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Interview: The Mass Exodus from Eritrea

Teachers and Students Flee Forced Conscription

Satellite Imagery of the Sawa military camp, including the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School, recorded in January 2015.  Imagery © DigitalGlobe - Maxar Technologies 2019; Source: Google Earth

The border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 led to a “no war, no peace” stalemate after Ethiopia refused to accept an international boundary demarcation ruling. Since then, Eritrea took an isolationist approach in its foreign relations and instituted indefinite compulsory conscription. This means that the government forces a significant section of its population to serve in the military or civil service for their entire working lives. The education sector has been hit particularly hard by this policy. Instead of investing in training and recruiting teachers who voluntarily choose to teach, the government has filled its schools with national service conscripts, who are paid little and often have little interest in or qualifications for the assigned post. Teachers who try to leave their posts risk reprisals, including imprisonment in dire conditions and even physical abuse. Senior Researcher Laetitia Bader speaks to Audrey Wabwire about Eritrea’s conscription program and the huge risks teachers and students take to escape from it.

What did Eritreans tell you about their everyday lives?

The border war with Ethiopia remains heavily on the conscience of the country. Since then, Eritrea has become isolated internationally, no independent media or non-governmental organizations function in the country, and the risks of reprisals against anyone who dares to speak to a human rights organization is real. Because of these risks, we interviewed Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers who had fled to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Europe.

They described a bleak and harsh existence back home, disappointed that their own government treats them like prisoners and devastated that they felt they had no other options but to flee their homes. A significant percentage of Eritrea’s population has fled the country, and Eritreans make up about a third of the African migrants making their way to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. We found that many of those fleeing the country are teachers and students. The teachers said they had no choice in their own destiny, since they were bound to teach in the national service for life. Students said they felt imprisoned in their own country and trapped in a destiny they have no choice over.

What does forced conscription look like? What impact does it have on education in Eritrea?

Eritrean students are forced to spend their final year of secondary education in a military camp known as Sawa, in the hot and dry Gash-Barka region in the country’s southwest. Here they are under military command, go through arduous exercises in an extreme climate, and face military discipline and harsh punishment. Some are still children, under 18, when sent to Sawa. Military officials subject some of the female students to sexual harassment and exploitation. Food rations are limited, and they only see their families once during the year at Sawa. Many we spoke to remember Sawa as a place of hardship, violence, and hunger.

The school year ends with final exams and approximately four months of military training. The graduates are then posted directly into the military, into vocational training, or for further education. Many not conscripted into the army are then assigned into a civilian profession – many as teachers. Teachers have no choice in becoming teachers; they are forced to. Postings do not consider the conscripts’ home location. A teacher could be posted anywhere, sometimes far away from their families, and because the pay is little, they can rarely afford to visit their families. In addition, they have to seek permission from those overseeing their national service to get the movement passes required to travel. Many former teachers say they still relied on their parents to make ends meet, despite being employed. These teaching jobs can continue throughout their working lives. The government seems to have no interest in creating a voluntary teaching corps in the country.

What does this mean for students?

Many teachers are unhappy and have no motivation to work. Both teachers and students described a negative atmosphere in classrooms. Some former students we spoke to said that some teachers would come to class and just write on the blackboard, never interacting with the students. Other teachers would just sit at the front of the class until the lesson ended. This is no way to inspire a growing mind.

Many students constantly worry about what they will endure during their final year of school. They are not enthusiastic about learning because of the looming hardship at Sawa. Some students said they kept failing on purpose so that they wouldn’t proceed to the next class, therefore putting off the dreaded final year. Other students said they just ran away from their schools to live in the rural areas where they are less likely to be rounded up by soldiers who forcibly conscript young people outside of the school system. Many of those who drop out say fleeing the country is the only option.

Young women said they avoid conscription by dropping out of school to get married or getting pregnant: wives and mothers are less likely to be conscripted and forced into the hardships of Sawa. This is such a painful calculation for any woman to make about her life.

What is life like for young people who flee Eritrea to escape conscription?

In Sudan and Ethiopia, they are mainly stuck in refugee camps as these countries have encampment policies that restrict their movements. Ethiopia, however, recently passed a law to enable more freedom of movement of refugees. Sometimes there is the possibility to move to a town. However, it’s difficult to get jobs in the towns, and in Sudan they risk arbitrary detention or deportation back to Eritrea.

So many refugees try to move further away. Many used to cross into Israel through the Sinai, but Israel has largely stopped recognizing Eritreans as refugees. Many Eritreans are now trying to get into Europe via Libya. But they are caught up in the fighting in Libya, and some end up in horrific conditions in detention in both official and unofficial detention centers, where they face inhumane conditions and sometimes physical violence.

I spoke to many young men who said they took the risk to flee without their family’s knowledge. But when they are detained, sometimes even kidnapped by smugglers along their perilous journey, their families sell whatever little they have to have their loved ones released from detention. One man said his mother sold her remaining gold jewelry to secure his release in Libya. Young people feel they have no choice but to place this burden on their families.

Some Eritreans eventually make it to Italy and try to move into other parts of Europe where relatives are living. Unfortunately, there are ongoing discussions in several European countries questioning some of the asylum claims of Eritreans. Some unaccompanied Eritrean children that I interviewed were sent back to Italy from France even though protection policies are clear about the risks that such flawed actions could have on children.

There have been significant changes in the Horn of Africa, with new leadership in Ethiopia pushing reforms and the signing of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018. What can neighboring countries do to help Eritreans?

Most importantly, neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Sudan should uphold asylum space and not deport Eritrean refugees. Other countries such as Israel and France should also be more welcoming to Eritrean refugees because those fleeing conscription in Eritrea already risk their lives to leave, and when they are sent back, they risk persecution.

Neighboring countries should advocate against forced conscription in Eritrea. For a long time, the Eritrean government justified forced conscription because of the “no peace no war” situation with Ethiopia. This illegitimate justification is even less valid now that a peace agreement has been signed between the two countries. Neighboring countries should be asking serious questions about why the Eritrean government continues to hold its population hostage.

Regional countries can also play an important political role in ensuring the educational sector in Eritrea is strengthened. Compulsory national service in itself is not illegal, but the way it is done in Eritrea is illegal and has negative impacts on education and the youth. Teachers are being held in service, involuntarily, for their working life. Taking steps to turn teaching into a voluntary career path would restore the reverence that the teaching profession had in the past, help improve the quality of education, and turn around attitudes in the classrooms.

Eritreans deserve to be free. They deserve their basic rights promoted and protected. They deserve the right to choose their own future, to have a basic standard of living and a family life, and the right to not be arbitrarily detained. We know the European Union and the World Bank would like to increase their engagements with the Eritrean government. But they should first remember to speak up on behalf of Eritrean people.

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