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Jakarta Post

Eritrea: Why they leave

Eritrea: Why they leave An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on Sept. 2. (AFP/Vincent Defait) (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on Sept. 2. (AFP/Vincent Defait)
The Jakarta Post
Nairobi, Kenya   ●   Tue, September 8, 2015

An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on Sept. 2. (AFP/Vincent Defait)

Eritreans make up the third-largest number of refugees trying to reach Europe, after Syrians and Afghans. Eritrea is at peace, yet still thousands flee every month.

Here's why:

- Military service -

Eritreans have endured President Isaias Afwerki's iron-fisted dictatorship for 22-years. Conscripts are forced into decades-long military service, then exploited as slave labor for the state.

So desperate are ordinary young people to leave they crawl under razor wire, tiptoe across minefields and sneak past armed border guards in their bid for freedom.

In the past, entire Eritrean football teams have absconded while playing in tournaments abroad and fighter jet pilots have escaped in their aircraft.

- Rights abuses -

Eritrea regularly features at the bottom of world lists for political and media freedoms, freedom of expression and human rights.

Political opponents are routinely arrested, tortured, locked-up without trial or simply disappear. The government routinely spies on citizens.

In 2014, independent watchdog organisation Freedom House gave the country a rating of 94 for press freedom -- with 100 being the worst.

This year's Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index placed the country plum last, behind North Korea.

A June report by the United Nations human rights office -- dismissed by the Eritrean government -- spoke of systematic and widespread "gross human rights violations," including mass incarceration of political opponents, extrajudicial killings and torture.

- Repressive politics -

Isaias, 69, took power in 1993, two years after winning a three-decade long independence war with Ethiopia. He founded and still heads the country's only political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

A former US ambassador described Isaias as an "unhinged dictator" who is "cruel and defiant".

There is no political opposition, no elections and no independent media. Even religious freedom is curtailed.

This year's annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that "systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea".

A new, multiparty constitution was ratified in 1997 but never implemented.

- Poor economy -

Even before the imposition of UN sanctions in 2009, the economy was in the doldrums and Eritrea remains one of the world's poorest countries. The economy -- like everything else -- is tightly state-controlled.

Isaias rejects foreign aid while the mining sector accounts for scant foreign investment.

- Troubled region -

Eritrea's troubles are not restricted to its own borders. Bad blood remains with Ethiopia, going back to a renewed border war in 1998, while 2008 saw skirmishes with Djibouti.

Isaias is widely accused of sponsoring regional rebels including Al-Qaeda affiliate the Shebab, which operates in Somalia and Kenya. Asmara has always denied those claims. (++++)