Children Flee Eritrean Conscription Threat, UN Rights Envoy Says

  • Minors at risk of abduction, abuse after leaving country
  • African nation says national service needed to protect itself

Unaccompanied children are fleeing Eritrea to avoid conscription, putting them at risk of abduction and abuse as they seek shelter in places including Europe, a United Nations rights envoy said.

There’s been a “steady influx of Eritrean unaccompanied and separated children” into Egypt and neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan since 2008, Sheila B. Keetharuth, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, said Monday in Geneva. She said rights violations were the main reason young people flee, with unaccompanied children citing a fear of forcible conscription into the army.

“In leaving Eritrea, the unaccompanied children are subjected to an array of protection risks” that include “trafficking, abduction for ransom, sexual violence, torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment,” Keetharuth said, according to an online transcript. Eritrea’s representative, Tesfamicael Gerahtu, described the report as “baseless” and a bid at “seeking regime change.”

Eritreans constituted the largest group of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy last year, making up 3,092 of a total of 12,360, according to Keetharuth. The World Bank estimates Eritrea’s population at 6.33 million.

Government Service

The Horn of Africa nation, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, has a system obligating adults to perform 18 months of government service. Amnesty International says this period is extended indefinitely for a “significant proportion” of people, fueling a wave of migration.

Eritreans are the fourth-biggest group risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, according to the UN. Eritrea’s government says national service is necessary to defend itself from Ethiopia, which it fought in 1998-2000. It’s described those fleeing overseas as economic migrants, not refugees.

The European Union last week passed a resolution that included a call for Eritrea to reform and shorten the service period. Keetharuth said she hadn’t received “any conclusive sign” that it had been reduced “following initial indications that this could be the case.”

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