A boy in Nguenyyiel refugee camp in Gambela region of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in June.

Rights groups have called for the mandate of the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Eritrea to be renewed in June.

The human rights situation in the East African country has been monitored by the UN Human Rights Council since 2012, when it appointed Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth as the Special Rapporteur. In March this year she, however, acknowledged that during her tenure the human rights violations in the country have “continued unabated”.

Father Thomas Reese, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told a US human rights commission in April that Eritrea remained “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”.

“The State Department estimates that between 1,200 and 3,000 individuals are held on religious grounds,” he said. Among them are several Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors who have been detained for more than 10 years.

Evangelicals and Pentecostals in Eritrea have been at particular risk of detention since a 2002 law was passed prohibiting Churches other than the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and also Sunni Islam.

“The situation in the country is only getting worse”, Dr Berhane Asmelash told World Watch Monitor.

The Eritrean pastor who was imprisoned for his Christian activities under the Ethiopian Marxist regime and moved to the United Kingdom 18 years ago, said, “We’re seeing the abused becoming abusers. They know it is wrong but it was done to them too. The government, the president, has been successful in sowing division and creating mistrust. You can’t speak in Eritrea because it might make you end up in jail at any time”.

The rare protests that were seen in the streets of the capital Asmara in November, following the government’s plans to turn all schools public, were not a sign of a possible ‘Eritrean Spring’, according to him. It won’t be repeated again soon, he said, “because of what happened to the protesters: they were arrested, jailed, and tortured. They [the authorities] will make sure you won’t do it again. And it discourages anyone who has similar ideas”.

‘Who needs people?’

The pastor was visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia three weeks ago. At the end of 2017 Ethiopia was host to 164,668 Eritrean refugees with most of them in transit to other destinations.

People are “streaming out of [Eritrea]”, he told World Watch Monitor. Just the week before about 5,000 people had crossed the border, he said.

World Watch Monitor reported last month that an estimated 10 per cent of Eritreans have fled the country since the turn of the millennium, finding refuge in neighbouring countries or crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety in Europe and beyond. They have become the ‘top group’ of African asylum seekers in 2017.

People leaving their country “is exactly what the government wants”, the Eritrean pastor said. “They say: ‘Who needs people? They only cause trouble’.”

He says that there are hardly any young people left in the country. “The regime makes it impossible for them to stay. They leave the country because they can’t find a job or have a normal family life because of the mandatory conscription. Or they are kidnapped, like the son of a friend of mine. He was sold to someone in Sudan and his father had to pay a ransom to get him back”.

It is a bleak picture the pastor paints of his home country, which has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”.

“The kind of people the government want in the country are like the woman I saw in a disturbing YouTube video”, he told World Watch Monitor.

“In an interview with the Eritrean state television she said she had been paralysed but that, after having washed herself in a dam that was built by the government, she had been healed. She praised the president for that. For her it was now first the president, then Jesus.”