Articles - English

Eritrea: HRC Must Establish a Commission of Inquiry

25 June 2014

We the undersigned are writing to call on the UN’s Human Rights Council to establish a Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in Eritrea given the ongoing gross and systematic human rights violations being committed by the government of Eritrea against its own people with total impunity, and its continuing policy of non-cooperation with the UN’s human rights mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea.


Articles - English

Press Statement of Eritrean Political and Human Rights activists in Great Britain regarding the so-called Seminar of Lowlanders London 20 April 2014

A seminar was held in London on 29 March 2014 where a document was issued and an organisation called “The League of Lowlanders” was formed. Because we live in Great Britain where the seminar took place, we want to avoid the risk of our silence being construed either as an act of approval or participation by association. We deem it necessary therefore to make our stand clear on the event and the ostensible organisation. Being: • respectful and loyal to the noble causes our martyrs died for during our people’s bitter struggle for freedom, democracy, justice and equality; • proud of the history and legacy of our forefathers, mother and fathers, who laid the foundation of the edifice of a united Eritrean polity; • committed to unity of our people and political stability of Eritrea; • aware of the ability of our people to defeat dictatorship and to put in its place a democratically elected political system that that rules on the basis of equality of all citizens regardless of their class, gender, ethnicity, religion and region: We hereby express our views regarding the London seminar and its outcome: 1. In preparing the document, not only did the organisers consult solely with like-minded people, but they also spoke in the name of Eritrean lowlanders without their mandate, including those who are resident in the United Kingdom where the seminar took place. Not only does this cast serious doubt on their credibility, but also their audacious decision to name their organisation—“The League of Lowlanders” is grossly misleading because it implies that they are the “spokespersons” of Eritrean lowlanders. We believe that there is nothing more undignifying than speaking on behalf of others without a mandate. 2. We believe that the spirit of seminar and the document that resulted from it are inconsistent with the aims and objectives of the struggle of our heroic people whose major aim was to guarantee the interests and fundamental rights of all Eritreans regardless of place origin, religion and ethnicity. We strongly believe that the only way to defeat the dictatorship that has been blighting the lives of our people and to establish a political system that respects the sanctity of human life, justice, equality and rule of law based on constitutional arrangement is through a united effort of all change-seeking Eritreans associated by shared core values that are loathsome to bigotry, intolerance and discrimination. 3. We believe that once a just political system based on the wishes of the Eritrean people is put in place, those who committed atrocities against the Eritrean people should be brought before justice and the victims who suffered at their hands should receive fair compensation. 4. Eritrean lowlanders have been struggling alongside their compatriots from the rest of the country in all the change-seeking civil and political society organisations and therefore their demands of justice and freedom are indivisible and integral part of the demands, hopes and aspirations of Eritreans throughout the country. 5. We believe that it is our national patriotic duty to warn against such divisive trends that can potentially undermine national unity and sow seeds of disharmony and mistrust among the opposition forces. We therefore call upon all national patriotic forces to rally behind a comprehensive strategy for change that would ensure the establishment of a just and democratic system that is capable of maintaining unity of our people and spare our country from the evils of disintegration and collapse. Long Live the Eritrean People Long Live Free and Independent Eritrea Glory to our martyrs Shame to Dictatorship With our joint struggle, we shall defeat dictatorship And build the nation our martyrs dreamed and sacrificed their lives for List of Signatories: 1. Muhammad Ali Lubab 2. Hamad Mohammed Said Kulu 3. Fesseha Ogbamariam 4. Amal Ali 5. Abdallah Heiji 6. Yassin Mohammed Abdalla 7. Mr. Abduraahman Al Sayed 8. Hamid Dirar 9. Idris Hummad Adam 10. Salah Aboray 11. Muhammad Ali Fayed 12. Khalid Kajray 13. Ahmed Idriss 14. Dr. Abdulkader Dawood 15. Khalid Ibrahim 16. Muhammad Tahir Debessay 17. Mohammed Abdu Omar 18. Abdurrahman Ghedem 19. Mohamed Nur “Burkan” 20. Yusif Suleiman 21. Idris Adhana 22. Ibrahim Omar 23. Abdulhakim Abdannur 24. Omar Suleiman 25. Nuri Muhammad Abdalla 26. Mustafa Kurdi 27. Mansur Omar 28. Jemal Saeed 29. Abdelfattah Khelifa 30. Salah Muhammad Zein

Articles - English

Letter of Condolence

Letter of Condolence

Mr. Ogbazghi Debus

The Eritrean National Salvation Front

The Chairman

London 27 March 2014


RE: Letter of Condolence

Dear Mr. Ogbazgi

It is with such a great sadness that I have learned the sudden death of the veteran freedom fighter and a prominent leader Mr. Ahmed Mohammed Nasser who passed away during the early hours of Wednesday 26th of March 2014.

The late Ahmed Nasser was one of Eritrea's historic leaders. He was known for his strong love of his country and his people and passed away after having dedicated his entire life serving the cause of the Eritrean people both as a freedom fighter and a prominent leader during the armed struggle for independence that was achieved in May 1991 and since then as one of the ardent fighters for the establishment of the rule of law, social justice and constitutional democratic governance in Eritrea. His death at this difficult juncture of the history of Eritrea and its people is a great loss not only to his family and to his comrade but also to the Eritrean people as a whole.

On this sad occasion, I would like to express my heartfelt condolence to his family, his comrades and the Eritrean people.

May his soul rest in peace and may Allah/God give his family and his comrades all the strength they need during these difficult days.

Suleiman A.  Hussein

The Chairperson - Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea -CDRiE

Articles - English

Profile: Suleiman Hussein, Eritrean human rights defender

 Profile: Suleiman Hussein, Eritrean human rights defender



 Mr. Suleiman Hussein is an Eritrean human rights defender, and chairman of Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea (CDRiE).

Suleiman grew up during his country’s 30-year struggle for independence and subsequently felt the frustration of many Eritreans when the new transitional Government failed to fulfil its promise of freedom for its people. Twenty-three years later, Eritrea is still ruled by the same transitional Government and there is no constitution, while the rule of law is non-existent. CDRiE is born out of the frustration of the Eritrean people. It came into existence five years ago when Suleiman and other like-minded individuals joined together to discuss the deteriorating conditions in the country and to explore more effective ways to contribute to the ongoing struggle for democratic change.

“Today Eritrea ranks among the top refugee exporters in the world as its citizens leave the country in their thousands to escape political repression and human rights violations.”

The Eritrean Government has continued to make life difficult for Eritreans inside the country while its foreign policies have isolated Eritrea internationally, Suleiman explains. Eritrea has been independent for only two decades, the past five of which it has been under UN sanctions.

CDRiE is part of the Eritrean people’s efforts for democracy and  strives to support the pro-democracy forces inside the country in any way possible. While the organisation has its headquarters in London it is not limited to London and has members in other democratic countries. CDRiE’s position outside Eritrea enables it to bypass the censorship within the country and voice the troubles of Eritrean people, exposing the gross human rights violations taking place within Eritrea.

“It is amazing how time flies.  Five years ago no one thought the situation in Eritrea would remain the same, but here we are.”

During the long years of armed struggle for independence, there was a prevailing culture of violence that contributed to the establishment of dictatorship in post-independence Eritrea. Today, CDRiE counters that culture of violence by pursuing nonviolent means of struggle for democracy. Despite its limited resources, the organisation has significantly strengthened its internal organisational structure and has built strong network of working relationships with many Eritrean and non-Eritrean organisations.

Recently, CDRiE partnered with World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) to take part in the 2013 United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (


CDRiE’s submission to the UPR raises concerns over Eritrean State agents’ direct involvement in harassing, threatening, and attacking civil society activists and human rights defenders.  Additionally, it protests against the Eritrean Government’s continued censorship of already limited internet access in the country, and the persistent practice of arbitrarily arresting and detaining journalists.

“Censoring and arbitrary arrests are not signs of the Eritrean Government’s strength. If anything, they show that people in Eritrea continue to be defiant and that nothing can succeed in silencing the voices of freedom or stop the inevitable march towards liberty.”

Suleiman remains optimistic despite the Eritrean Government’s continued violation of its people’s liberties. He says that following the UPR of Eritrea, which will take place on 3 February 2014, CDRiE plans to work with its international partners as well as with other Eritrean civil society organisations to undertake effective awareness-raising campaigns around the recommendations Eritrea receives. Suleiman also expl

ained that 

the Eritrean people, undeterred by the continued repression, will simply find even more creative ways to challenge those in power until the situation in Eritrea changes.   As we speak, there are several short-wave radio programs that have large audience and are having success inside Eritrea, Suleiman says.  There is also a new initiative by some dynamic youths in the Diaspora who make thousands of automated phone calls to Eritrea every Friday on a weekly basis. As of 2012, around 10,000 automated calls per week have being made to private households within Eritrea, with a message of non-violence, to empower and unify the Eritrean people. This initiative is hugely successful in Eritrea and is known as ‘Friday Freedom’.

Suleiman hopes the Eritrean government will come to its senses and realise that its policies have brought Eritrea from a very promising young nation to where it is today.  Suleiman says that Eritrean civil society and human rights organisations suffer not only from lack of resources but also the necessary expertise. Eritrean human rights organisations are relatively new and need more aid in terms of capacity building. Suleiman looks to the international human rights community, including the UN, to provide this assistance.

Tao Li is an Intern with the International Service for Human Rights.

For more information on the work of Suleiman Hussein and CDRiE see

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Articles - English

CDRiE Statement to the UPR pre-session meeting

November 2013

Brief overview of CDRiE (Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea)

CDRiE is a Diaspora-based Eritrean civil society organisation that works for: the full realisation of democratic rights of the Eritrean people; advancement of rule of law, constitutional governance that enable the Eritrean people to elect their own leaders through free and fair elections, including full restoration of freedoms of conscience, religion, information, expression and association. CDRiE is a member of CIVICUS, a world alliance for citizen participation. CIVICUS and CDRiE have jointly co-authored the Eritrea June 2013 submissions to UNUPR working group.

Whether national consultations have taken place

 Eritrea is a country where there is absolute dearth of freedom of association and expression. As a result, there are neither civil societies nor political organisations in the country that operate openly. In such a context, no meaningful consultation is possible. All change-seeking civil society and political organisations that operate openly are based in the diaspora. Hence no national consultations have taken place. This statement is a follow-up of the documents submitted to the UNUPR (United Nations Universal Periodic Review) by CIVICUS and CDRiE jointly. The latter submission was based on consultations conducted among CDRiE’s members, academics and individuals inside and outside Eritrea. With regard to the preparation of this submission, there have been on-going consultations which continued until the final document for the final submission was completed.

Plan of statement

The issues that require immediate action in Eritrea are many. Referring to some of the recommendations suggested by different states in the first UNUPR, our statement focuses on the need to implement the ratified constitution; women’s and girls’ rights; the indefinite national service/WYDC and the plight of refugees; and children’s rights. Other diaspora-based Eritrean civil society organisations will focus on other but equally urgent issues.

Implementation of the 1997 Constitutional 


In 2009, Australia, Canada, Slovakia, Spain and Slovenia issued five recommendations calling for expeditious and full implementation of the constitution that was ratified by the Constituent Assembly in 1997.  Eritrea has chosen not to comment on this critical recommendation. Since then not only has Eritrea failed to implement the constitution, but it has also been violating the rights of citizens with impunity. Not only are arbitrary and incommunicado detentions endemic in the country, but no charges are brought against detainees. The G11, many journalists, followers of the minority churches, leaders of the other churches and teachers in the Islamic schools and others detained since the mid-1990s years have neither been charged nor is their whereabouts known to their families and citizens.


Therefore we suggest recommending Eritrea to:


·         implement the constitution

·         respect the constitutional rights of citizens, including the right of Habeas corpus, freedom of expression and association


National Service and Refugees

Argentina, Canada, Slovenia, United Kingdom, United States issued recommendations to eliminate the indefinite national service. All these recommendations were rejected by Eritrea. After the border war (1998-2000) and the introduction of the WYDC in May 2002, the 18 months NS has degenerated into forced labour and has become indefinite. The NS violates the fundamental human rights of the conscripts’ and their families’ rights to Life; Liberty; Security of person; Economic Rights; Personal rights and Legal and Political rights. Those who resist conscription on the grounds of conscientious objection have been languishing in incommunicado detention. To escape from the open-ended slavery-like forced labour, tens of thousands have been fleeing the country to seek protection and livelihoods elsewhere.


We therefore recommend that Eritrea:

·         brings to an end the indefinite national service

·         demobilise and reintegrate those who have completed the 18 months as stipulated in Proc. No 82/1995;

·         recognises the rights of conscientious objectors; and

·         ratifies and signs the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons


Women and Adolescent Girls

Eritrea received recommendations from Algeria, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Canada and Austria to enforce the law against female genital mutilation. Although Eritrea has accepted these recommendations, they remain unfulfilled. In spite of formal prohibition, the practice has been continuing unabated. The government has been mobilising public opinion against the practice, but is not considered a priority.


Women and girls in the national service are allegedly subjected to rape and sexual violence at the hands of military commanders. Eritrea received recommendations from Ghana, Spain, France, Austria, and Slovenia highlighting the need for the rigorous enforcement of the laws against rape and other forms of sexual violence; to criminalise marital rape; combat domestic violence; to protect women in the armed forces against rape, sexual violence. Eritrea accepted these recommendations except those on marital rape. En route to safety, tens of thousands have been falling easy prey to ruthless human traffickers, smugglers and hostage-takers in eastern Sudan and the Sinai.  Those whose families are unable to pay prohibitive amount of ransom are killed and their organs are harvested for sale.



In order to abolish the practice we suggest recommending Eritrea to:

·         full-heartedly enforce the law against FGM

·         intensify campaign against the practice

·         prosecute those who violate the proclamation against FGM to deter others

·         recognise the problem of rape and sexual violence in the national service and the WYDC

·         criminalise marital rape


Children’s Rights

In the evaluation Eritrea received six recommendations on the rights of children from Norway, Germany, Argentina, Poland and Ghana. They recommended to prevent recruitment and torture of children by the police and the military; establish a minimum age for conscription of children and respect their fundamental rights; to protect children against torture and inhuman treatment, as well a provide the means by which they can be integrated into civilian life. These recommendations were rejected by Eritrea. The toxic effects of the national service have detrimentally affected the safety and wellbeing of Eritrean children. From 2003 onwards, children attending 12th grade are transferred to the Sawa military camp to combine military training with ostensible academic education. All aspects of Eritrean society, including education are heavily militarised and consequently, the standard of education has declined dramatically. The search for better standard of education has been one of the drivers of forced migration in the country. Thousands of unaccompanied minors and children approaching the age of conscription have been fleeing Eritrea and joining the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan where they lead squalid lives. Many have also fallen easy prey to human traffickers, smugglers and hostage takers. Among those who periodically perish in the Sinai, Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, some are some are children, including toddlers. Even the unborn are not spared.


 To guarantee children’s rights, we suggest recommending Eritrea to:

·         Follow up recommendations 36, 56, 57, 63, 64 and 65 by: implementing the recommendation sof the Committee on the Rights of the child; prevention of conscription of underage children and torture and inhuman treatment

·           Demilitarise education at secondary and post-secondary levels by ending the transfer of grade 12 students to the Sawa military training camp


Most of the recommendations from the first review (30 November 2009) are still outstanding. There has been no progress made since then, including implementation of the 1997 ratified constitution; formation of political parties; national elections; establishment of national human rights institution; invitation to all United Nations human rights special procedures; minimum age for military service; indefinite military service; conscientious objection to military service; forced labour; arbitrary arrest, detention and torture.





Articles - English

The Negative Effects of the National Service and the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign and Forced Migration in Post-Independence Eritrea

The Negative Effects of the National Service and the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign and Forced Migration in Post-Independence Eritrea

Gaim Kibreab (2013)The Negative Effects of the National Service and the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign and Forced Migration in Post-Independence Eritrea” Journal of Eastern African StudiesVol. 7, No. 4, 630-649,



When the Eritrean war of independence (1961-1991) that forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee in search of international protection came to a victorious end in May 1991, the general expectation was that this would decisively eliminate the factors that prompt people to flee in search of international protection. Paradoxically, the achievement of independence has failed to stem the flow. Since 2002, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have been fleeing the country to seek asylum first in Sudan and Ethiopia and subsequently in the rest of the world.[1] The data on which the study is based are gathered using snowball sampling, focus group interviews and key informants in Sudan, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa, Kenya and Sweden, and supplemented by UNHCR and other secondary sources. Although it is acknowledged that forced migration is the result of inextricably entwined multiple factors, the question addressed in the article is the extent to which the large-scale displacement that has been taking place in the post-independence period is the consequence of the detrimental effects of the universal, compulsory and indefinite national service (NS) and its concomitant, the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign (WYDC)[2] on the agelglot (servers) and their families. It is argued that the most important drivers of forced migration in post-independence Eritrea have been the harmful effects of the universal and the indefinite NS and the WYDC on the livelihoods and well being of servers and their families.



The article is divided into six sections plus an introduction and a brief conclusion. After a brief discussion on the goals and objectives of the Eritrean NS, it discusses briefly the methodological procedures used for data-gathering; presents data on the magnitude of Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan; a brief discussion on the duration of the universal/compulsory NS; and the demographic characteristics of the deserters and draft evaders covered in the study. The last part seeks to explain how the indefinite NS and the WYDC and their negative effects on the livelihoods and wellbeing of servers and their families have been prompting tens of thousands to “vote with their feet” in search of protection and secure livelihoods. The tragedies suffered at the Eritrea-Sudan and Eritrea-Ethiopia border crossings where there is a “shoot to kill” policy;[3] the high risk of being kidnapped by Rashaida smugglers in eastern Sudan,[4] and Bedouin traffickers in Sinai (Egypt) where thousands of Eritreans en route to Israel are taken hostages by heartless network of criminals who demand enormous amounts of ransom for their lives[5] are beyond the scope of the article. Nor are the inhuman treatment Eritrean asylum-seekers suffer at Libyan[6] and Egyptian prisons[7] and the Sinai[8] covered.

            With the exception of one decade, i.e. 1991-2001, since the second half of the 1960s, Eritrea has been one of the major refugee-producing countries in the world. In spite of its small population size and the fundamental political changes that occurred in 1991 manifested in the cessation of the thirty years war; between 2008 and 2011 Eritrea was the ninth largest refugee producing nation in the world. During the thirty year war (1961-1991), Eritreans fled due to interplay between inextricably interwoven political, economic, social and environmental factors. The politically active who sought to bring about change or who were suspected of direct or indirect involvement with the liberation struggle were targeted by the Ethiopian security forces and therefore fled to escape from political repression and persecution. The majority fled due to generalised violence and/or to avoid being caught in crossfire, as well as drought. Although the multi-causality of forced migration, including in the post-independence period cannot be denied, it is argued that the most important drivers of forced migration in post-independence Eritrea have been the harmful effects of the universal and the indefinite NS and the WYDC on the livelihoods and well being of servers and their families. Before a discussion on the relationship between the effects of the NS/WYDC on the living conditions and well being of the agelglot/their families and forced migration in the country commences, a succinct background of the aim and objectives of the NS is presented.  


The Goals and Objectives of the Eritrean National Service

The spectacular victory of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) over sub-Saharan Africa’s largest army in May 1991[9] was awe-inspiring. A critical factor that determined the outcome of the thirty year war was the EPLF’s ability to establish a highly centralised, organized, disciplined, single-mindedly committed and cohesive army with a remarkable organisational and fighting capability. This was an extraordinary accomplishment in a war-torn society comprising disparate ethno-linguistic and religious groups.

            The leadership of the Eritrean People’s Liberation front (EPLF) and its successor, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) considered the social capital that interconnected Eritreans across the social cleavages of ethnicity, religion, region and political opinion during the thirty year war as the foundation of the edifice on which Eritrean patriotism and national identity rested. This treasured national value expressed, inter alia, in powerful social norms of dedication, heroism, solidarity, unity, mutual trust, sacrificial patriotism and allegiance to what was perceived to be the “common good” of all Eritreans was conceived to constitute an indispensable resource for nation-building and post-conflict economic reconstruction. The government was intensely aware that these shared values developed and consolidated during the war of independence could peter out after the common enemy was defeated and independence was attained. The government and leaders of the EPLF feared that such a loss would weaken the unity and cohesiveness of the multi-faith and multi-ethnic community engendered during the bitter war of independence fought against a mightier enemy.

            The national service was therefore introduced as a means of safeguarding and transmitting the values produced during the war to the present and future generations of Eritreans. In the view of the architects’ of the NS, the latter is a bridge that interconnects the glorious past with the present and the future. It is perceived as a thread of continuity. Transmission and maintenance of such values is considered sine qua non for the formation and consolidation of Eritrean national identity, nation-building, as well as defeating the “country’s external and internal enemies.” For example, President Isaias Afwerki told Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly[10] ‘…we have not yet institutionalised social discipline, so the possibility of chaos is still here. Remember, we have nine language groups and two religions…’ The government and the ruling party think that without a carefully crafted national programme of social engineering intended to produce a prototype citizen who rejects sub-national allegiances and is ready and willing to sacrifice her/his life for the “common good,” as was the case during the war of independence and in the absence of rigorously enforced political control; the unity and peaceful coexistence of the nine language groups and the two religions is likely to be jeopardised. The NS and the WYDC were conceived and implemented as a mechanism of establishing a cohesive national community by inculcating the national values engendered during the thirty year war on the hundreds of thousands of conscripts who hail from disparate geographic areas, ethno-linguistic and religious groups.

            In May 1994, the Eritrean president promised that the NS besides helping to build ‘a serve army to safeguard the nation’s unity and sovereignty,’ would have positive psychological effect on the youth and inculcate ‘in them love of work’ and promote ‘persistence [perseverance]’ and ‘physical well-being.’[11] The NS was expected to serve as an instrument of socialising the Eritrean youth into the values and culture of the EPLF in peace time. It is the means by which the legacy of the 30 year war is to be transmitted to the new generation of Eritreans. This is clearly stated in the objectives of the NS. According to Chapter II, Article 5 of the Proclamation No. 82/1995, the objectives of the NS are to: 

         (i) establish strong defence force…ensure a free and sovereign Eritrea; (ii) preserve and entrust future generations the courage, resoluteness of the heroic episodes shown by our people in the past thirty years; (iii) create new generation characterised by love of work, discipline, ready to participate and serve in the reconstruction of the nation; (iv) develop … the economy of the nation by investing in development work of our people as a potential wealth; and (v) foster national unity among our people by eliminating sub-national feelings (emphasis added).

         Soon after the promulgation of Proc. No. 82/1995, the Defence Minister, Sibhat Ephrem, on 18 November 1995 stated that the NS was multi-faceted and one of its aims is to produce trained citizens that can ensure the survival and continuity of the country, to create ‘morally sound citizens,’ to counter the depletion of the country’s human resources, the ‘work ethic,’ as well as to fill the ‘big generation gap…’ created by the thirty year war.[12] He further pointed out, ‘It is through the NS that we intend to transfer the noble values developed during the armed struggle—steadfastness and dedication—to coming generations’[13] (emphasis added). In October 2002, President Isaias was asked to state what the aims of the NS were and he said, inter alia, to: (i) contribute to the country’s growth and development (ibyet); (ii) enhance national unity (hadinet); (iii) create a new society (hadish hibreteseb mimsrat).[14] In the following the methodological approaches used to collect the data are presented briefly.


Methodological Procedures of Data-Gathering   

The idea of random sampling was ruled out from the outset because there was no sampling frame for the total universe from which a representative sample could be drawn. Post-independence Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees are scattered all over the world and are permanently on the move. For example, in 2011, they lived in 85 countries[15] and it was impossible to use a representative sample that reflected accurately the total population. This article is written as part of an on-going major research project which examines, inter alia, the transformative effects of the NS and the WYDC, as well as the impact of these on the economy, nation-building, national identity construction, national unity and defence capability. The data are derived from diverse sources collected using different methods which include the survey method in which  structured and self-completed questionnaires written in English and Tigrinya[16] comprising open and closed questions were administered to respondents selected on the basis of chain referral or snowball sampling. This was supplemented by unstructured interviews conducted with systematically selected individuals guided by an inventory of issues; focus group interviews; key informants; narrative analysis; personal histories; UNHCR documents; and COR’s archives.[17]

            In situations where no sampling frame exists or is difficult to create (this is generally the case in studies concerning refugees and asylum-seekers), the snowball sampling approach has been widely used by different social scientists, especially in the area of hard to reach and deviant populations (see Coleman 1958; Goodman 1961; Becker 1970; Bryman 2008). The population covered in the study is neither hard to reach nor deviant, but is scattered and hard to recruit. Alan Bryman, the author of the acclaimed book, Social Research Methods, used snowball sampling in his study of Disney theme park visitors.[18] This was due to lack of accessible sampling frame which he says made the use of snowball sampling necessary.[19] By the same token, the only feasible approach to the study of Eritrean deserters and draft evaders covered in this study has been snowball sampling. However, the use of this approach has been by no means straightforward either. This was because the chain referral method of sampling was far from being self-propelled process in which once it was initiated, it did not proceed smoothly. The success of the approach depended on active and deliberate engagement of the researcher and his assistants who organised, developed and controlled the samples’ initiation and progress throughout the process. For a variety of reasons, including fear of the Eritrean state and its agents and others which for lack of space cannot be presented here,[20] at the initial stage, the general tendency among potential respondents has been to say “no” to being interviewed or included in the survey.

            After undertaking an exploratory pilot study, it became clear that unless well-connected locators with easy access to potential respondents in their respective residential areas and cities were selected, the research project was unlikely to succeed. The locators were selected carefully taking into account their gender, religion, ethnicity, political views, social positions in their respective communities, past experiences, connections through multiple and dense web of networking, educational status and reputations. Not only did the locators develop referral chains, but more importantly, they spent immense amount of time to convince and reassure each potential respondent that the process was totally anonymous and the whole raison d’être of the study was academic intended, inter alia, to advance knowledge and understanding of the different aspects of the NS and the WYDC, including the plight of conscripts and their families, as well as their positive and negative effects on the Eritrean economy and society. The locators were already known to the author and were selected on the basis of strict criteria. Parts of these criteria included ethnic and religious identities and political affiliations and/or views. The purposes of such criteria were to ensure inclusion of women and men, different levels of education, ethnic and faith groups, as well as individuals representing an array of political views. The central aim of the methodological procedure was as much as possible to include respondents which in qualitative, if not, statistical terms might indicate the general characteristics of the subjects of the study.

            As indicated earlier, a sample drawn using a snowball sampling approach is unlikely to be representative of the whole population and as a result, the findings of the survey are indicative rather than being conclusive. Although this study has been underpinned by such an assumption, it is worth noting that there are specialists who emphasise the relevance of the snowball sampling approach to quantitative research. For example, referring to Coleman’s classical work, Alan Bryman, after discussing the limitations of data gathered using snowball sampling, states: ‘This is not to suggest that snowball sampling is entirely irrelevant to quantitative research: when the researcher needs to focus upon or to reflect relationships between people, tracing connections through snowball sampling may be a better approach than conventional probability sampling.’[21] In our case, it is due to lack of choice the snowball sampling approach is used, but although it is contested, this is commonly used in the study of unstable and mobile populations, such as refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs.[22] Nevertheless, given the relative homogeneity of participants of the NS and WYDC, the survey data may indicate, albeit not conclusively, the general characteristics of the population. Alice Bloch argues that sampling frames may exist for sub-groups residing in settlements or camps, but not in countries of settlements. “The consequence of the paucity of data on refugees and asylum-seekers from which to sample is that surveys are usually based on non-probability techniques and are almost always reliant on access to refugees through community-based organisations …or pre-existing contacts from which to snowball sample.’[23] But there are also other analysts who call for a return to traditional sampling standards without offering an effective solution to the dilemma of dearth of sampling frame.[24]

            In this study, the chain referral sampling method was used to select 118 respondents in the UK in 2008. In 2012 the same approach was used to select 190 respondents in the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, South Africa and Kenya.[25] These countries were selected for no other reason than convenience. It is important to state that although the data derived from the structured questionnaire are important, the other qualitative methods of data-gathering used in the study have also resulted in a vast amount of useful data which inform the arguments in the article and in the overall research project. 



Duration of the Universal and Compulsory National Service

According to Article 8, Proc. No. 82/1995, on NS, ‘…all Eritrean citizens from the age of 18 to 40 years have the compulsory duty of performing Active National Service.’  NS consists of six months military training and twelve months ‘of active military service and development tasks in military forces for a total of 18 months.’[26] However, as the data in Fig. 1 and Table 1 show, the overwhelming majority were forced to remain in the NS/WYDC far beyond the required 18 months before they fled the country. On the average, the respondents have served for 5.8 years instead of 1.6 years as stipulated in the Proclamation on NS.


Fig. 1 about here


         The universality of the service is reflected in the fact that no exemptions or exceptions are allowed except for ‘fighters and armed peasants who prove to have spent all their time in the liberation struggle’[27] and ‘citizens who suffer from disability, such as invalidity, blindness and psychological derangement.[28] Even conscientious objectors such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are forcibly conscripted or risk indefinite incommunicado detention. Although the first proclamation on NS was enacted in 1991, military training did not commence until the first cohorts were sent to Sawa military training camp in July 1994.[29]


Table 1 about here


            Although it was feared that the government might not demobilise conscripts at the end of the 18 months; before the border war broke out in May 1998, it complied strictly with the requirement of the law. As a result, the first four cohorts were demobilised at the end of 18 months. However, when the border war broke out, not only did the government re-mobilise those who were discharged, but also those who were conscripted since May 1998 have not been demobilised. In short, the NS has become open-ended (see Fig. 1 and Table 1).[30] This was because on top of the border war; in May 2002, the President introduced the WYDC[31] which was approved by the cabinet in a meeting held on 7-8 May 2002.[32] Thus, after the border war (1998-2000) and the introduction of the WYDC, the NS became indefinite. This has enabled the government to keep tens of thousands of Eritreans in perpetual control and exploitation. The open-ended NS requires all able-bodied Eritrean men and women to serve indefinitely under harsh conditions. For example, 38, 22, 25 and 5 percent of the respondents said that their experience in the NS was tough (tsenqur), challenging, terrible and unpleasant, respectively.[33] Only 5, 3 and 2 percent thought that it was pleasant, adventurous and educational, respectively. This suggests that the large majority characterised their experience of the NS as being either negative or burdensome. Those who are caught trying to flee risk being imprisoned and tortured. There are also reprisals directed against the families of those who successfully flee the country. Those who are detected fleeing at the border and refuse to surrender also risk being killed due to the government’s “shoot to kill policy.” Service is indefinitely prolonged, extending for much of a citizen’s working life. This is notwithstanding the fact that the government had promised to demobilise 200,000 soldiers after the signing of the Algiers Agreement on 12 December 2000.[34]

            The rationale for rendering the NS open-ended is the government’s allegation that war against its populous southern neighbour, Ethiopia, is imminent. The government’s fear of renewed war has been reinforced by the Ethiopian government’s refusal to accept the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boarder Commissiondespite the fact that both states had agreed in advance that such an award once issued would be final and binding.[35] Relations between the two countries continue to be tense thirteen years after they signed the peace agreement. ‘…Ethiopia occupies territory that a Boundary Commission, established by the parties’ armistice agreement, awarded to Eritrea, a decision that Ethiopia has ignored.’[36] In March 2012, ‘Ethiopia launched brief cross-border raids against rebel groups that Ethiopia claimed Eritrea was training and arming. Eritrea mobilized but did not retaliate militarily.’[37] Since the 1998 border war, Eritrea’s foreign and domestic policy has been dominated by the state of no-war-no-peace. The government has been using the unresolved border dispute to keep Eritrea on a war footing and justify not only indefinite mass mobilization and repression, but also militarisation of the whole society. In other words, the government uses Ethiopia’s intransigence as a pretext to keep the large proportion of its adult citizens in arms indefinitely and democracy and human rights issues at bay. It is interesting therefore to examine how those citizens who are subjected to indefinite conscription and perpetual control have been responding to the situation. In the following the magnitude of post-independence Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan are discussed


Post-Independence Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

Although tens of thousands of Eritreans lived throughout Ethiopia during the thirty year war of independence, it was unusual for Eritreans to cross into Ethiopia to flee from persecutory treatment at the hands of the Ethiopian authorities in Eritrea. However, as we shall see in the following, since 2000, tens of thousands of Eritreans, most of them young men, women and children have been crossing into Ethiopia in search of safe haven and succour. According to UNHCR sources, the number of Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees increased continuously from 2000 onwards. For example, in 2000, i.e. during Ethiopia’s large-scale third offensive, 3,276 asylum seekers crossed the border to seek asylum.[38] The total number increased from 3,276 in 2000 to 10,700 in 2005.[39] This represented 227 percent increase in five years.  In 2012, UNHCR estimated that between 800 and 1,000 Eritrean asylum-seekers arrived in north western Tigray every month.[40] In 2005, the Shimelba camp where 10,700 Eritrean refugees lived was filled beyond its capacity[41] and as a consequence two camps, namely, Adi Harush and Mai Aini were established to accommodate the ever-growing number of Eritrean asylum seekers.


Table 2 About here


            As of March 2011, the total number of Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers in Ethiopia had reached over 47,000 (see Table 2). By January 2013, the total reached 86,660. This is expected to reach 127,970 by the end of the year.[42] Nevertheless, it is important to realise that these figures are based on registrations of new arrivals and should not be confused with the total number of Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees that are still in the country. There is a very wide gap between the number of refugees who register at the ports of entry or the different camps and the number of those who are still living in such camps or even in the country. Post-independence Eritrean refugees are predominantly young, male and single (see figures 3 and 4, as well as tables 2 and 3) and relatively well-educated.[43]The results of the survey show that many of the respondents were secondary school and university students at the time they joined the national service or departed from it (see Fig. 2).


Fig. 2 about here


They are also highly mobile and continuously shifting. Greg Beals writing for UNHCR from Mai-Aini refugee camp, for example, stated, ‘Officials of UNHCR have expressed alarm at the number of refugees that are attempting to make the perilous journey from Ethiopia to third countries. A recent report indicated that as many as 80 percent of new arrivals at Shagarab [refugee camp in eastern Sudan]had come from Ethiopia[44] (emphasis added). Between 2008 and 2012, about 4,000 Eritrean refugees left for neighbouring countries from Mai-Aini refugee camp alone.[45] ‘Some people come to Ethiopia as a transit stop,’ says, ‘Melaku Gutema, a UNHCR protection assistant at Mai-Aini camp. They are looking to go to a third country, either to reunite with other family members or to get better job opportunities abroad.’[46] This is consistent with the data collected from respondents interviewed in this study. They said that when they left Eritrea, none of them ever intended to live in Ethiopia or Sudan. The majority of those who are still in the neighbouring countries are “stranded birds of passage.” They are trapped there but are nevertheless determined to disentangle themselves from their entrapment in order to emigrate to the global North by any means. Many of the Eritreans who seek asylum in Ethiopia do not stay there for long. Many interviewees in the United Kingdom reported that they first went to Ethiopia from Eritrea and then crossed into Sudan through the border town of Hamdait.[47] From Sudan, they try to emigrate to Israel or Western Europe by employing the services of ruthless smugglers. On the way, they face imminent threats to their safety, dignity and lives.[48]

            It is worth noting therefore that the total number of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is likely to be far less than what is indicated in UNHCR statistics. The latter are based on registration of new arrivals. If 80 percent of the Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in the Sudanese refugee camp of Shagarab were people who left Ethiopia after first seeking asylum there, the actual number in the country is likely to be considerably less than the number of people who sought asylum on arrival. However, this is not reflected in the available statistics.

It is important to note that those who crossed the Sudanese border from Ethiopia had also no intention of staying in Sudan. Achievable or not, their dream has been to reach Israel and the global North where they have their relatives, friends and more importantly where they expect to lead a prosperous and fulfilled life. Although this issue is beyond the scope of the article, suffice to say that in view of the pervasive inequalities existing in the north-south divide, this is by no means unrealistic expectation.  

             As stated in the UNHCR document, the thousands who cross into Sudan and Ethiopia are bound to Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Europe, ‘but for some the journey ends in misery. …many have either starved to death in the desert, died crossing rivers or been killed by smuggling gangs.’[49] As Michael Owor, UNHCR’s official in northern Ethiopia stated, ‘many of the refugees just perish.’[50] We know nothing or very little of those who vanish in the thin air in between. The history of post-independence Eritrean refugees is the history of survivors.   

            Prior to the externalisation of European borders[51] and later the Libyan crisis which temporarily reduced considerably the possibility of reaching Europe via the Sahara-Libya and the Mediterranean Sea route, many Eritreans perished in the Mediterranean Sea.[52] Although this route was dangerous in which hundreds lost their lives, some of those who survived the ordeal were able to reach their dream destination—Northern Europe. Others are stuck in Italy or returned there in accordance with the terms of the Dublin Convention. In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan crisis, the majority of Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan tried to cross into Israel through the hostile Sinai desert where many were victimised by ruthless Bedouin hostage-takers and their agents.[53] A considerable proportion of those held hostages in the Sinai had already suffered in the hands of Rashaida smugglers in eastern Sudan.[54] After temporary interruption, the Libya-Mediterranean route of crossing into Italy and Malta has resumed on a smaller scale and the risks of drowning remain unabated.[55]

            The figures in tables 2 and 3 should therefore be read bearing the intrinsically shifting and mobile nature of the young and outward looking Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers, who go to any extent including risking their lives to reach Western Europe, North America and Israel. Although the number of new arrivals in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia and eastern Sudan has been growing with every passing month, a substantial proportion of those who sought asylum in the country have already left to go to Western Europe, North America and Israel via Sudan. 


Post-Independence Eritrean Refugees in Sudan

Sudan has historically been the single most important destination of Eritrean asylum seekers. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans sought asylum in the country during the thirty years war. The same is true in the post-independence period. Even though tens of thousands have arrived in Sudan since 2003, it is impossible to estimate their exact number. Before 2005, many of the new arrivals joined their friends, relatives, neighbours and other Eritreans already residing in Kassala, Port Sudan, Gedaref, and Khartoum.  However, as the number increased, all new arrivals were first required to register at Kilo 26 refugee camp and later at Shagarab refugee camp. Failure to do so may result in deportation to Eritrea.[56]


Table 3 about here


In 2008 a new policy was introduced which required all new arrivals to report at the Shagarab refugee camp. It is interesting to note that even at the time of their departure from Eritrea, nearly all post-independence asylum-seekers make up their mind not to stay in Sudan but rather to use the latter as a steppingstone for further emigration. Before the externalisation of the European borders and later the Libyan crisis, the large majority of the new arrivals only stayed for a few weeks, if not days, in Sudan until the necessary arrangements were made with smugglers and travel documents forgers. For example, IRIN[57] states that the UNHCR estimates that northern Sudan has more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees but in 43 years, the profile of the refugees has changed. According to Mohamed Ahmed Elaghbash, Sudan’s Commissioner for Refugees, ‘The new arrivals are generally young and well educated; they come from the highlands and have no cultural or ethnic ties with local populations.  Most of them take Sudan as a transit country. They stay here for some time until they get the opportunity to move northwards. Sometimes, they try to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa in order to reach Europe"[58] (emphasis added).  It is further stated, ‘In contrast, those who arrived in 1968, escaping the Eritrean war of independence [from 1961 to 1991], made a life in Sudan and some even managed to obtain Sudanese documents.’[59]

            Prior to 11 September 2001, it was common to bribe immigration officials and depart from Khartoum Airport, but this opportunity has to some extent shrunk as Sudan was suspected of having connections with the late Al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, who lived in the city during the first half of the 1990s.[60] As the data in Table 3 show, between 2003 and August 2011, a total of 106,362 Eritreans—76,995 (72%) male and 18,668 (18%) female fled to Sudan. In January 2013, the total figure of Eritrean refugees in the country had increased to 115,000 of whom 88,500 were assisted by UNHCR.[61] The latter are mostly pre-independence refugees residing in refugee camps. This may suggest that the total number of post-independence Eritrean refugees in the country is not more than 26,500. The post-independence asylum-seekers have moved on elsewhere in search of an imagined better life. The trend concerning secondary movement in the Sudan is the same as in Ethiopia among post-independence Eritrean refugees. It is worth noting that since 2003, the influx of Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees in the country has been increasing. An estimated1,600 cross the border every month to seek refuge in Shagarab refugee camp.[62]

            An interesting question to ask is: how many percent of those who have sought asylum in Ethiopia and Sudan are deserters and draft evaders? The honest answer is nobody knows. However, if we were to infer from the data gathered for this study, 92 percent are deserters from NS.[63] In Mai-Aini refugee camp, the Central Committee of the refugee community carried out a survey in December 2010 based on total enumeration.[64] The results showed a total of 8,909 Eritrean refugees residing in the camp excluding the 1,780 who left to live elsewhere in response to the “out of camp” policy introduced in 2010. Among the total of 8,909, 1,800 were minors.[65] Another 950 unaccompanied and separated children were also looked after by the NGO, Abraham’s Oasis. The International Rescue Committee has now taken over the responsibility. This suggests that at least in Mai-Aini refugee camp, 31 percent of the total were individuals who were not directly affected by the national service. Those between 11 and 17 could be considered as approaching the age of eligibility for NS. There are no similar statistics for the other camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. Although it is not possible to generalise, it may be wrong to assume that all those who are in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan are all draft evaders and deserters. In the following the demographic characteristics of the deserters and draft evaders are presented.


Demographic Characteristics of the Post-independence Asylum-Seekers and Refugees

During the war of independence, Eritrean refugees comprised all age groups, including old men and women[66] What is remarkable about the post-independence refugees and asylum seekers is that the overwhelming majority are single (see Fig. 4) and between eighteen and forty years old (see Fig. 3).


Fig. 3 about here


As the data in Fig. 3 show, 7 percent of the respondents are under and 25 years old, 29.5 percent between 26 and 30 years, 36.3 percent are between 31 and 35 years old. Only 3.7 percent are between 41 and 45 years. The data clearly demonstrate that 100 percent of the asylum-seekers and refugees interviewed are within the age of conscription. The large majority are predominantly male (73.2 percent) and the majority are single (see Fig. 4). Among the total interviewed in the study, only 37 percent are married (see Fig. 4). When the UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Erika Feller, visited the Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia in July 2011, ‘she was alarmed and shocked to see “a sea of young faces” and “youth denied for so many people.”[67]  It was further stated that of the 48,000 Eritrean refugees in the country, the majority were ‘mostly young, educated, single men[68] (emphasis added). Among those 800-1,000 who arrive every month, significant proportions are unaccompanied children, including as young as six years old, who ‘are being taken care of by the eldest child in the group.’[69]

Fig. 4 about here


A UNHCR spokes person also said, ‘We usually see women and children dominating when it comes to refugees; the case of Eritrean refugees is different, they are mainly young, educated, single men’[70]This is consistent with the findings of this study in which 73 percent are under 35 years old (Fig. 3). About 37 and 27 percent are also secondary school and university graduates, respectively or were studying at such levels when they left the country (Fig. 2). 

            These data indicate that the factors that have been prompting people to flee affect disproportionately a particular age group—namely, those who are between 18 and 40 years old. All the respondents interviewed in the study fled to Sudan or Ethiopia before emigrating to Western Europe in a protracted and highly risky journey via the Sahara desert, Libya, the Mediterranean Sea, Italy and after the Libyan crisis to Israel through the dangerous and ungovernable Sinai desert. In the following the causes of displacement are discussed.


Causes of Youth Exodus

The data presented in the preceding parts of the article show that a large number of Eritreans have been fleeing the country. The overwhelming majority are deserters and to a lesser extent draft evaders. There are unknown numbers of people in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan who fled for reasons other than the national service. These include unaccompanied and separated minors and individuals over 50 years.[71] Why are so many young men and women fleeing at the risk of facing death, uncertainty, suffering and deprivation en route to an imagined nirvana from a country that fought a bloody thirty year war, inter alia, to bring to an end the conditions that previously (during the thirty year war) forced hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to flee in search of international protection? Although the ultimate cause of forced migration in post-independence Eritrea is due to interplay between deeply entrenched and inextricably interconnected multiple patterns of economic, social, political, environmental and human rights violations, as well as the pervasive inequalities that characterise the global North-South divide in living standards reinforced by the dense transnational networks that interconnect Eritreans world-wide, it would be unrealistic to examine all these multiple and complex factors within the scope of a single article.[72] When asked to explain why the respondents deserted from the NS and the WYDC, 51 percent said that it was too long, 19 percent deserted in order to help their families, 12 percent are in principle opposed to the notion of NS, 5 percent deserted because they quarrelled with their commanders and the other 5 percent escaped from prison (see Fig. 5).


Fig. 5 about here


Although the requirement to serve indefinitely is a problem in itself, it is the detrimental effects of the open-ended nature of the service on servers and their families that have been the major drivers of forced migration in post-independence Eritrea. For example, the respondents were asked: ‘Are the NS and the WYDC good or bad for the Agelglot (participants)? About 36.3 percent said it is good, but the majority (62.2 percent) said it is bad for the agelglot.[73] The corresponding figure concerning the effect of the same on families is consistent with expectation. About 90 percent of the respondents said that the effect of the NS and the WYDC is bad on families. Asked to respond to the generalisation that ‘NS and the WYDC wreck agelglot’sand their families’ lives’, 52 percent and 35 percent ‘strongly agreed’ and ‘agreed,’ respectively. Only 4 and 8 percent ‘disagreed strongly’ and ‘disagreed’ with the generalisation, respectively. The data generated by the open question in this regard are  edifying (see Table 4).


Table 4 about here  


            The data presented in Table 3 show the devastating effects of the NS and the WYDC on the economies and well being of the agelglots’ families. In Eritrea where the majority of households live dangerously close to the margin of subsistence, most families make ends meet by pulling together the small amounts of income their members derive from diverse sources of income-generating activities. Without diversification of sources of income, most families’ subsistence security would be threatened imminently. Therefore, the NS and the WYDC have deprived many families of invaluable contributions of their able-bodied members and this has substantially weakened or wiped out their subsistence base. As a result, many families have sunk into abject poverty as a result (Table 4). The NS affects all citizens within the age of conscription and it is not unusual to see more than five siblings serving simultaneously. Some of the latter may also have their own families without the means to support them. The responsibility falls on their parents whose subsistence security is already under heavy pressure.


Table 5 about here


            As one key informant (KI#11) stated, ‘It [the NS] has destroyed the foundation of the family and its livelihood.’ Another added, ‘When my family fell into abject poverty, I had to redefine the hierarchy of my priorities. My duty of care to my aging parents and my young children comes first before the duty to serve the government and the party’ (KI #18). A female interviewee also said, ‘If I didn’t desert, my parents and my underage siblings would have been dead and buried by now’ (KI #17). These and the data presented in Table 3 show that severe economic hardship precipitated, inter alia, by the open-ended NS/WYDC and the need to counter its harmful effects are some of the key drivers of forced migration in the country. 

            In addition, it is important to recognise that remittance has been one of the most important sources of income for many families in the country. As KI #32 observed, ‘These days it is not the amount of land, number of livestock or the type of work a family has that matters. It is rather the number of sons and daughters a family has in the diaspora that is vital.’ She added, ‘When people see a family living in a nice house and driving a nice car, they don’t ask what the head of the household does. They ask instead “how many children do they have in the diaspora.’” Remittance is therefore another major pull factor that contributes to the mania of emigration that seems to have gripped the Eritrean youth who see no future in the country. The powerful desire to emigrate is reinforced by the ability and willingness of family members and friends in the diaspora to organise and meet the exorbitant bribes and fees paid to military officers/government officials in Eritrea and in the first countries of asylum, as well as to smugglers throughout the journey. This is further facilitated by the revolution in communication technology and cheap airfares. Family reunification has also been one of the drivers of emigration. Given the word limit, it is beyond the scope of the article to dwell on all these factors in-depth. Instead, the main focus is on the detrimental effects of the NS and the WYDC on participants and their families and how their combined effects have been prompting tens of thousands of young men and women to flee. The indefinite NS/WYDC like a cancerous growth has been eating into the Eritrean polity.

            The large majority of post-independence Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees are national service deserters and draft evaders. The latter include children who flee even at an early age to avoid the scourge of future conscription. Some are members of minority Christian churches, such as the Pentecostals. The results of a survey conducted by the author in 2008 in the UK show that 27 percent, 66 percent and 5 percent, respectively are draft evaders, deserters and members of the minority churches (see Table 5). The results of the larger survey referred to earlier, show that among the 190 respondents, 98 percent had served in the NS and the WYDC when they fled Eritrea. About 2 percent are draft evaders. There are a few former combatants who are not demobilised even though the cause they volunteered to fight for had come to an end de facto in May 1991 and de jure in May 1993.

The Eritrean national service, which was initiated as a legitimate policy of promoting nation-building, social cohesion and development of common Eritrean national identity, as well as economic development has, due to its indefinite and compulsory nature, degenerated into forced labour.[74] One of its many negative consequences has been depletion of the country’s invaluable human resources and endangerment of the lives of many young men and women. As the data in Table 3 show, the total number of asylum-seekers who came to Sudan in 2003 was only 247. In 1998, there were only four people who sought asylum in the Sudan. The corresponding figures for 1999 and 2000 were zero and 121, respectively. After the introduction of the WYDC which rendered the NS open-ended, the figures began to rise gradually reaching nearly 20,000 per year in 2009 (see Table 3). In Ethiopia, the statistics on post-independence Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers are not broken down according to the reasons why they left Eritrea, but there is little doubt that they are not substantially different from those in Sudan and in the UK. For example, with the exception of the Eritrean Afar asylum-seekers and refugees, the other Eritreans in Adi Harush, Shimelba and Mai-Aini are predominantly male (see Table 2) as is the case with the refugees in SudanAs the data in Table 3 show, most of those who sought asylum in eastern Sudan were draft evaders and deserters. The same is true in the UK. Among the sample of 119 of Eritreans who sought asylum in the UK, 95 percent are deserters and draft evaders (see Table 4).


Concluding Remarks  

It is ironic that a liberation movement, namely the EPLF, that led one of Africa’s longest and fiercest armed struggles for justice, freedom and human rights, as well as bringing to an end the conditions that created and reproduced injustice, lack of respect for the sanctity of human life, rule of law and human rights and consequently forced hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to flee in search of  safety  is emulating  policies and practices that are not significantly different from its loathed predecessor. An incontrovertible  evidence of this is the exodus of tens of thousands of young men and women from a country their parents, brothers and sisters sacrificed their precious lives in order to bring to an end injustice, arbitrariness, impunity, unfairness and persecution. As is often the case, history is rarely made to order, and contrary to most Eritreans’ and their friends’ expectations, independence which was achieved at a high cost in terms of forgone opportunities, loss of human lives and property, has failed to stem the flow of asylum-seekers. 

            As seen throughout the article, although the flight of the tens of thousands of post-independence Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees has been prompted by interplay between inextricably interwoven political, economic, social and environmental factors, human rights violations, as well as by powerful yearning to benefit from perceived or real opportunities for employment, education and diverse social services, the major drivers have been the harmful effects of the indefinite NS and WYDC on the livelihoods and well being of the agelglot and their families. Although the NS was designed to instil a common Eritrean national identity, to build the country’s defence capability and to contribute to nation-building and economic development, over time it has degenerated into forced labour.  



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Table 1: Distribution of respondents by number of years in service in the UK by sex (percent)


Number of years in service






less than 1 year




1 to 5 years




6 to 9 years




10 to 14 years




15 or more years












Table 2: Total number of Eritrean asylum seekers and Refugees in Ethiopia as of 31 March 2011








Adi Harush





















Eritrean Afar







Addis Ababa















Source: UNHCR, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
































Table 3: Total number of Eritrean deserters & draft evaders in Sudan, 2003-Aug. 2011




Number of Deserters



Male %




Female %
































































upto Aug

















Source: Commission’s Office for Refugees (COR)



Table 4:  The Negative Effects of indefinite NS and WYDC on Families

Respondent No (R#)



Our farms are left without protection and destroyed by elephants. Many families have suffered as a result. When my brothers and my husband left our family to join the national service, my mother-in-law and I were left alone and we could not look after the livestock.’



‘My parents suffered from depression, poverty because we all went to NS’


‘I used to support my parents. When I went to national service, they had no one to look after them. Now they depend on handouts.’


‘My parents lost three of their sons to the national service and were left with no one to help them’


‘My parents were left with no one to support them economically, and had no one to care for them when they fall ill’


‘Endless conscription put many families to starve as their breadwinners are held captive in military.’


‘When the breadwinner joins national service, the parents bear the burden of raising their grand children’


‘The breadwinner of the family (my brother) is in the military with no payment for the last 7 years. If I were not here, our family would have been severely affected economically.’


‘It destroyed the fabric of the family and its livelihood.’


‘The national service has created lots of problems to our family because five of us were conscripted’


Because the national service is endless, not only do families forgo the benefits that they would have got from their children in terms of labour, income and care, but they are also forced to support their grandchildren and their mothers’


‘when all children belonging to a family are conscripted, parents are stripped of their labour supply and fall into the poverty trap’ 


‘Eritrean parents are losing their children like a chicken whose chicks are snatched by a vulture. They are faced with endless problems’


‘Most of the productive force is conscripted and this deprives families of invaluable labour power and they suffer as a result. The NS has created a big gap in their lives. Many families have become impoverished, as well as devastated (orphaned).’


‘The effect is adverse because many of the Agelglot are forced to abandon their families and their work. Their spouses, parents and their children are left without anyone who can work and care for them’


‘My father passed away because of sorrow and none of his children attended his funeral’


‘My parents found life without us unbearable and impossible and as a result were forced to flee to Sudan’


‘After having struggled to raise their children, parents lose them at the time they need them most. This becomes a source of pain both to the Agelglot and their families. My family have fallen into abject poverty and were forced to lead a squalid life’



















Table 5 Distribution of respondents by reasons for leaving Eritrea

Reason for leaving Eritrea




Draft evasion








Religious persecution










According to UNHCR sources, in 2011, 85 out of 193 countries in the world were hosting Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees.

[2] The WYDC is a multi-faceted national social and economic programme which require all conscripts to serve the government and the country indefinitely.

[3] See HRW, Eritrea Service for Life, 2009

[4] See Rachel Humphris, Refugees and the Rashaida, 2013; Karen Ringuette, Ruthless smugglers, 2010   

[5]SeeTilburg University and Europe External Policy Advisors, 2012.

[6] HRW, Libya: Stemming the Flow, Part III, 2006.

[8] Hannah MacNeish, Eritrean Refugees Tortured, April 24, 2013.

[9] See Charles Welch, “The Military and Social Integration in Ethiopia,” 1991

[10] Robert Kaplan, A Tale of the Two Colonies. April 2003

[11] Eritrea Profile 21 May 1994.

[12]Sibhat Ephrem,”‘Precedence to national sovereignty”

[13] In Ibid

[14] Isaias Afwerki, ERI TV, Interview, 13 October, 2002.

[15] UNHCR , Statistical Online Population Database

[16] An Arabic translation was abandoned because all NS participants were fluent in Tigrinya or English.

[17] Commissioner’s Office for Refugees, Sudan.

[18]Alan Bryman, “Dynization,” 1999  

[19] Alan Bryman, Social Research Methods, 2008, p. 185

[20] This will be presented in a forthcoming work in detail.

[21] Alan Bryman, Social Research Methods, p. 185

[22]For an excellent discussion on the difficulties mobile populations, including settled groups pose on effective sampling see Darshan Vignerswaran, Lost in Space, 2007.

[23] Alice Bloch, “Methodological Challenges,” 2007, p. 233. See also Darshan Vigneswaran, “Residential Sampling”  2009; .

[24] See Karen Jacobsen and Loren Landau, ‘The Dual Imperative in Refugee Research” 2003.

[25] 25 filled questionnaires from the Sudan arrived late and were not processed, part of the data in the open questions are used in the discussion

[26] Article 8, Proc. No 82/1995

[27] Art. 12 in Ibid.

[28] Art. 14 (5) in Ibid.

[29]Debessai Ghide, Teateq, 2004

[30] See HRW, Eritrea Service for Life, 2009; Gaim Kibreab, “Forced Labour in Eritrea,” 2009; David Bozzini, National service and state structures,  2012.

[31] See Isaias Afwerki, Kale Meteyik, 2002.

[32] Ibid.

[33] About 3 and 2 percent said, adventurous and educational.

[34] International Monetary Fund. 2003.

[35] Gray, C. The Eritrea/Ethiopia Claims Commission Oversteps Its Boundaries, 2006

[36] HRW, World Report 2013, p. 111.

[37] Ibid.

[38] UNHCR referred in Norwegian Refugee Council, Ethiopia Fact Sheet, June 2012

[39] Ibid.

[40] Referred in Ibid.

[41] UNHCR, Ethiopia, 2005.

[42]UNHCR, 2013 UNHCR country operations profile – Ethiopia.

[43]Sudan’s Commissioner for Refugees quoted in IRIN, Eritrea-Sudan: Refugees battling for a better life, 2011.

[44] Greg Beals, Gebre's story:4 May 2012.

[45] Greg Beals, Fear ofcompulsory recruitment, March 2012

[46] Cited in Ibid.

[47] The attitude of some refugees might have changed in response to the change of policy adopted by the Ethiopian government in August 2010 in which the restriction on the movement those Eritrean refugees who can sustain themselves financially or have a close or distant relative or a friend in Ethiopia who commits to supporting them are allowed to live outside of the camps in the country.

[48]Karen Ringuette, Ruthless smugglers, 20 September 2010.

[49]Greg Beals, Gebre's story.

[50] Quoted in Ibid.

[51]See Lori Nessel, “Externalised Borders and the Invisible Refugee,”2006.

[52]Gedab News. 2006. Italy-bound 15 Eritreans die.

[53]Fred Pleitgen and Mohamed Fahmy, Refugees face organ theft in the Sinai,  November 3, 2011.

[54]See Rachel Humphris, Refugees and the Rashaida, 2013.

[55]See UNHCR, Mediterranean crossingsto Italy and Malta, 5 July 2013.

[56] UNHCR, UN refugee agency condemns Sudan’s deportation of Eritrean refugees, 26 July 2011.

[57]IRIN, ERITREA-SUDAN, 1 July 2011.

[58] Quoted in Ibid.

[59] IRIN, Eritrea-Sudan, 2011

[60] Rohan Gunaratna,  Inside al Qaeda, 2002

[61]2013 UNHCR country operations profile-Sudan..

[62] IRIN, Eritrea-Sudan, 1 July 2011.

[63] One respondent was too young when she left, one draft evader, six demobilised mainly for health reasons and one unspecified.

[64]Central Committee of the Community,  Eritrean refugees in Mai Aini, Statistics, December 2010. Available at July 2013)

[65] Of the total 822 were 0-5 yrs, 377 were 6-10 yrs, 486 were 11-17 yrs and 115 were over 50 yrs.

[66] Gaim Kibreab, Refugees and Development, 1987.

[67] UNHCR, Young Eritreans in Ethiopia face future in limbo, 21 July 2011. 

[68] Ibid

[69] Ibid.

[70]Quoted in IRIN, Eritrea-Ethiopia: "Silent crisis"

[71] However, none of the respondents is over 45 years. Under the second wave of large-scale militarization programme introduced two years ago, all men up to the age of 70 years are required to serve in the hizbawi serawit (popular armed forces) and this may over time change the demographic structure of the refugee population in Ethiopia and Sudan.

[72] These are dealt with in great detail in the on-going wider research project by the author.

[73] There are very interesting reasons why some think the NS is bad or good for participants, but cannot be presented here for lack of space.

[74]Gaim Kibreab, “Forced Labour in Eritrea,” 2009.


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