On 6 June 2018, the government of Ethiopia announced that it would abide by the Algiers Agreement and 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopian Boundary Commission decision that defined the disputed border and granted the border town of Badme to Eritrea. Over the last 20 years, Badme has been central to the dispute between the two countries, following Ethiopia’s rejection of the ruling and continued occupation of the area. Ethiopia’s recently appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged that the dispute over Badme had resulted in 20 years of tension between the two countries. To defend the border areas with Ethiopia, in 1994 the Eritrean government introduced mandatory military service for all adults over 18. Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers often give their reason for flight as the need to escape this mandatory national service.
Since 2015, Eritreans have been the third largest group of people entering Europe through the Mediterranean, and have the second highestnumber of arrivals through the Central Mediterranean route to Italy. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2016, 459,390 Eritreans were registered refugees in various countries worldwide. Various sources estimate Eritrea’s population at 5 million people, meaning that approximately 10% of Eritrea’s population has sought refuge abroad by 2016.
Mandatory military service – a driver of migration and displacement
As data collection from the Mixed Migration Centre’s 4Mi programme shows, 95% of Eritrean refugees and migrants surveyed gave fear of conscription into national service as their main reason for flight out of Eritrea. Men and women from 18 to 40 years old are required by law to undertake national service for 18 months — including six months of military training followed by 12 months’ deployment either in military service or in other government entities including farms, construction sites, mines and ministries.
In reality, national service for most conscripts extends beyond the 18 months and often indefinite. There are also reported cases of children under 18 years old being forcefully recruited. Even upon completion of national service, Eritreans under the age of 50 years may been enrolled in the Reserve Army with the duty to provide reserve military service and defend the country from external attacks or invasions.
According to Human Rights Watch, conscripts are subject to military discipline and are harshly treated and earn a salary that often ranges between USD 43 – 48 per month. The length of service is unpredictable, the type of abuse inflicted on conscripts is at the whim of military commanders and the UN Commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea reported on the frequent sexual abuse of female conscripts. Eritrea has no provision for conscientious objection to national service and draft evaders and deserters if arrested are subjected to heavy punishment according to Amnesty International, including lengthy periods of detention, torture and other forms of inhuman treatment including rape for women. For those who escape, relatives are forced to pay fines of 50,000 Nakfa (USD 3,350) for each family member. Failure to pay the fine may result in the arrest and detention of a family member until the money is paid which further fuels flight from Eritrea for families who are unable to pay the fine.
The government of Eritrea asserts that compulsory and indefinite national service is necessitated by continued occupation of its sovereign territories citing Ethiopia as the main threat. In its response to the UN Human Rights Council Report that criticised Eritrea for human rights violations including indefinite conscription, Eritrea stated that one of its main constraints to the fulfilment of its international and national obligations in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is the continued occupation of its territory by Ethiopia.
In 2016, Eritrea’s minister for Information confirmed that indefinite national service would remain without fundamental changes even in the wake of increased flight from the country by citizens unwilling to undertake the service. The Minister went on to state that Eritrea would contemplate demobilization upon the removal of the ‘main threat’, in this case Eritrea’s hostile relationship with Ethiopia. Eritrea and Ethiopia have both traded accusations of supporting opposition/militia groups to undermine each other both locally and abroad. If the relations between the countries turn peaceful, this could potentially have an impact on Eritrean migration, out of the country and out of the region.
In the absence of hostilities and perceived security threats from its neighbour, it is possible that Eritrea will amend – or at least be open to start a dialogue about amending – its national service (and military) policies from the current mandatory and indefinite status, which has been one of the major root causes of the movement of Eritreans out of their country and onwards towards Europe. Related questions are whether an improvement in the relations with Ethiopia could also bring an immediate or longer term improvement in the socio-economic problems that Eritrea faces, for example through expanded trade relations between the two countries? Will this change usher in an era of political stability and an easing of military burdens on the Eritrean population?
A possible game changer?
The border deal, if it materialises, could at some time also have serious implications for Eritrean asylum seekers in Europe. Eritreans applying for asylum have relatively high approval rates. The high recognition rate for Eritrean asylum seekers is based on the widely accepted presumptionthat Eritreans who evade or avoid national service are at risk of persecution. In 2016 for example, 93% of Eritreans who sought asylum in EU countries received a positive decision. This recognition rate was second to Syrians and ahead of Iraqis and Somalis; all countries that are in active conflict unlike Eritrea. If the government of Eritrea enacts positive policy changes regarding conscription, the likely effect could be a much lower recognition rate for Eritrean asylum seekers. It is unclear how this would affect those asylum seekers already in the system.
While Eritreans on the route to Europe and in particular those arriving in Italy, remain highly visible and receive most attention, many Eritreans who leave the country end up in refugee camps or Eritrean enclaves in neighbouring countries like Sudan and Ethiopia or further away in Egypt. After they flee, most Eritreans initially apply for refugee status in Ethiopia’s and Sudan’s refugee camps. As Human Rights Watch noted in 2016, the Eritrean camp population generally remains more or less stable. While many seek onward movements out of the camps, many refugees remain in the region. With these potentially new developments in Eritrea, will the Eritreans in Sudan, Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries feel encouraged or compelled to return at some, or will they perhaps be forced to return to Eritrea?
Conservative estimates in 2001 put the cost of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia at USD 2.9 billion in just the first three years. This has had an adverse effect on the economies of the two countries as well as human rights conditions. In 2013, Eritrea expressed its willingness to engage in dialogue with Ethiopia should it withdraw its army from the disputed territory which it further noted is occupied by 300,000 soldiers from both countries. Ethiopia has previously stated its willingness to surrender Badme, without in the end acting upon this promise. Should this latest promise be implemented and ties between two countries normalized, this might herald positive developments for both the economy and the human rights situation in both countries, with a potential significant impact on one of the major drivers of movement out of Eritrea.
However, with the news that Ethiopia would move to define its borders in accordance with international arbitration, the possibilities for political stability and economic growth in Eritrea remain uncertain. On 21 June 2018, the President of Eritrea Isaias Aferwerki issued a statement saying that Eritrea would send a delegation to Addis Ababa to ‘gauge current developments… chart out a plan for continuous future action’. The possibility of resulting peace and economic partnership between the two countries could, although a long-term process, also result in economic growth on both sides of the border and increased livelihood opportunities for their citizens who routinely engage in unsafe and irregular migration for political, humanitarian and economic reasons.