Eritrea is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, and to a lesser extent, sex and labor trafficking abroad. During the reporting period, tens of thousands of persons fled the nation, many to escape conditions that amounted to forced labor through exploitative circumstances in the government’s mandatory national service program. Under the Proclamation of National Service (No. 82/1995), persons aged 18 to 50 years had the obligation of performing national service. For persons aged 18 to 40, this obligation consisted of six months of military training and 12 months of active duty military service, for a total of 18 months; persons over 40 were considered to be on reserve status if they had performed active duty service. An emergency situation declared in 1998, as a result of a border war with Ethiopia, remained in effect during the year, with the result that despite the 18-month limit on active duty national service under the 1995 Proclamation, many conscripts were not demobilized from the military as scheduled and some were forced to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or punishment of their families. Persons performing national service could not resign from their jobs or take new employment, generally received no promotions or salary increases, and could not leave the country legally because they were denied passports or exit visas. Those conscripted into the Eritrean military performed standard patrols and border-monitoring, in addition to public works projects such as agricultural terracing, road maintenance, and laying of power lines. Working conditions were often harsh and sometimes involved physical abuse. There were reports that some Eritrean conscripts were forced to build private homes for army officers, perform agricultural labor on farms owned by the ruling party, or work in privately-owned mines; functions that fall outside the scope of the proclamation. During the reporting period, the Ministry of Education continued Mahtot, a national program in which secondary-school children engage in public works projects including anti-litter campaigns and building school furniture. All 12th-grade students, including some younger than 18, completed their final year of education at the Sawa military and educational camp; those who refused could not receive high school graduation certificates, go on to higher education, or be offered some types of jobs. The first six months consisted of military training prior to military service. In 2012, the government instituted a compulsory citizen militia, requiring persons not already in the military or being trained at Sawa, including many who had been demobilized or exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend military training. Eritrean children worked in various economic sectors, including domestic service, street vending, small-scale manufacturing, garages, bicycle repair shops, tea and coffee shops, metal workshops, and agriculture; some may be subjected to forced labor. There were reports that children were exploited in the sex trade in Asmara.
Some Eritreans fleeing national service or migrating for other reasons became victims of forced labor, primarily domestic servitude, in Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Yemen, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, or other Gulf countries. Smaller numbers of Eritrean women and girls were subjected to sex trafficking inside the country, as well as in South Sudan, Sudan, and Gulf countries. The government’s strict exit control procedures and limited issuance of passports and exit visas effectively obliged those who wished to travel abroad to do so clandestinely, increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. During the reporting period, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Eritreans escaped to refugee camps in eastern Sudan each month. Additionally, there were at least 62,000 Eritreans, including 1,000 unaccompanied minors, in refugee camps inside Ethiopia, and smaller but increasing numbers of Eritrean refugees in Djibouti and Yemen. A significant number of fleeing Eritreans encountered serious risks of being shot and killed by Eritrean, Egyptian, or Libyan authorities or forcibly repatriated to Eritrea, where they were often detained without charge by the Eritrean government, or recalled into national service. Adolescent children who attempted to leave Eritrea were sometimes detained or forced to undergo military training despite being younger than the minimum service age of 18.
International smugglers and traffickers sought out vulnerable Eritreans in refugee camps, particularly in Sudan, sometimes extorting money from them or torturing them as they were transported through the Sinai Peninsula. Over the reporting period, there were numerous reports of Eritrean nationals being brutalized by smugglers operating in the Sinai; victims were chained together, whipped and beaten regularly, deprived of food, raped, and forced to do construction work at gunpoint at smugglers’ personal homes. Eritrean military officers sometimes colluded with Sudanese or Ethiopian military officers to exploit Eritrean migrants. Eritrean military officers sometimes operated within Sudan to abduct refugees from camps, particularly those who voiced criticism of the Eritrean government or were prominent political or military figures.
The Government of Eritrea does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The Eritrean government did not operate transparently, nor did it publish data or statistics regarding efforts to combat human trafficking. Although the government acknowledged the existence of a trafficking problem, including sending a letter seeking assistance of the UN Secretary-General, and warning its citizens of the dangers that traffickers posed, authorities largely lacked understanding of human trafficking, conflating it with all forms of transnational migration from Eritrea. The government rejected responsibility for creating circumstances that drove its citizens to flee the country.
Recommendations for Eritrea: Develop and enforce a comprehensive anti-trafficking statute that includes prohibitions against forced labor, differentiating between illegal migration and human trafficking; conduct campaigns to increase the general public’s awareness of human trafficking at the local, regional, and national levels; enforce existing limits on the length of national service to 18 months and cease the use of threats and physical punishment for non-compliance; extend existing labor protections to persons performing national service and other mandatory citizen duties; investigate allegations of conscripts being forced to perform duties beyond the scope of the national service program and prosecute and punish, as appropriate, those who subjected recruits to exploitative labor; ensure that children who are sent to Sawa, the military school, do not participate in activities that amount to military service; cooperate with UN agencies to combat trafficking, and allow international NGOs to operate in the country, including helping to combat trafficking; institute trafficking awareness training for diplomats posted overseas; with assistance from international organizations, provide training to all levels of government, particularly law enforcement officials, on identifying and responding to trafficking crimes; in partnership with NGOs or religious entities, ensure the provision of short-term protective services to child trafficking victims; and accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
The Government of Eritrea did not report prosecuting or convicting any traffickers during the year. Article 605 of the Eritrean Transitional Criminal Code prohibits trafficking in women and young persons for sexual exploitation, which is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, or from three to 10 years’ imprisonment if aggravating circumstances are present; these penalties are sufficiently stringent, but not commensurate with punishments prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 565 prohibits enslavement and prescribes punishment of five to 20 years’ imprisonment, penalties which are sufficiently stringent. Forced labor and slavery are prohibited except where authorized by law under Article 16 of the ratified, but suspended, Eritrean Constitution; Article 17 of the 2001 Labor Proclamation specifically excludes activities performed under national service or other civic obligations from the definition of forced labor. Existing labor protections limiting hours of work and prohibiting harsh conditions did not apply to persons engaged in national service. Proclamation 11/199 prohibits the recruitment of children younger than 18 years of age into the armed forces. The penalties are sufficiently stringent, though the government does not appear to have used these statutes to prosecute cases of human trafficking. During the year, an unknown number of Eritrean citizens alleged to be traffickers were returned from Uganda. The government did not behave in a transparent or consistent manner regarding information about prosecutions or punishments of these or other suspected trafficking offenders during the reporting period. Nor was the government transparent regarding any investigations or prosecutions of government officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking. The government did not provide information regarding training it might have offered to its law enforcement officials on identifying and responding to trafficking crimes.
The local Eritrean media reported government efforts to repatriate women and girls exploited abroad in domestic servitude or sex trafficking. The government identified an unknown number of those trafficking victims and sought their assistance in the investigation of trafficking-related crimes, but did not provide information on how it cared for them after their repatriation. No international NGOs operated in Eritrea during the reporting period. During the year, the National Security Agency assumed additional responsibilities related to combating trafficking, but individual cases of transnational human trafficking were reportedly handled by the Eritrean Embassy in the country of destination; information regarding efforts made by Eritrea’s diplomatic missions to assist trafficking victims was not available, and some victims reported that Eritrean Embassies abroad charged extra passport processing fees to victims lacking documentation. Whether the government trained its diplomatic officials in identifying and responding to trafficking situations involving Eritreans overseas was not known. The government did not have procedures in place to identify trafficking victims among migrants deported or forcibly removed by Eritrean security forces from neighboring countries; these individuals, some of whom may have been trafficking victims, often faced detention in Eritrea.
The government made its first-ever efforts to prevent trafficking during the reporting period, though it tended to regard all transnational migration as “human trafficking.” The government acknowledged the problem of its citizens becoming victims of “human trafficking” and began issuing warnings about the hazards they sometimes faced when attempting to migrate abroad. Warnings issued by government-sponsored organizations such as the Youth Association, Women’s Association, and Workers’ Federation incorporated information about the dangers of “trafficking” into their regular programming. In a letter dated February 2013, the president of Eritrea asked the UN Secretary-General for UN assistance “to launch an independent and transparent investigation” into human trafficking as it affects Eritrea. The government did not take steps to decrease migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking, such as facilitating legal short- or long-term migration abroad. The Ministry of Labor was responsible for investigating cases of forced labor, but it lacked adequate capacity to carry out this mandate and its efforts in this regard during the reporting period were limited. In an effort to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, the government arrested an unspecified number of clients of the country’s sex trade during the year. Eritrea is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.