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Eritrea

Executive Summary

Eritrea is a highly centralized, authoritarian regime under the control of President Isaias Afwerki. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), headed by the president, is the sole political party. There have been no national-level elections since an independence referendum in 1993.

Police are responsible for maintaining internal security, and the armed forces are responsible for external security, but the government sometimes used the armed forces, reserves, demobilized soldiers, or civilian militia to meet domestic as well as external security requirements. Agents of the national security service, which reports to the Office of the President, are responsible for detaining persons suspected of threatening national security. The armed forces have authority to arrest and detain civilians. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over most security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearance, torture, and arbitrary detention, the preceding three actions all committed by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression and the press, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; widespread restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and forced labor, including forced participation in the country’s national service program, routinely for periods beyond the 18-month legal obligation.

The government did not generally take steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for such abuses was the norm.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

Although the law and unimplemented constitution provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, the government severely restricted these rights.

The law criminalizes libel as a misdemeanor and prescribes a punishment of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of between 5,000 and 20,000 nakfa ($333-$1,333). The law also criminalizes “malicious injury to honor or reputation,” which covers true statements communicated solely to damage a person’s reputation, and prescribes a punishment of less than one month in prison and a fine of 500 to 5,000 nakfa ($33-$333). It is unclear if these provisions were enforced.

Freedom of Expression: The government severely restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government in public or in private through intimidation by national security forces.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of media and requires submission of documents, including books, to the government for approval prior to publication. The government controlled all domestic media, including one newspaper published in four languages, three radio stations, and two television stations.

The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials. The printing of a publication by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are both punishable under the law. Government approval is required for distribution of publications from religious or international organizations.

In September the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported 16 journalists were in detention as of December 2018. The CPJ also reported up to seven journalists may have died while in custody.

The government did not prevent persons from installing satellite dishes that provided access to international cable television networks and programs. The use of satellite dishes was common nationwide in cities as well as villages. Access to South Africa’s Digital Satellite Television (DStv) required government approval, and a subscriber’s bill could be paid only in hard currency. Satellite radio stations operated by diaspora Eritreans reached listeners in the country. Citizens could also receive radio broadcasts originating in Ethiopia.

Violence and Harassment: The government did not provide information on the location or health of journalists it detained in previous years and who were held incommunicado.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most independent journalists remained in detention or lived abroad, which limited domestic media criticism of the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain government permission to take photographs. Journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.

National Security: The government repeatedly asserted national security concerns were the basis of limitations on free speech and expression.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law and unimplemented constitution provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted all these rights. It often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military or national service duties or arbitrarily for no given reason. The government restricted travel of children with foreign passports whom it considered Eritrean nationals.

In-country Movement: The government requires citizens to notify local authorities when they change residence, although many did not. When traveling within the country, particularly in remote regions or near borders, authorities required citizens to provide justification for travel at the few checkpoints.

Travel restrictions on noncitizens lawfully in the country remained in effect. The government required all diplomats, international humanitarian workers, UN staff, and foreigners to request permission from the government at least 10 days in advance to travel more than 15 miles (25 kilometers) outside of Asmara. During the year, however, the government on many occasions approved requests with less than 10 days’ advance notice.

Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government required citizens, sometimes including dual nationals, to obtain exit visas. The government restricted travel of children with foreign passports whom it considered Eritrean nationals. Requirements for obtaining passports and exit visas were inconsistent and nontransparent. The government often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military or national service duties. Authorities generally did not give exit visas to children older than age five. Categories of persons most commonly denied exit visas included men younger than 40, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than 30. For women, marriage status and children also played a role. Those citizens who previously qualified for international travel were permitted to travel to and from Ethiopia when flights between the two countries resumed. Between August 2018 and March, when the border was open, three crossing points between the country and Ethiopia offered limited opportunities for overland travel, in the absence of fully formed immigration and customs procedures and infrastructure. For nationals of both countries, crossing these points did not require an entry visa, and Eritreans did not require exit visas or other travel documents.

Exile: In general citizens had the right to return, but citizens residing abroad had to show proof they paid the 2 percent tax on foreign earned income to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be eligible for some government services and documents, including exit permits, birth or marriage certificates, passport renewals, and real estate transactions. The government enforced this requirement inconsistently. There were reports of citizens who left the country without exit visas being denied re-entry.

Citizenship: Most members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not perform military service continued to be unable to obtain official identification documents. They were not eligible for jobs in the formal economy or for ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government terminated its cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regarding treatment of refugees inside the country in March. The government defined refugee status differently than do the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. It did not recognize Ethiopians or Sudanese as refugees, instead considering them economic migrants. The government, however, allowed these refugees to remain in the country and granted them residency permits.

The government took steps to downsize the Umkulu Refugee Camp. Of the more than 2,100 refugees housed at the camp in mid-June, only 700 remained in the country at the end of July. At least 1,300 of those refugees travelled to Ethiopia after Eritrean government officials urged them to do so.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not grant Ethiopians or Sudanese asylum, although it allowed them to remain in the country.

Freedom of Movement: Most Somalis at Umkulu Refugee Camp could travel throughout the country.

Employment: Refugees were not granted formal work permits, but some worked informally.

Access to Basic Services: Persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin living in the country sometimes claimed they received social entitlements commensurate with the perceived degree of their loyalty to the government, including ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.

Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Somalis were able to access basic government services upon procuring and presenting residency permits.

Durable Solutions: The government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status; however, authorities permitted them to remain in the country and to live among the local population instead of in a refugee camp. Authorities granted them residency permits that enabled them to access government services. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law and unimplemented constitution provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections, held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but they were not able to exercise this ability.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Persons seeking executive or judicial services sometimes reported they obtained services more easily after paying a “gift” or bribe. Patronage, cronyism, and petty corruption within the executive branch were based largely on family connections and used to facilitate access to social benefits. Judicial corruption was a problem, and authorities generally did not prosecute acts such as property seizure by military or security officials or those seen as being in favor with the government.

There were reports of police corruption. Police occasionally used their influence to facilitate the release from prison of friends and family members. Police demanded bribes to release detainees.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not subject public officials to financial disclosure.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

International civil society organizations focused on human rights were generally not able to operate in the country. The government generally did not cooperate with such groups or with investigations into human rights abuses. No local human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operated in the country (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

The government permitted the ICRC to operate but limited its operations to supporting Ethiopian repatriation and vulnerable Ethiopian residents; implementing assistance projects (water, agriculture, and livestock) for persons living in the regions affected by conflict; disseminating information on international humanitarian law to students and government officials; and connecting separated family members living abroad to their family members in the country through the country’s Red Cross. Authorities did not permit the ICRC to visit prisons or detention centers.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not permit visits by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. In June the special rapporteur reported that since her appointment in October 2018, the government had remained opposed to cooperating with her mandate on substantive issues, in addition to refusing to grant her access to the country, thus limiting her ability to provide further information on current conditions.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers dismissed for legally sanctioned union activity. The law allows for the establishment of unions in workplaces with at least 20 employees and requires a minimum of 15 members to form a union. Workers from multiple smaller worksites, however, can band together to create a “general association,” if there are at least 20 members. The law requires prior authorization from the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare to establish a union, but it deems registration granted if the ministry does not respond within one month.

The government did not adequately enforce the law, and penalties and legal protections against antiunion interference and acts of interference were insufficient to deter violations. Civil servants as well as domestic workers were not fully covered by labor laws.

The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in practice. Authorities did not allow nongovernmental meetings of more than seven persons. There is one umbrella trade union, the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW), established in 1979 as the trade union wing of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The NCEW was not wholly independent, because it was directly linked to the ruling party. The NCEW’s member union represents hotel workers, service personnel, agricultural professionals, and teachers, among other occupations. The NCEW reported that labor boards, made up of representatives from the union, the workers, and the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare, address grievances before the likelihood of strikes emerges. Employees of the Bisha mine (which was 60 percent foreign owned and managed, 40 percent government owned)), however, have a nongovernmental union.

In general no NGOs played a significant role in promoting the rights of workers in the country.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced labor and slavery. The government enforced these laws within private industry, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations; however, the legal definition of forced labor excludes activities performed under national service or other civic obligations, compulsory labor for convicted prisoners, and communal services rendered during an emergency. Labor protections limiting hours of work and prohibiting harsh conditions do not apply to persons engaged in national service.

By law all citizens between ages 18 and 50 must perform national service, with limited exceptions. The national service obligation consists of six months of military training and 12 months of active military or civilian national service, for a total of 18 months, or for those unfit to undergo military training, 18 months of service in any public and government organ. The law provides for assignment to a job category according to the person’s capacity and profession, but this was not always followed in practice. There is no provision for alternative service for conscientious objectors.

Forced labor occurred. Despite the 18-month legal limit on national service, the government did not demobilize many conscripts from the military or from civilian national service as scheduled and forced some to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or punishment of their families. Persons performing national service could not resign or take other employment, generally received no promotions or salary increases, and could rarely leave the country legally because authorities denied them passports or exit visas. Those conscripted into the national service performed standard patrols and border monitoring in addition to labor such as agricultural terracing, planting, road maintenance, hotel work, teaching, construction, and laying power lines, as well as many office jobs in government ministries and agencies and in state-owned enterprises. There were reports that some conscripts were additionally required to perform manual labor on national service projects unrelated to their assignment and for which they received no overtime payment.

The government required those not already in the military to attend civilian militia training and carry firearms, including many who were demobilized, the elderly, or persons otherwise exempted from military service in the past. Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention. Militia duties mostly involved security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training involved occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The legal minimum age for employment is 14, although this restriction does not apply to children working outside of formal relationships, including self-employed workers. The government prohibits persons younger than age 18 from employment between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and for more than seven hours per day. The government has not determined by national law or regulation the types of hazardous work prohibited for children.

Labor inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, but inspections were infrequent, and penalties, if imposed, were arbitrary and generally insufficient to deter violations.

Children in rural areas commonly worked on family farms, fetched firewood or water, worked in illegal mines, and herded livestock. In urban areas children worked as street vendors of cigarettes, newspapers, and chewing gum. Children also worked in small-scale garages, bicycle-repair shops, metal workshops, and tea and coffee shops. They also transported grain or other goods via donkey cart or bicycle. Child domestic service occurred, as did begging by children.

The government continued to require secondary school students in the ninth, 10th, and 11th grades to participate in the Summer Work Program. News reports stated students planted trees under a larger environmental program. They also served as crossing guards in urban areas. In past years this program included school and hospital maintenance. Students work for four to six hours a day, five days a week, and at least some students were given a small stipend (150 nakfa ($10) for their participation. Reports indicated students who did not participate in the work program were charged fines, and those who did not pay were not permitted to enroll in school during the next academic year.

To graduate from high school and meet the requirements of national service, students are required to complete their final year of schooling (12th grade) at Sawa military complex. Students spend nearly half of the year at Sawa engaged in mandatory military training, which includes military discipline and procedures, weapons training, a survival exercise, and a two- to four-week war simulation. Although the National Service Proclamation establishes 18 years of age as the minimum age for compulsory military training, some students entering 12th grade at Sawa were reportedly as young as age 16. In addition some students are forced to conduct agricultural activities on government-owned farms.

Furthermore the military occasionally performs identity checks that have resulted in the imprisonment of children alleged to be attempting to evade compulsory national service and the forced underage recruitment of children, some as young as age 14, into the military.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

With respect to employment and occupation, labor laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, social origin, nationality, political orientation, or religion. The law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, language, or age.

Discrimination against women was common in the workplace and occurred in an environment of impunity. The law does not criminalize sexual harassment (see section 6, Women).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage for employees of PFDJ-owned enterprises and government employees was below the international poverty line. There was no national minimum wage for private-sector workers. The law provides for a standard workweek of 48 hours and no more than two hours per day of overtime, but it includes exceptions for when someone is missing or when there is “urgent work.” The law entitles workers to overtime pay, except for those employed in national service, but this was not always enforced. The legal rest period is one day per week, although most employees received one and one-half days. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

No published occupational health and safety standards existed. Each government enterprise has a separate agreement with the local union defining the work standards, including occupational health and safety regulations, for that enterprise. There were 168 government enterprises in the country, accounting for most large-scale employers.

The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for worker safety and welfare. The ministry employed inspectors, but the number was unclear and likely insufficient. The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers reported that every enterprise has an inspection at least once per year that is then reviewed by the enterprise, the union, and the ministry.

Approximately 80 percent of the population was employed in subsistence farming and small-scale retail trading. There were no reliable data on the informal economy and no effective mechanisms for monitoring conditions or protecting workers in the informal economy.

The government did not report information regarding abuses pertaining to wage, overtime, safety, and health standards.

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