European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on Tuesday (20 October) for greater respect for human rights in Eritrea, a major source of refugees who risk their lives trying to to reach Europe.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that 5,000 people flee the impoverished Red Sea state each month, with those who make it to Europe often saying they fled indefinite military conscription and other human rights abuses.
Officials in Asmara deny the charges, saying human traffickers, not rights abuses, are to blame for the large exodus of people from the Horn of African country.
“In Eritrea there is a relevant need for important reforms inside the country, to improve on the one side the human rights record and on the other the living conditions of the population,” Brussels’ top diplomat told reporters during a visit to Addis Ababa, capital of neighbouring Ethiopia.
Faced with the biggest inflow of migrants since World War Two, the 28-nation EU has been discussing for months how to reduce numbers arriving from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, often via dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.
EU officials announced in September that the bloc aimed to agree on €200 million in development aid for Eritrea by year-end to help stem the exodus of people.
Eritrea received EU funds until 2011 when Asmara decided to stop the foreign aid programme.
Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after three decades of war, has often accused the West and Ethiopia of conspiring against the government of Isaias Aferwerki, a former rebel who has been president since the secession.
Eritrean government officials say they have maintained a lengthy military service programme owing to the unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia – a legacy of their 1998-2000 war that killed more than 70,000.
“An Eritrea that is reformed from within would be very beneficial not only when it comes to the issues related to migration flows but also to the overall stability and security of the region,” Mogherini said.
Eritrea may have committed crimes against humanity, according to a year-long UN human rights inquiry. The report, published on 8 June 2015, described extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual slavery and enforced labour as widespread. Slavery-like practices are routine and torture is so widespread that the UN commission said it could only conclude that the government's policy was to encourage its use.
One of the commissioners said the commission's mandate did not extend to "international crimes" so it could not confirm that Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity or recommend referral to the International Criminal Court.
Eritrea effectively enslaves people by a system known as "national service" that involves "arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labour, absence of leave," the report said.
National service is supposed to last 18 months, but the commission spoke to one witness who had fled after 17 years. Witnesses reported people being executed for trying to avoid being drafted into service as recently as 2013, it said.
The commission said it had evidence forced labour had been used in the construction of the Bisha mine, a copper-gold project owned jointly by Canadian miner Nevsun Resources Ltd and Eritrea.