This report was originally presented as a briefing at an NGO side-event held by Human Rights Concern Eritrea at 866 UN Plaza, New York on 24 October 2013 – “Eritrea: Voices of Victims – Stories of survivors and families of victims of Eritrea’s repressive regime”. The event, centring on testimonies in person by relatives of prominent long-term and “disappeared” prisoners of conscience, was co-sponsored by Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, and FIDH. It followed the presentation of a Report on Eritrea by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea delivered to the UN General Assembly (UN document A/HRC/23/53, 24 October 2013).
Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) is an Eritrean-led non-political human rights organization, located unavoidably outside Eritrea, which researches, reports and campaigns on violations of internationally-recognised human rights in Eritrea. HRCE is a founding member of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, and has made submissions directly to the UN Human Rights Council. HRCE works closely with international and African human rights organizations, adding a deeply-concerned Eritrean voice to the reporting over many years on gross and persistent human rights violations in Eritrea in the work of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Reporters without Borders, Child Soldiers International and others.
This Report on Child Rights in Eritrea – released at the time of the widely-publicised and horrendous international refugee crisis affecting Eritrean “boat people” in the Mediterranean area, particularly the tragic huge loss of life including babies, pregnant women, and children in the seas around the Italian island of Lampedusa – focuses on the long-term and refugee-related issue of child rights violations inside Eritrea. The briefing is based on new HRCE research conducted in mid-2013 among Eritrean refugees in the Horn of Africa. First-hand witness testimonies are presented below.
“Child Rights” here refers to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Eritrea is a party, although it has systematically violated the Convention. Children are young people under the age of 18 years.
The State of Eritrea is ruled by a government without a constitution or parliament, and by President Issayas Afewerki’s sole permitted political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). There is no space for independent civil society, human rights organization or freedom of speech and opinion inside the country. The regime rules in spite of lack of elections, and without any legitimacy to power of authority. It is clear that, under such conditions, the legal and human rights of its citizens will not be and are not respected. Even though Eritrea signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, committing the government to uphold international standards on the rights of children and its young citizens, it has nevertheless systematically violated this important convention. The government has not taken any step to protect or ameliorate life conditions of its children and youth. Instead it has acted atrociously towards them by punishments of detention and torture or ill-treatment, and forced labour. Having being thus denied the love and care of their parents and/or guardians, children in Eritrea today are often left to fend for themselves in order to survive in the best way they can.
Children, whose parents were recruited by force and indefinitely to the National Military Service without any payment to provide for family support, are compelled to work for their survival in the streets by peddling cigarettes, chewing gum, sweets, peanuts, pocket tissues, etc. They are frequently rounded up and imprisoned for a period of time in the old TB hospital, and their small properties confiscated. Children with no guardians are regularly rounded up off the streets as homeless street children and sent to the Police Station near the old Hamasien Commission House and beaten, which may lead some to mental health problems.
Militarization of the Education System and Child Soldiers
As has been widely reported, conscription to National Military Service is compulsory for all Eritreans male and female aged 18 to 45 years, but extended for an indefinite period, potentially for most adult citizen’s entire lives. Some later are transferred to government service or other sectors but remain under military regulation. Prior to military service, since 2003 the final year of secondary school has been extended from 11th grade to 12th grade. To attend 12th grade, students have been forced to go to Sawa military training camp. When they leave Sawa, they are entered into full military service.
In Sawa military training camp, the final secondary school year starts initially with 3 months military training in military uniform, after which students undergo 6 months academic schooling, followed by final 3 months military training. Even during the 6 months of academic schooling, the students are administered according to military command and control structures. In actual terms they are conscript soldiers throughout the year. Among the 12th grade students, there are a substantial number of under-18 students who undergo the military training. At the end of the year, they are automatically processed into National Military Service. A proportion of children in the 12th grade, and even some later conscripts, are thus “child soldiers” in effect.
Only a small proportion of the 12th grade finalists are selected for further education in the “vocational colleges” which were created when the well-known and respected University of Asmara was permanently closed down by the government for political reasons in 2006. The remaining school-leavers are assigned either to the military or to government companies with the status and conditions of service of conscripts. In addition to military duties, conscripts are often forced to perform manual labour in harsh conditions on farms and roads, in buildings construction, down mines, or on work tasks in the numerous prisons throughout the country.
If students refuse to participate in military training, they are not allowed to sit their leaving examination or receive the school-leaving certificate; they are denied access to further education and their student ID is taken off them. Further punishment may ensue. Children of this age, in or out of school, are liable to be rounded up from the streets (round-ups are known as Giffa) and taken away to prisons and later to military camps for training, followed by deployment into full military service
Children who have been arrested and have no guarantor or person to bail them out of prison -who were in prison in the first place because of their destitution, poverty, homelessness and sleeping rough outdoors – are forced into military training and later full military conscription. In these detention centres they are physically and mentally tortured. They become victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuses and exploitation by the detention personnel and even sometimes by fellow-prisoners too. Children and adults are not held separately in these prisons.
Young Female Prisoners
Female minors are reportedly commonly raped and sexually exploited both in the detention centres and military training camps. Many girls are reportedly forced to be “sex slaves” for the army officers.
Officially the government excludes married, pregnant, lactating and child rearing women from National Military Service, which otherwise applies to males and females equally. In practice, police and soldiers frequently round up women who are found working in shops or bars, or are out late at night in the streets. Girls and women attempting to flee the country and cross the border risk arrest or worse.
Some mothers who are in prison on account of their opinions or religious beliefs, or because of trying to flee the country and avoid conscription, have their young children staying with them in prison because they could not find relatives who could take responsibility for their children and look after them. These children are between 3 and 5 years old or younger.
Other Child Freedoms Denied
The government has proclaimed that children should not be at work. In practice, children are forced by the authorities to work for long periods year in year out without even nominal pocket money. Students of junior and secondary schools are separated from their parents and sent to remote rural parts of the country in the Maetot summer camps – the so-called Summer National Reconstruction Campaign. They are totally isolated from their families and forced to work without any payment.
During the harvesting season, all students of Grades 6 to 8 are forced to do farming work, or work on mending roads and construction of houses.
The commemoration of Independence Day (24 May) each year is a grandiose affair. The preparation for the celebration of the anniversary commences from the month of March in all regions of the country. In each region, junior and secondary school students are obliged to practise every sort of dance, traditional and modern, including aerobics and gymnastics, to perform publicly for the occasion in the presence of government officials. If they do not participate, they lose their student ID and are denied local administration coupons or vouchers to buy food rations or give access other official amenities.
Students who fail to participate in the Summer National Reconstruction Campaign and other such work or activities are expelled by their schools and lose all educational opportunities.
Students who fail to pay for extra-curricular school facilities (sports or cultural) are expelled.
All students are forced to be members of the PFDJ-controlled National Association of Youth and Students (NAYS) and compelled to pay membership fees, participate in political assemblies, rallies, and meetings. Any student who does not comply will be barred from education and public libraries.
Families Broken Up
It has been now 19 years since the open-ended National Military Service was put into action. Children, whose parents are performing indefinite military service (with family visits usually refused), are in effect growing up as orphans. Some are especially harshly treated because of alleged offences of their own or their family member’s political opinion. or membership of a banned religious group.
The family unit is thus broken up, because of life lived through this endless country-wide military service. One result is that there are an increasing number of children born out of wedlock and brought up in a single-parent family, with no contact with a father or sometimes a mother either.
Children Caught Attempting to Flee the Country
Within the massive outflow of Eritreans fleeing to seek asylum in other countries in the region and beyond, there are many children who are escaping from military training or conscription, to seek asylum abroad, especially those who reside close to the border. Many fall into the hands of the Eritrean security forces and the border guards, who have a “shoot-to-kill” policy against these supposed “traitors”. If they are arrested, they are imprisoned arbitrarily without charge or trial, often tortured or sexually abused, sometimes given extra-judicial prison sentences, and finally taken to the military training camps.
There have been disturbing reports that some children have been returned to Eritrea in a family reunion programme for unaccompanied and uncared-for children. This has involved some international relief agencies, who are working in refugee camps in Ethiopia and overseeing the returns, whose voluntary nature is questionable. There are many cases where such children have been imprisoned and taken to military training camps after having been repatriated and initially reunited with their families. There are also an unknown number of children among refugees in Sudan who have been forcibly deported and handed over to the Eritrean authorities by the Sudanese security forces, and feared to have been arrested on return to Eritrea.
Testimonies of and about Children
As part of the programme of HRCE research, HRCE recently interviewed a number of Eritrean child refugees in a neighbouring country to investigate reports about (i) children compelled to undergo military training during 12th grade in the schools system, and (ii) children forcibly conscripted into National Military Service as child soldiers, who could possibly be involved in any resumption of armed conflict with Ethiopia.
The 10 testimonies, which follow, translated from Tigrigna to English, provide vivid details of these abuses. Identifying details have been withheld and names changed due to the risk of reprisals against families in Eritrea or the witnesses themselves.
1. Hiwot (female)
In 2011, I was 17 years old, and I quarreled with my family who live in Seneafe, and went to Asmara. As soon as I got off the bus in Asmara, I was caught by security people and taken to Wia military training camp. I told them that I was only 17, but they did not care.
There, I did military training. In one battalion there were 29 other children with me. I did not have any change of clothes. I was starving. They gave us one small piece of bread each and a cup of tea for breakfast and inadequate food for lunch and dinner. If we arrived late for meals, there was nothing.
The officer in charge raped me twice. He told me no one should know about it. He said if I told people, he would punish me severely.
The guards beat us without any reason. I missed my family a lot. I was terrified, depressed and desperate.
Six months later, in 2012, my parents came looking for me and they came with some documentation to show them that I was still a minor. At that time my health was seriously deteriorating, so I was allowed to go home with my parents.
2. Dawit (male)
I was 15 years old when I was rounded up from the street in Asmara to do the military service. I was a 6th grade student. I did six months’ military training at Sawa military training camp. After I finished the training, I managed to escape and went to my family home. I lived in hiding until 2010, and then I tried to flee the country. I was caught and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but served 1 year and 7 months and was released in January 2013. Then in February, I tried to flee for the second time. This time I successfully crossed the border. With me in the military camp there were three other under-age children. When I escaped they were still in Sawa.
3. Kidane (male)
I was 16 years old when I was rounded up in March 2008 in May Dema in Zoba Debub region. I was sent for military training in Sawa, and when I finished I was assigned to Military Unit 33. I was forced to work in government farms, in construction and digging trenches. There were 27 other under-age children who were trained with me. In November 2012, I fled the country.
4. Habtu (male)
I was rounded up from the street in March 2010 in Enda Gerges near to Adi Quala, and sent for military training. I was an 8th grade student. I completed military training and was held there for three and a half years. With me there were 20 other minors at Sawa training camp.
I remember a 14-year-old student who was also rounded up from near to Enda Gerges, and was at the same camp. Both of us were assigned to a place called Adi Mero to dig trenches.
He was instructed to cook for 20 people and was a full time cook and did all the household work, baking bread, fetching water, etc. The 20 minors who were at the same camp were under 16.
The military training was very tough and brutal. The trainers beat us, stamped on our heads with their shoes, and we were subjected to all sorts of punishments. We were half-starved most of the time. We told them our wishes were to study but they did not listen. Once in 2010, a minor like us tried to escape, and they shot him. We didn’t know whether or not he died.
5. Heyab (female)
I was born in Segeneyti in 1995. When I was a 10th grade student, I was caught trying to flee the country in 2009, when I was 16. I was sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment, and was jailed in Tserona prison. After release, I was taken to May Sewra camp for military training. I completed this training in February 2011, and was assigned to the military unit in Egri Mekel.
The prison in Tserona was harsh. The prison authority asked me to pay 5,000 Nakfa (USD equivalent $250). Those who paid were released, but as my parents did not have money to pay, I served the 8 months’ sentence.
There were other four girls in the same prison, aged 16-17. Like me, they did not have money to pay the fine, so they served their sentences.
In prison, if you went to urinate without permission, they punished you. They told us to lie on the ground and crawl on our bellies while they beat us with sticks. When I was caught, for three days they poured buckets of water on me and beat me with a stick. I told them that my father died fighting in the border war with Ethiopia, and I had 4 young siblings and my mother had no one else to support her, but they did not care at all.
6. Haile (male)
In 2008 I was taken to Sawa for military training when I was 17. I stayed there until September 2009. I passed my exam and was sent to Mai Nefihi College. I studied until 2011. I fled Eritrea in July 2013.
There was another minor with me, he was 16 years old. He had a kidney problem, but did not get medical treatment. He died in August 2009.
There were 17 other minors in the training camp with me, among the 160 people in my unit. Life was very harsh, not enough food, harsh punishments, all sorts of abuses. Those who tried to escape were dealt with brutally.
7. Segen (female)
I was 14 when I tried to flee the country. I was arrested and imprisoned in Number 13 Security Prison for 20 months and only released, because I was very ill, after paying 5000 Nakfa. When I was first caught, they gave me a very bad beating.
The prison conditions were so bad. You had to relieve yourself and empty your bowels in a bucket left in the cell, which was shared with others. The bucket might not be removed for a very long time. There were four other minors but I was the youngest. If I had not become very ill, they would have sent me to do military training. On one occasion, the officer in charge of the prison threw me on the ground and trampled on me.
8. Suliman (male)
When I was 15, I tried to flee the country towards the Sudanese border. I was caught and put in Prison 35 in Teseney for 2 years.
I was interrogated and tortured until my right leg was broken. It was an underground prison. I was released from prison in January 2013. I went into hiding fearing that they would put me back in prison. In May 2013 I managed to cross the border and leave Eritrea. There were 3 other minors in the prison with me during my stay.
My mother had passed away when I was younger. Three of my brothers were doing indefinite national service. I had nobody to support me.
9. Binyam (male)
I was 17 when I was imprisoned for 20 months until February 2013. I was accused of planning to flee the country. After my release, I was refused access to education. There were two 17-year-old girls in prison with me. They were imprisoned for four months and then sent to a military training camp called Miter. I had no news of them by the time I managed to escape Eritrea.
10. Elias (male)
In 2009, when I was 15, I tried to flee the country. I was caught and put in Adi Abeto prison for 10 months. When I was 16 they took me to Wia Military Training Camp where I had 5 months’ military training. I was then assigned to a military unit. After one month, I deserted. After a year of living in hiding I fled the country.
During military training there were 370 children also being trained. Many died of starvation and thirst when they tried to escape through bushland from this brutal military training. Some were shot as they tried to run away. Beatings and torture of those caught were habitual. I am now in a refugee camp and have been told by someone who lives in my old village that my mother, who had brought me up single-handed, had been forced to pay a standard 50,000 Nakfa(equivalent to USD$2,500) in case I did not return.
TO THE UN AND ITS AGENCIES, ESPECIALLY UNICEF
- Recognize these serious violations by the Government of Eritrea of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and take appropriate measures to bring the situation of children in Eritrea into conformity with the relevant international human rights treaties and standards.
TO THE ERITREAN GOVERNMENT
- Immediately end all assignment of children under the age of 18 to the military training camps at Sawa and Wia, and free all children currently under the age of 18 who are in national service.
- Remove compulsory military service from the secondary education system, and prohibit torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of children in connection with current national service practices.
- Ensure that no recruits to national service are less than 18 years old. To this end, publicize through the media the international total ban on child soldier recruitment, and require security forces immediately to ascertain the age of everyone detained in conscription-related round-ups (giffas) and release any under-18 children to their families.
- End the use of forced child labour by government authorities in the Summer National Reconstruction Campaign (Maetot) and at all other times.
- End punishment of schoolchildren who choose not to participate in, or pay for, extra-curricular activities.
- End compulsory membership and financial contributions by students to the National Association of Youth and Students (NAYS).
- Ensure that children shall not be separated from parents and families against their will and freely permit children to leave Eritrea for the purpose of family reunification.
- Implement all the recommendations and observations made during the 48th Session of The Committee on the Rights of the Child – CRC/C/ERI/CO/3, 23 June 2008
TO THE UNHCR AND REFUGEE-RECEIVING STATES
- Fully apply to Eritrean asylum seekers the “UNHCR Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in dealing with Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum” and the “UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care of Refugee Children”, including sections relating to procedures and criteria for refugee status determination for unaccompanied minors.
- Ensure that unaccompanied Eritrean minors who are asylum seekers are placed in appropriate surroundings and given proper schooling, health care, housing, clothing, food, and recreational opportunities.
TO THE UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR FOR ERITREA
- Continue to investigate the Eritrean government’s treatment of children and report abuses to the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly, UNICEF and other appropriate UN bodies.
TO THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL
- Require the Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict to closely monitor the Eritrean Government’s recruitment and use of children in its National Military Service, and respond swiftly and effectively to any such abuses of children.
TO THE UN COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD
- Continue to monitor Eritrea’s child rights violations, and its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC), which it has ratified.
- Ensure that recommendations made by the Committee during the 48th Session CRC/C/ERI/CO/3, 23 June 2008 are followed up and implemented.
TO THE AFRICAN COMMITTEE OF EXPERTS ON THE RIGHTS AND WELFARE OF THE CHILD (ACERWC)
- Closely monitor Eritrea’s systematic child rights violations and non-compliance with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and take appropriate action to end the abuses.