Eritrea remains “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”, says USCIRF Commissioner. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
10 per cent of Eritreans are thought to have fled the country since the year 2000 (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

“State-sponsored repression” is the reason Eritrea is one of the world’s main sources of refugees, a US human rights commission has heard.

The East African country is not at war, nor does it suffer from terrorism, but some estimate that as many as 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.

Over 1,500 Eritreans arrived in Italy in the past three months alone, said Randy Hultgren, M.C., co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, last week (18 April) during a hearing titled, ‘Eritrea: Root Causes of the Refugee Crisis’.

Religious freedom

Eritrea has been on the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom since 2004.

Father Thomas Reese, part of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, in his testimony to the hearing, said Eritrea remains “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 ground,” he said. Among them are several Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors who have been detained for more than 10 years.

Abune Antonios, head of the Eritrean Tewahedo Orthodox Church, has been under house arrest since 2006 after he refused to comply with government attempts to interfere with church affairs.

In May and June last year, over 170 Eritrean Christians were arrested during a series of raids on churches, houses and a post-wedding celebration.

World Watch Monitor reported in August how one of those arrested, a mother of three, died at the desert camp where she and her husband had been held since May.

National service

While religious persecution is one of the main reasons of Eritrea’s refugee crisis, compulsory national conscription is another, noted Human Rights Watch Director Maria Burnett.

“Many conscripts are forced to serve indefinitely [but] it’s not just the length of time that causes so many conscripts to flee. What happens to them during their years of service is also devastating. Pay … is below subsistence [and] during service, commanders subject conscripts to physical abuse, including torture,” she said.

In November last year Eritrean refugees and representatives of the opposition living in Ethiopia staged a protest at the African Union headquarters in the capital, Addis Ababa, to call for an end to Eritrea’s “reign of terror”.

Yemane Meskel, a spokesman for the Eritrean government, tweeted in response that media coverage and the political discourse on Eritrean migration has “largely remained shallow and distorted” and lacks a “nuanced analysis” of the main drivers and actors.

Eritrea is ranked 6th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.