? Tesfai says that no one sells out relatives. “In a case like that, the informant might say that he knows about my activity and will warn me that if I persist with it he will not be able to protect me. But still, in Eritrea the family is the strongest thing.”

A byproduct of the omnipresent network of surveillance is that people don’t allow themselves to feud with neighbors or acquaintances. Says Tesfai: “You need to avoid confrontations and make sure that everyone feels you are on their side. If there is bad blood between you and an acquaintance, he can exploit [the memory of] that wedding party where you were drunk and complained about the regime.” Tesfai says he can be truly open only with close friends whom he’s gotten to know over a long, gradual period: “I can count them on fewer than the fingers of one hand.”

His own master

It’s been four months since Afwerki last addressed the nation. The hope was that in that speech, he would announce abridgement of military service, but he didn’t even mention it. According to Tesfai, “The thinking is that the president is afraid to cancel the eternal military service, because then he will have to cope with frustrated young people who have never done anything in life other than being in the military.”

Tadesse recently left the army after two decades. “I wasn’t officially discharged,” he explains. “I just told the commander that I had made my contribution to the state and that I was going. He didn’t object.” Tadesse spent his first years of service along the border, in the period when the confrontation with Ethiopia flared up into outright hostilities. As a young soldier, he witnessed brutal battles. “We lost many comrades-in-arms,” he relates. “Things were hard in the years after the fighting, too. Conditions in the army were awful, no different from the prisons, except maybe that you have more room to walk around.”

Having spent almost his whole adult life in the army, Tadesse, like the rest of his comrades-in-arms, never went to university or held a job. Inexperienced and apprehensive, he found himself competing in a tough job market after his discharge. The other job-seekers he encountered were former soldiers, students who were exempted from military service thanks to their high grades and fortunate young people who weren’t drafted because their families are well connected. But Tadesse got lucky and landed a job. It’s low paying, but the wages are higher than what he got in the army. What’s most important, he says, is that now he is his own master.

“My friends are still in the army,” Tadesse explains. “They don’t know anything else and they simply aren’t capable of leaving. It makes no difference to them that since the peace accord, monitoring of deserters has decreased. In the past few months many checkpoints have been removed, and discharge or exemption documents aren’t checked as they were in the past. But that doesn’t really help people who think they have nothing to come back to and say they won’t find work.”

When I met Tadesse a few weeks ago, he believed that the authorities would ease up gradually and loosen the reins. But since then, pessimistic reports have been making the rounds among the Eritrean community abroad. “We are in regular contact with residents of Asmara,” says Dr. Daniel Mekonnen, director of the Eritrean Law Society, who has lived since 2001 in exile in Switzerland. “We are being told that the checkpoints have been put back in place and that all departures from Asmara are being monitored. We understand that military forces have been beefed up and are on standby, but it’s not really clear to us why.”

As a district court judge in Asmara 20 years ago, Mekonnen explains in a phone call, he already saw signs of a grim future in Eritrea. “You could see that the system was moving toward dictatorship,” he says. “Already then, the court’s independence began to be curtailed, and I came under heavy pressure to rule in favor of the government’s interests in certain cases, or to join the ruling party.”

Mekonnen is openly and frequently critical of the regime. Even though he left his homeland long ago, he still gets threats via telephone and the social networks. “The most frightening incident was three years ago, in Geneva,” he recalls, “at a demonstration against the conclusions of a UN report on Eritrea that caused a big storm. Two Eritreans at the demonstration started to attack me. I was beaten and battered, but I ran to the UN headquarters, and was protected by the guards. I filed a complaint with the police, but they didn’t take it seriously. In general, we find that countries that have become Eritrean diasporas don’t want to intervene and help.”

The atmosphere on Asmara’s main boulevard betrays no signs of the tensions and experiences described by Dr. Mekonnen. Eritreans are quite sociable. The people in cafés are affable, take an interest when they meet foreigners, and repeatedly offer to pay for a visitor’s coffee or meal, according to the norms of local hospitality.

One man I met, named Bruno, explains that “the cafés are indeed full of people, but it only looks as though they are there to enjoy themselves. Actually, it’s where they run their business from. Most of the day they’re stuck doing their public work, in the army or in the service of the state, but it’s impossible to subsist on what the regime pays. They’re not allowed to start a business of their own, so they take long lunch breaks and manage their secret projects from the cafés. That’s also why nothing gets done in government offices. It’s the only revolt people allow themselves [to wage].”

As the days go by during my visit, the discrepancy between the initial impression created by the city’s streets and the actual reality becomes more acute. In fact, it’s possible to sense echoes of the dictatorship resonating in every sphere of life. From my conversations I realize that the lengthy military service and the mass exodus of young men have fundamentally unhinged the social order here.

“One of the consequences of what’s happening is that there are fewer couple relationships here,” Tesfai notes. “People try to marry off their children and help one another, but in the end most of my friends are single. They are people in their 30s who are simply unable to establish a family on the money they get for their military service. They don’t have a life outside the army.”

Tekeste agrees: “Military service has destroyed all male-female ties. Women are conscripted, too, but are discharged if they become pregnant, even if that is not officially stated in the law. Some women decide to become pregnant at any price in order to be exempted from service. Asmara is full of single mothers. Men who earn so little are afraid that they will be required to pay child support, and in Eritrea paternity testing is banned by law. This whole situation creates problems.”

In addition to the impact on interpersonal relations, the despotic rule and the lengthy mobilization are also harmful to the country’s economy. Experts point to the limited scope of agriculture in Eritrea. Besides the droughts and an abundance of mine fields, the country is also affected by a labor shortage: With so many working-age men serving in the army and many others in exile, people able to work the land are in short supply.

Economically, an Eritrean family is beholden to the government in almost every realm, above and beyond the food-coupons system. Many professionals are still at the beck and call of the army. This affects physicians and teachers, and also influences the construction industry, road-building and other infrastructure projects – all carried out by forced laborers drafted as soldiers. This situation of absolute dependence is instrumental in allowing the regime to maintain an obedient society. “The government looks after the citizens to a certain degree,” Tekeste says. “People get help so they won’t go hungry, but the assistance is limited.”

Over the years, the government has adopted a series of tough measures to consolidate its tough, centralist economy. For example, no more than $300 a month may be withdrawn from a bank account, and anyone who wants to establish a private business faces numerous obstacles. In the absence of a vibrant private economy, many families depend on aid sent by refugees. In the past, the government made every effort to stop people from emigrating and looked askance at ties with the diaspora. Nowadays, semi-official agencies help arrange money transfers from Eritreans abroad for their families who stayed behind.

The population must also contend with a serious housing crisis. The large-scale flight did not bring about a reduction in home prices. On the contrary: The combination of the influx of people to the cities and lack of new construction has spiked real estate prices.

“Not one building has been erected in Asmara since 2006,” Abraham Zere, the journalist, says. “Rent has skyrocketed and is no longer consistent with salaries and with the money the bank allows you to withdraw – assuming you have money. So a large part of the economic activity takes place under the table, and people have become dependent on funds sent from abroad.”

Indeed, signs of a construction freeze are apparent on the streets of Asmara. Even though the city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list two years ago, decay is obvious beneath the apparent order and cleanliness. The once-lauded, fine Italian-era buildings are peeling and cracked, and have not been renovated for years. This is also the case in the port city of Massawa, where most of the old buildings from the Ottoman period and more recent colonial times are falling apart and riddled with bullet holes from the fierce battles of the 1990s.

While construction is in crisis, other industries are likely receiving encouragement thanks to the involvement of foreign companies. But this is an illusory boom, because much of it is also based on forced labor. Foreign corporations frequently exploit the local workforce through the agency of the army. According to the UN report, Eritrean soldiers have been employed in mining, fishing and industrial enterprises by both foreign and local companies – under shameful conditions. Workers were denied breaks, received inferior food and suffered from poor hygienic conditions. In some cases, workers who wanted to rest were lashed to a pole for the night. A lawsuit is currently underway in Canada against a local company that is engaged in mining in Eritrea. The plaintiffs are exiles who say they were employed in the company’s mine as soldiers.

Listening post

Another method the regime has for subjugating the population is through Afwerki’s divide-and-rule policy. Incarcerations and house arrests are the lot not only of deserters and dissidents, but also of people who have ties to the government or even work for it. These arrests, on trumped-up charges, can take place with no warning or explanation. In some cases, the detentions are short-term, a means of deterrence and warning instituted by the president, but in other cases they are open-ended.

“The system of factionalism and arrests has created a conflicted hierarchy,” Tesfai says, “and today there is no publicly accepted leader who could replace the president. If Afwerki falls, we will probably see a civil war here. For that reason, our goal is not to topple the president but to put pressure on him to change his policy, in part through foreign entities that maintain ties with Eritrea.”

Israel is one of the foreign actors active in Eritrea – which is essentially isolated in the international community – although the nature of these bilateral ties and their impact is not clear. Indeed, the Jewish state has maintained diplomatic relations with the African nation since its founding in the 1990s. Unlike other states, Israel’s ties with Eritrea are not necessarily economic in nature, but rather security related. Over the years there have been reports that Israel has been allowed to anchor maritime vessels at an Eritrean port and to operate a surveillance station as well, as part of its effort to scuttle arms smuggling from Iran to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Though it is well aware of the political situation in Eritrea, Israel continues to maintain relations with its dictatorial regime. Last summer, the state was compelled to respond to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice on behalf of human rights activists by attorney Itay Mack, who is dedicated to exposing information about Israel’s arms- and security-related deals with other countries. The petition demanded that an opinion drawn up by the Foreign Ministry about the situation in Eritrea be made public. The court noted that the documents paint a worrisome picture of the human rights situation in the African country, but rejected the petition on the grounds that “additional interests, among them the effort to avoid damage to Israel’s foreign relations, also deserve protection.”

In the meantime, Eritrea’s future remains cloudy. There are incipient signs of a new openness, such as the peace agreement with Ethiopia, a flow of tourists and the lifting of a UN-imposed arms embargo. But at the same time, there is little evidence of an improvement in the human rights situation, of a reduction in the mass arrests or of a revision of the policy of indefinite military service. Tesfai, the underground member, refuses to give up. “We intend,” he says, “to go on trying to change the situation from within.”

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP

April 1, 2019 EU, News

#ChangeInEritrea Assembly in front of EEAS demanding a reversal of EU policyEritreans living in the Netherlands are issuing a summons against the European Union for aid which they say will involve the use of forced labour in their home country.

The EU is providing €20 million to the Eritrean government under the ‘EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for road reconstruction.

But the petitioners say that the projects will involve the use conscripts from the country’s National Service – a system condemned by the UN as a form of enslavement.

You can read the full Letter-of-Summons-EU-Emergency-Trust-Fund-for-Africa here.

National Service traps young men and women in an indefinite system of conscription.

Conscripts have been held for 20 years and more.

The Eritrean government introduced compulsory national service in 1995. By law, every high school finalist undertakes 18 months of national service, which include six months of military training.

When relations deteriorated with neighbouring Ethiopia following the bitter 1998-2000 border war, the national service was" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">extended indefinitely and this has never been revoked. As the UN Human Right Council found: “Very few Eritreans are ever released from their military service obligations.”

EU accepts conscript labour will be involved

The EU acknowledges in its project plan that national service members will be deployed on the project.

The EU has provided limited information about their Eritrean project funding, which is described as reinforcing the reconciliation agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. The road reconstruction will help by “reconnecting the two countries and providing Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports” which the EU describes as “a key priority.”

“The specific objective is to improve transport connectivity for commercial trade along the arterial roads between Massawa and the Ethiopian border,” according to the project document.

The EU argues that the use of National Service conscripts will be “a subject of heightened dialogue.”

The case is being brought by the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, which was founded by Eritrean exiles living in the Netherlands.

Emiel Jurjens, the solicitor who is bringing the case for the Foundation says that various arms of the Eritrean government are involved in the EU’s project.

The EU’s Eritrean project plans describe its stakeholders as including the Eritrean Government and the Red Sea Trading Corporation, which is owned by the ruling party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice.

Mr Jurjens says the road reconstruction will involve the use of conscripts serving in the Eritrean National Service.

“This EU project was little advertised,” says Mr Jurjens. “It slipped below the radar.” Mr Jurjens believes this case is precedent setting: “as far as I know it is the first of its kind.”

Enslaved labour

The condition of the conscripts was described by the UN Human Rights Commission in graphic detail: “Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years. Women conscripts are at extreme risk of sexual violence during national service.”

The involvement of the EU in projects developed in association with the Eritrean government, which is among the most repressive in Africa, would have been bad enough.

That the Europeans are planning to provide aid funding to support programmes that use enforced or conscripted labour is described as unconscionable.

Mulueberhan Temelso, Director of the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, says: “Every person in National Service is trapped in extremely harsh conditions.

There are more than 365 secret and hidden prisons across the country and the European Union is well aware of this.

The EU must immediately stop aid to the country. It is totally unacceptable for EU to encourage the use of slave labour.”

Volating European human right commitments

The use of forced labour or enslaved labour in an EU funded project would violate a range of European undertakings. Article Five of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”

Professor Mirjam van Reisen, of the University of Tilburg, and an expert on Eritrea and Human Trafficking, said: “It is shocking that the EU would allow the use of forced labour in any of the programmes that it funds – this is totally unacceptable.

National Service is the main reason Eritreans are fleeing their country and supporting forced labour will only create more refugees. This programme is wrong – it must be stopped at once.”

EU denies claim of funding Eritrea 'forced labour' project

Wednesday, 03 April 2019 23:23 Written by

2 April 2019

Eritrean soldiers

 Image copyright Getty Images Image caption National service in Eritrea is supposed to last 18 months but it can continue indefinitely, rights groups say

 Eritrean human rights activists have accused the EU of funding a scheme in Eritrea that uses "forced labour".

The EU is backing a road-building project as part of its programme to stem migration from Africa into Europe.

But it says it will carefully monitor the work to make sure that people are "adequately" paid and treated well.

National service recruits will be used and the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans (FHRE) says conscripts are "trapped for an indefinite period".

FHRE has threatened to sue the EU over violating its human rights charter.

FHRE director Mulueberhan Temelso has called Eritrea an "open-air prison [where] every person in national service is trapped in extremely harsh conditions".

What's the issue with national service in Eritrea?

Officially, Eritrea requires people to undertake 18 months of national service, but this period was extended indefinitely in the wake of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war that ended in 2000.

A 2016 UN human rights investigation said conscripts were used as "forced labour".

The "widely-criticised practice... has robbed the country's youth of their dreams creating a generation of Eritrean refugees", rights group Amnesty International said in 2018.

Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki Image copyright Fitsum Arega Image caption Ethiopia-Eritrea relations thawed after Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) met Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki last year

Eritrea has said that this is a distorted picture of what is going on and has denied that there is indefinite national service. The government has not commented on what the FHRE is saying.

There was hope that it would return to its original 18-month period following the signing of a peace deal with Ethiopia last year, but this has not yet happened.

What is the EU doing?

The EU has pledged to spend €20m ($22m; £17m) in Eritrea as part of its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which is aimed at tackling what the EU calls "irregular migration" by funding job creation schemes in various African countries.

The money will be spent on improving the road network in Eritrea.

In its explanation of the project, the EU acknowledges that people on national service will be used but it says they will be paid and the pay rates have recently been increased.

It adds that the issue is the subject of "heightened dialogue" with Eritrea.

"The EU does not support indefinite national service in Eritrea. Human rights are at the core of all our policies and it is misleading to suggest we are supporting forced labour," an EU spokesman said in an emailed statement to the BBC.

Sources in Eritrea have told the BBC that since 2016 soldiers have nominally received $120 a month, but after deductions, including paying for rations, they personally get paid just $17 a month and their family gets $40.

There has been no recent pay increase, the BBC understands.

What will the rights activists do?

FHRE has sent a letter to the EU warning that it will take the organisation to court for violating its own Charter of Fundamental Rights if it does not withdraw from the road-building project.

The charter states that "no-one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour".

"I'm very interested to hear what the EU has to say for itself because whatever you say it will amount to a defence of using forced labour," the lawyer acting on behalf of the FHRE told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

"I find it hard to understand, and I'm hoping a lot of people within the EU will find it hard to understand," he added.


ፈስቲቫል ኤርትራ 2019 ኣገዳሲ ሓበረታን ጸዋዒትን

Cyrus Ombati 31st Mar 2019 10:39:33 GMT +0300

Police have rescued eight Eritreans while being smuggled through Kenya to Asia.
The victims aged between 17 and 31 are believed to be victims of human trafficking, police said. The eight were rescued after the detectives managed to intercept a vehicle, which they being ferried in at Wamba Junction in Isiolo County. According to the detectives, three suspects were arrested while one other suspect managed to escape.

SEE ALSO :Why war against shisha use, sale is far from being won

On Friday, two vehicles were also detained in connection to the syndicate. In Eastleigh, Nairobi, two suspects-Mohamed Ismail Ibrahim and Ali Ibrahim Barow were arrested on suspicion of being part of a racket that is involved in making false travel documents. After investigations, several Kenyan, Somali and Ethiopian passports were recovered at a hotel in Eastleigh, police said and added the men are part of a larger group that smuggles migrants from the region to other countries. This came two days after another suspected human trafficking ring was busted in Ruiru, Kiambu County. Elsewhere, at least 25 Burundians were rescued and three Kenyan women arrested. The victims aged between 24 to 33 years were reportedly held hostage pending transit to Asian countries including Thailand.

SEE ALSO :Taxi driver arraigned for smuggling 22 women

Detectives from the Transnational Organized Crime, raided a private home and rescued the 25 female victims. Most of the victims say they are escaping poor treatment in their countries and go to Asia to seek for jobs. This is the latest operation targeting foreigners who are on transit. Most of the arrested are from Ethiopia. Tens of Ethiopians are annually arrested in Kenya while on transit and later deported. Most of those arrested come to Kenya to seek for jobs or are on transit. Police and immigration officials have decried increased cases in which Ethiopian aliens are nabbed in the country while on transit to either Tanzania or South Africa. Police and immigration officials face difficulties in dealing with the aliens because they cannot speak in Swahili and English. Cases of human smuggling have been on the rise in the region with hundreds of young men and women from Ethiopia finding their way into South Africa through Kenya in search of employment. What is puzzling is how the immigrants manage to evade many police roadblocks mounted from Moyale border where they use to Nairobi. There are more than 20 roadblocks on the stretch, which raises the seriousness of the security agents to tame the practice. Some officials say the crime happens out of collusion between security agencies and the smugglers.

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