A U.N. human rights inquiry on Wednesday released a chilling report on the plight of Eritreans trapped inside the repressive African nation, as record numbers continue to flee to Europe.
Torture, rape, killings and disappearances remain widespread in Eritrea, the inquiry found one year after its first report documented systematic atrocities in the east African country. These abuses amount to crimes against humanity, the U.N. commission said Wednesday, and urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court.
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s regime has enslaved between 300,000 and 400,000 people over the past 25 years through its system of indefinite, compulsory military service, Mike Smith, an Australian professor and former diplomat who heads the inquiry, told reporters.
Eritreans say military service in the country lasts for decades, and sometimes for life. Conscription is enforced by threats of death or detention. With no end in sight, conscripts are forced to work for the military or state-run industries for a meager wage, while torture and rape remain prevalent at military camps, the U.N. report says.
“Eritrea is an authoritarian State. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions in Eritrea,” Smith said in a statement. “This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century.”
“These crimes are still occurring today,” he stressed.
Eritrea vehemently denies the U.N. commission’s findings and has refused the commissioners entry to the country. "Eritrea rejects the politically motivated and groundless accusations and the destructive recommendations of the [inquiry]" a government statement read Wednesday.
The regime last year indicated it would curtail military service to 18 months, but has since reneged on that pledge.
Eritrean refugees often cite enslavement through military service as the main reason they risked punishment by the regime and the dangers of the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea to flee the country.
Eritreans made up the largest group of people making the perilous journey to Europe last year after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. The U.N. notes that 47,025 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, nearly four times the number that applied in 2012.
The regime tries to stop people fleeing, and punishes the families of those who make it out. Eritreans report that border guards shoot at people trying to leave, and Smith said Wednesday that shoot-to-kill policy appears to remain in place.
The U.N. panel headed by Smith was established in June 2014, and has interviewed and collected statements from hundreds of Eritreans, many of whom were terrified of government reprisals.
The New Statesman reported this week that the Eritrean regime is organizing “spontaneous” demonstrations against the inquiry, and is putting Eritreans in the diaspora under pressure to sign on to a mass signature campaign critical of its findings.
The commission said Wednesday it had received 45,000 written submissions in the year since its first report, most of them highly critical of their work. The letters appear to be part of a coordinated campaign against the inquiry, it said.