Eritrea: Government-Authorised Recruitment of Child Soldiers Confirmed by Escape of Sportsmen from Eritrean National Football Team

On 2nd October 2019, the Ugandan newspaper “Daily Monitor”  reported that five (later corrected to four) players from Eritrea’s Under-20 football team had disappeared from their hotel in Jinja, whilst preparing to play in the CECAFA Challenge Cup. They were later reported to have applied for asylum in Uganda. Their motive is undoubtedly the avoidance of further military service in Eritrea, into which they had been forcibly recruited whilst under age. Three of the footballers who escaped were aged 16 and one of them aged 17 when they were directed to commence military training in October 2016.

Eritrea has a pervasive problem of underage conscription. The recruitment of child soldiers was in the past explained if not justified by on-going armed hostilities (with Ethiopia), but border hostilities are now non-existent due to the peace agreement of 2018. Nevertheless, Eritrea continues to deny that it recruits children into its military forces.

The practice of underage conscription is so pervasive in Eritrea that it has affected tens of thousands of underage children. In its 2015 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry documented children being sent to Sawa military camp to attend Grade 12, while other children were detained and sent to Sawa solely for military training ( see UN COI report para. 1271). Human Rights Concern – Eritrea has in the past interviewed children aged 16 and 17 who were received military training at Wia, Kiloma and Afabet military training centres.

For many years, it has been mandatory for all high school Eritrean students to enrol for their final year of education at the Sawa military training centre. Most students report to Sawa when they are between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, which means that they start their military training as underage children. Approximately six months of their time at Sawa is directly spent in military training, including weapons handling and a three-week war-simulation exercise. Even during the six months of academic teaching, military trainers and guards subject students to military rules and discipline. Military officials punish students violently for even the most minor infractions (see Human Rights Watch Report 2019 “They Are Making Us into Slaves” pages 35-37).

In all of the relevant Eritrean laws related to military conscription, in particular the National Military Service Proclamation (NMSP) laws, the starting age for military conscription is eighteen, so the practice of recruiting 16- and 17-year-old students into the military is in direct conflict with the laws of the land.

The government’s persistent practice of underage military conscription is directly in conflict with its obligations under Article 2 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), namely the “Optional Protocol” on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OAPC), which Eritrea acceded to in 2005.

Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, commented, “Eritrea’s practice of recruiting children aged 16 and 17 into military training is abhorrent. It is also illegal according to the country’s own laws, and is in direct conflict with Eritrea’s commitments under the Convention of the Rights of the Child. It is vital that this criminal activity by the regime should meets with worldwide condemnation and that the practice is ended immediately.”

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)

+44 7958 005 637