As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Eritrea, and traffickers exploit victims from Eritrea abroad. Perennially, thousands of Eritreans who fled the country are smuggled migrants seeking to be reunited with family members already overseas; those who sought to escape human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest and detention, lack of due process, and religious persecution; were in search of better economic opportunities; or hoped to avoid the often indefinite periods of service in the government’s mandatory National Service. Proclamation 82 of 1995 requires all persons aged 18 to 40 years to perform compulsory active national service ostensibly for a period of 18 months—six months of military training followed by 12 months of duty in a variety of military, security, or public service positions. However, since the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian border conflict, the 18-month limit has been suspended; most individuals are not demobilized from government work units after their mandatory period of service but rather forced to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or familial reprisal. An international organization assesses that many Eritrean asylum seekers, particularly those who deserted National Service when they fled, expressed well-founded fears of persecution in Eritrea, and there are an unknown number of cases of returnees disappearing, presumably in prison, with their whereabouts unknown. It was this same expert’s assessment that traffickers exploited Eritreans in forced labor and sex trafficking primarily in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Libya.
National Service takes a wide variety of forms, including active military duty, although active military duty constitutes a small and diminishing percentage; office work in government agencies and enterprises (functions ranging from lawyers, diplomats, and mid-level managers to skilled technicians and mechanics, to clerical, maintenance, and janitorial work); medical professionals and support workers; elementary and secondary school teachers; and construction or other unskilled physical labor. Conditions are often harsh for those in military service or physical labor, though some National Service members experience normal, civilian workplace conditions, albeit with low pay and negligible to complete lack of freedom of choice or movement. In 2012, the government instituted a compulsory citizen militia, requiring medically fit adults up to age 70 not currently in the military to carry firearms and attend military training or participate in unpaid national development programs, such as soil and water conservation projects. Eritreans may be released from National Service after an indefinite number of years by petitioning the government based on criteria that shift periodically and are not fully transparent; policies and practices for obtaining release from National Service are inconsistent across organizations and job fields. Certain professions (e.g., medicine and teaching) exist almost exclusively within the ranks of the National Service. Wages are extremely low—although pay raises have been granted for a number of job functions in recent years—and the government often supplants obligated payments with food or non-food rations. Eritrean officials continue to discuss—particularly on the heels of the 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia—hard-capping National Service to 18 months, but this change in policy has never been publicly announced and those serving in the obligatory government program beyond 18 months have yet to be demobilized.
All 12th-grade students, including some younger than age 18, are required to complete their final year of secondary education at the Sawa military and training academy; those who refuse to attend cannot receive high school graduation certificates, attain higher education, or be offered some types of jobs. Government policy bans persons younger than 18 from military conscription; however, according to previous reports from some organizations outside of Eritrea, the government in some instances includes children younger than age 18 in groups sent to Sawa. For unreported reasons, during the current reporting period the government discontinued Maetot, a national service program in which secondary-school children were assigned to work in public works projects, usually within the agricultural sector, during their summer holidays. Unaccompanied children continue to be vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Some officials detain or force into military training children who attempt to leave Eritrea despite some of them being younger than the minimum service age of 18. Traffickers subject Eritreans to forced labor and sex trafficking in Israel, reportedly after they survive torture while transiting through the Sinai Peninsula. Traffickers also subject smaller numbers of Eritrean women and children to sex trafficking in Sudan; anecdotal reports suggest traffickers sometimes force Eritrean migrants into prostitution in nightclubs in Khartoum, Sudan. International criminal groups kidnap vulnerable Eritreans living inside or in proximity to refugee camps, particularly in Sudan, and transport them primarily to Libya, where traffickers subject them to human trafficking and other abuses, including extortion for ransom. Some migrants and refugees report traffickers force them to work as cleaners or on construction sites during their captivity.
From September-December 2018, the government opened various land border crossing points with Ethiopia that had been closed for 20 years, and ceased requiring exit visas or other travel documents for Eritreans crossing to Ethiopia. While reports allege this open border has drastically reduced the business of migrant smuggling into Ethiopia, other sources say these networks still exist. During the reporting period, on the Eritrean side, one of the two official border crossings with Sudan remained closed. Most Eritreans consensually commence their outbound journeys with the aid of payment to smugglers, but in many cases this movement devolves into trafficking situations and conditions highly vulnerable for exploitation. Eritrea’s strict exit control procedures and limited issuance of passports, which compel those who cannot obtain exit visas or documents to travel clandestinely, increase its nationals’ vulnerability to trafficking abroad, primarily in Sudan, Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent Djibouti, with the ultimate goal of seeking asylum in Europe or at a minimum, obtaining refugee status in Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, or Uganda; some also strive to reach the United States. An international body posits the number of Eritreans crossing into Ethiopia during the initial two months following the September 2018 border opening was 27,000, while other sources allege as many as 200,000 fled to Ethiopia by the end of the year. Another international organization estimates 3,500 Eritreans entered Sudan seeking refugee or asylum status in 2018. The small number of Eritreans crossing into Djibouti were almost exclusively members of the Afar ethnic group, which spans the Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia border region. Afar members are able to cross the border freely with a permit from a tribal leader; it is an otherwise restricted military area through which non-Afars are prohibited to enter. During the current reporting period, concerns materialized that Eritrea’s development of the port in Massawa for domestic use and to service Ethiopia could exacerbate trafficking vulnerabilities due to increased commerce and an uptick in foreign laborers. Moreover, the lack of visa requirements for Eritreans traveling to Ethiopia, as well as the ability to travel overland without passports heightens these workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Reports persist that Eritrean military officers are complicit in migration-related and possibly trafficking crimes along the border with Sudan.