"When I was 17, I went to the military instead of attending twelfth grade at school. I hated life. We were forced to work. We had no freedom. You have to follow the rules of the military, if they do not strike and make life difficult for you. The military is life in Eritrea. That's why I left. "
This told a young Eritrean man to the MSF team in Ethiopia last summer. Around 5000 Eritreans flee the country each month, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Sensational. Eritreans were the largest group of all who fled across the Mediterranean in 2015, and the second largest in 2016. It is startling considering that Eritrea's population is only slightly larger than Norway's – 5,5 millions. A new report from MSF, based on over 100 interviews with Eritreans on the run, shows what conditions they are fleeing from and how they must risk life and health on the road to applying for asylum.
Europe is pursuing a policy that makes it even more difficult for migrants to access safe beaches north of the Mediterranean. This policy is supported by Norway, despite recognizing the need for Eritrean protection. Don't see the government and the parliament what it is leading to? Or do they, but turn their backs?
Damage to sterilize. Eritreans fleeing may be stopped and imprisoned, or shot by Eritrean border guards. Leaving the country legally requires an exit visa, which is very difficult to obtain. A 28-year-old Man Without Borders spoke to Ethiopia, recounting how he was treated in prison in Eritrea:
“I'm sick and I'm stranded. I fled to the border, but I was taken and jailed for two years. Those who ruled the prison treated us badly. They threatened us and tortured us in many different ways. They used a lot of violence against the genitals. It made me sterile – which is what they wanted. They believe that if a man can never have children, he will be less interested in leaving the military service, so that he will continue to serve the country instead. After a long time I managed to escape from prison and go to Ethiopia, where I have been for ten months. I've been to many doctors, but it doesn't seem like anyone can help me with my sterility problems. It makes me very sad. I can't go back to Eritrea and I don't have the money to flee elsewhere. "
In spite of all this, thousands flee from Eritrea every month. Roughly speaking, three groups of people flee: One group is children and young adults fleeing forced military service. The second group is military defectors, who escape from abuse and imprisonment. The third group is the elderly who hope to be reunited with their families.
Since the war in Yemen escalated in March 2015 and Israel built a border fence to prevent migration, most Eritreans today flee across Europe to Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya or Egypt. Both in Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, the refugees face violence, imprisonment and death.
Prison and sexual violence. Every Eritreans interviewed by the MSF report said they had witnessed or experienced severe violence, including torture, in several places between Eritrea and the Mediterranean. Everyone interviewed also said they had been locked up in some form of captivity. More than half said that they had seen others flee to death, most often as a consequence of violence.
Every Eritrean woman interviewed had either been subjected to sexual violence himself or known someone who was. The assaults were often carried out by several perpetrators. At MSF clinics in Ethiopia, Libya and on our rescue boats in the Mediterranean, we have seen evidence that supports the stories the refugees tell. We have received Eritreans with ugly scars, wounds and with severe mental disorders.
Every single Eritrean interviewed stated that they had witnessed or even experienced severe violence, including torture, in several places between Eritrea and the Mediterranean.
A young woman from Eritrea, 20 years old, summed up her journey in this way: “When I left Sudan, I knew that traveling through Libya and across the Mediterranean would be very dangerous and difficult, especially for my little daughter. But what is the alternative? We could not survive in Eritrea or in Sudan. There is no other way to get to Europe. Europe represents hope for a better life. Now that I have survived this deadly journey, I would advise everyone not to take it. I didn't want my worst enemy to take the same route. It's a journey that makes you feel worthless, completely downgraded. ”
Continues to escape. As long as military service is forced and indefinitely, and as long as the level of violence is high and fundamental freedoms are very limited, people will continue to flee Eritrea. And still – despite growing evidence of the inhuman and often deadly conditions that face them on their way to Europe – the EU and its member states, supported by a Norwegian government with the aim of being the strictest in class, are doing everything they can to prevent Eritreans and others on the run arrive.
90 per cent of Eritreans who reach Europe are granted asylum. The same thing happens in Norway. In 2015, 2899 Eritreans applied for asylum in Norway, according to the UDI. 90 per cent were granted the application. In other words, European states recognize that Eritreans have a real need for protection.
But instead of creating safe and legal avenues for those seeking protection, the EU is stepping up cooperation with Eritrea, Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia to prevent Eritreans from leaving their homeland and moving to Europe. The EU's attempt to control immigration by strengthening national borders and locking people inside reception centers gives the Eritreans few options other than paying smugglers to get out of prisons, across borders, and eventually make a deadly boat trip across the Mediterranean.
Outsource responsibility. This month is one year since the EU's refugee and migration agreement with Turkey came into force. With this agreement, the EU has largely outsourced responsibility for refugees to Turkey, and in Greece and Serbia, refugees are stranded or trapped in camps under unworthy conditions. Moving the responsibility of refugees and migrants to countries such as Turkey, Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya and Eritrea means that refugees with a real need for protection must put life and health at risk in order to reach places where they can be safeguarded.
Attempts to strengthen national borders and the increased use of imprisonment do not prevent human trafficking. On the contrary, it means that people on the run have no other option but to use human traffickers to get across borders and in safety. Everything Eritreans must go through is a disgraceful example of international cooperation on refugees who fail in their efforts to protect human rights and humanitarian needs.
Will Norway recognize this and do something about it?