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A United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea has found systematic, widespread human-rights violations in the country.
It said those violations had been, and continued to be, committed with impunity under the authority of the Eritrean Gvernment.
United Nations Rapporteur for Eritrea Sheila Keetharuth said some of the violations may have constituted crimes against humanity.
She suggested that it wasn’t surprising so many Eritreans were trying to flee their homeland and cross the Mediterranean Sea.
“We seldom see human-rights violation of this scope and scale,” she said.
“It is not surprising to us that, these days, a large proportion of those crossing the Mediterranean are Eritreans. They’re fleeing a country ruled not by law, but by fear.”
The report said the government enslaved its citizens through so-called national service that often was simply forced labour, arbitrary detention and torture.
National service typically lasted for 18 months, but the commission spoke to one witness who had fled after 17 years of forced service.
Witnesses also reported people being executed for trying to avoid being drafted into service as recently as 2013.
Ms Keetharuth said reports of slavery-like practices were so routine and widespread the commission could only conclude many of those practices were government policy.
“The report states that the main perpetrators are the Eritrean defence forces, the National Security Office, the Eritrean police forces, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the Office of the President and the president,” she said.
The United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region within Ethiopia in 1952 after colonial Italian rule and a decade of British administrative control.
A 1993 referendum led to a vote for independence, and Isaias Afworki had been the country’s only president since then.
Since 2001, Eritrea had become a highly militarised society with mandatory conscription into national service – often of indefinite length – a mainstay of the government.
As a result of some of those government policies, Eritreans have been fleeing their country in large numbers.
The UN refugee agency placed the number of Eritreans who had come to their notice living outside of the country at more than 350,000 in mid-2014.
Many had lost their lives on dangerous land and boat journeys to other countries, seeking refuge abroad.
An Eritrean immigrant named Gavriel told Rueters that he had ended up in Israel, where more than 33,000 Eritreans had sought refuge.
“The thing that made me escape is because of the political persecution for the process that we did in the university,” he said.
“I was being persecuted. I was in prison. Also, I was being also sent for punishment to the army. I was in the army for three years.
“It was clear slavery – I’m not working for my country or for my people.”
Asaf Weitzen is with the Hotline Organisation, which supported refugees and migrants in Israel.
He said the report was a plea to the international community to do more to protect Eritrean migrants around the world.
“In order to run away, you cannot just go to the airport and buy a ticket and leave Eritrea,” he said.
“They must leave illegally. And the Eritrean authorities see anyone who left illegally the state as a betrayer, as someone who’s in opposition to the regime.”
The United Nations is calling on the Eritrean government to stick to the 18-month draft period, urging Eritrea to implement and respect a military code improving conditions and prohibiting child soldiers and sexual harassment.
The commission had asked Eritrea for access and information during its inquiry but said it received no response.
There was no immediate response from the government to the report either.