Views of International Observers in Asmara on National Service & Illegal Exit
Eritrean Defense Forces in Sawa
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has complied a Country of Origin Information Report on Eritrea's National Service and Illegal Exit. The report consists of information taken from a wide range of perspectives, including the Eritrean government, controversial human rights agencies and international observers in Asmara.
The following are the views of international observers in Asmara on National Service and illegal exit:
1.1 Punishment for desertion
1.1.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
The picture painted by the responses to questions put to diplomats and representatives of international organisations in Asmara about the punishments imposed for desertion (where the deserter does not subsequently leave the country illegally) is very diverse. The SEM has not found information from these sources indicating a systematic approach taken by the Eritrean army and the Eritrean authorities to the issue of desertion.
Some of the interlocutors gave examples of individuals who had deserted from the national service and continued to live in Eritrea without experiencing any problems. As a consequence, in these cases the deserters stopped receiving any pay and had no access to public services (48).This in particular applies to those within the civilian branch of the national service who have stopped attending their assigned workplace. It is also often the case that people formally remain within the national service but rarely go to work, having another job in the private sector (49).
One interlocutor stated that many people left the national service without initially facing any consequences. However, as soon as they broke the law in some other way (e.g. by committing theft) or came to the authorities’ attention for another reason, they were re-drafted into the national service (50).
The security forces did, nevertheless, also continue to search actively for deserters, in particular deserters from the military branch of the national service. However,the Eritrean authorities lacked the capacity to conduct these searches and checks systematically (51).
1.2 Punishment for draft evasion
1.2.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
All the interlocutors mentioned round-ups (giffas) during which the security forces conducted searches for and arrested draft evaders in city neighbourhoods or a village. The information provided by the interlocutors about the frequency of these giffas varies widely: two diplomats spoke of giffas that had taken place in the week prior to the interview (late February of 2016) (73), another had not heard of any giffas for 18 months (74). The other responses fell somewhere in between those two timescales (75).
The interlocutors had little information about what subsequently happened to those arrested. They assumed that the Ministry of Defence sent them for military training and then assigned them to military units(76). One interlocutor believed that assignment to the military branch of the national service (rather than to civilian workplaces) could be regarded as punishment and that this possibility deters young people from evading the draft (77).
Several interlocutors mentioned that many draft evaders led a normal life and were never apprehended over a period of several years (78). This is partly due to the Eritrean authorities’ lack of capacity to arrest draft evaders on a systematic basis (e.g. by conducting home visits), because there are too many draft evaders (79). In addition, the young people concerned pass information between themselves in the event of a giffa taking place (80). Giffas arealso significantly rarer in remote areas (particularly in the lowlands) (81). The consequence for these draft evaders is that they are unable to access public services (82).
Rural Muslim women, as well as pregnant women, married women and women with children, are also usually exempted from national service (83). However, since this practice is not covered legally, unlike people discharged from national service, they do not receive the papers (see Chapter 4.1.4 2015 and 2016 reports) that legalise their status outside the service (84).
2. Punishment for illegal exit
2.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
All the representatives of international organisations and western embassies contacted in Asmara believe that people apprehended by border troops while attempting to leave the country illegally are imprisoned for a number of months, depending on various circumstances (national service status, number of attempts to leave the country, section of the border in question etc.) (111). The interlocutors assumed that deserters from the military branch of the national service are a special category of deserters and are taken back to their unit, where they restart their service after serving a term of imprisonment(112). In addition to the prison sentence, one interlocutor also mentioned forced labour, transfers to remote areas, extension of the length of the national service, and demotion as possible forms of punishment. In his view, most minors go unpunished (113). By contrast, for example, to political prisoners, people jailed for trying to leave the country illegally are not always held in solitary confinement, according to one interlocutor. It is normal for relatives to visit these detainees and bring them food (114).
The interlocutors were unaware which authority was responsible for imposing and enforcing sentences. They did, however, assume that the punishment was not determined on the basis of regular and transparent judicial or administrative proceedings(115). One Eritrean national said that the army had been responsible for punishing illegal migrants since 2005. According to him, the army did not apply the law. Instead, commanding officers within the military are responsible for determining the punishment. There are, therefore, considerable regional differences in the punishments imposed (116).
The interlocutors either believed that the shoot-to-kill-order on people attempting to leave the country illegally was not applied in practice or that there was no such policy. At the border – in particular on the frontline with Ethiopia – shots may be fired, and there are also isolated incidences of fatalities. The border troops attempt to stop people leaving the country. However, considering the thousands of illegal migrants who leave the country each month, these sources consider a systematic practice of killing such migrants to be unlikely (117).
3. Punishment of returnees
3.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
All those interviewed reported that many Eritreans return to Eritrea each year. These returnees include people who had refused to perform national service or deserted from that service, as well as many representatives of the first diaspora generation who have already lived outside Eritrea for a considerably longer time. The interlocutors were also in agreement about the requirements for a person to be able to return; members of the diaspora had to regularise their status by paying the diaspora tax at the competent Eritrean diplomatic mission, signing the repentance form (Form B4/4.2, see Chapter 3.2 Position of the Eritrean government) and obtaining Eritrean travel documents (163).
The international representatives were unaware of any more recent examples of people being arrested on entering the country (164). They based their views on their own observations (i.e. the fact that many members of the Eritrean diaspora spent the summer in Asmara) and anecdotal reports from people to whom they had spoken. In addition, they believed that the diaspora would not holiday in Eritrea to this extent if there was a threat of arrest, and that news of arrests would spread in any event (165).
However, most people interviewed also reported that not all members of the Eritrean diaspora can return to the country easily. For example, people who have engaged in opposition or anti-government activities outside the country or were involved in the work of human rights organisations are at risk. People who, aside from draft evasion/desertion, were guilty of something in the eyes of the government before they left the country are also unlikely to be allowed to return readily and should expect to be punished (166).
4.1 Length of service
4.1.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
Most international representatives in Asmara interviewed as part of the fact-finding mission felt that the government had not implemented and will not implement the announced restriction of the national service to 18 months. Those recruited in July 2014 as part of the 27th recruitment round should have been discharged in early 2016 but were not (246). The interlocutors also made similar comments on fact-finding missions led by Norway and the United Kingdom (247).
The government has told diplomats of its intention to reform the national service rather than apply time limits to it. That reform includes raising the previously very low salaries paid and increasingly assigning recruits to civilian jobs. The diplomats believe the government has made efforts in this regard (248). Despite the partial implementation of salary increases (see Chapter 4.2, those performing national service are still not allowed to choose a job; the authorities decide on their deployment (249).
People are being discharged from the national service, particularly women. One interviewee put the usual length of service at between 5 and 10 years. However, longer periods of service are also possible. When discharging someone from national service, the Defence Department issues a discharge letter. An individual who has been discharged can, however, still be called up to undertake refresher courses (250).
The comments made by the international interlocutors in Asmara mostly related to the civilian national service. They had little information about discharges from the military branch. One Eritrean national contacted as part of the factfinding mission said that the chances of being discharged from the military remained slim (251).
4.2.3 Views of international observers in Asmara
Diplomats in Asmara confirmed that, by all accounts, implementation of the national service salary increases has begun. They point out that, by taking this action, the government is addressing one problem that young people have with the national service. The new salaries are surprisingly high and are even somewhat higher than the salaries paid (272) for comparable work in the private sector (273).
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