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'Africa's North Korea' — the worst regime you've never heard of

Thousands of refugees are trying to escape.

EUROPE’S REFUGEE CRISIS is getting worse — in July over 100,000 migrants arrived on the continent, the first time that symbolic level has been breached.

There’s one story that most people haven’t heard — that of Eritrea.

The country is one of the largest sources of the migrants arriving on Europe’s shores, despite a total population smaller than that of London. Adjusted for its population, a larger proportion of Eritreans arrive than of Syrians or Afghans.

eritrea An Eritrean woman with her children in the Mai-aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia in July. She fled her country with her five children out of fear of starvation. Her husband is enlisted in the army, but she hasn't seen or heard from him for years. PA PA

Some of the people from sub-Saharan Africa crossing the Mediterranean are likely to be economic migrants — those who want to live and work in Europe because it provides them with enormous opportunities, but not because their lives would be in danger otherwise (despite the danger of the crossing itself).

But Eritreans are fleeing Eritrea.

The Wall Street Journal has documented the migrant hierarchy present in the Mediterranean, with one consultant saying that “sub-Saharans are put in the hulls. If the boat takes water, they’re the first to drown.”

That hierarchy is true in terms of attention, too. Though the tragedy of Syria’s war is perhaps not given as much international attention as it deserves, it gets a colossal amount more attention than Eritrea.

The East African country is one of a handful that gets the worst score possible from Freedom House, matching neighbours Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

In fact, in terms of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders says there is just one country that’s worse than North Korea. You can guess which. In March, the BBC was allowed into the country for the first time in a decade.

MIGRANTS Migrants rest in the shade at the railway station in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija on Tuesday. Record numbers of migrants from countries like Syria and Eritrea are trying to reach Europe. PA PA

Here’s the start of the latest report from the UN’s human rights committee, reporting on Eritrea in June:

The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Government of Eritrea and that there is no accountability for them. The enjoyment of rights and freedoms are severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law. The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity. The commission emphasizes [sic] that its present findings should not be interpreted as a conclusion that international crimes have not been committed in other areas.

More Eritrean citizens are accepted as refugees once they’ve applied than for any country other than Syria. Some 90% of applications have a positive outcome, in comparison to about half of non-EU applications in general.

President Isaias Afwerki has held his office for 22 years, since the country became independent from Ethiopia in 1993.

president Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki PA PA

According to Amnesty International, there is religious persecution, too. Though the exact breakdown isn’t clear, the country has large populations of both Muslims and Christians. Within the Christian churches, those that have not been approved by the government — like Pentecostal and evangelical organisations — are regularly arrested.

Though he headed one of the approved sects, the Orthodox patriarch was also arrested nearly eight years ago, and is still held under house arrest. Minority groups like the Afar people report that the government has engaged in ethnic cleansing against them.

Eritrean military service is supposed to last 18 months, but one study suggested the average length was more like six-and-a-half years. The conscripts are enlisted into construction projects in the country and the UN says that working conditions display “a pattern of torture, inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment or punishment”.

women Two migrants wait at the Franco-Italian border near Menton, southeastern France in June. PA PA

A 2010 Foreign Policy article, titled ‘Africa’s North Korea’ notes that the country has more soldiers per head of population than any nation other than Kim Jong Un’s hermit kingdom:

Why the desperate privation? Because the military has taken over virtually every aspect of Eritrean life. Despite its tiny size, Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with as many as 320,000 soldiers. Its number of soldiers per capita puts Eritrea second only to North Korea, a feat made possible by the ruthless enforcement of mandatory national service for all citizens, men and women alike.
Over dinner one evening, a resident UN staffer whispered to me about a new expansion of the requirement. To graduate from high school, she explained, youth were now required to attend “national camp” during their final year. Although the government claims this amounts to only a week or two of military training, it in fact lasts much of the year.
Her agency had learned that the threat of physical and sexual abuse was causing increasing numbers of students to drop out rather than attend. But by failing to complete their service, they put themselves at constant risk of arrest.

Unlike North Korea, there’s no threat to the international order. Eritrea’s economy is about one-fifteenth the size of the tiny European nation of Luxembourg, to give it some perspective. It has no nuclear weapons and has not really played any significant role in global politics at all.

Though the Eritrea People’s Liberation Front started as a Marxist resistance movement, the state now has less of a grounding ideology, unlike North Korea’s homegrown Juche.

The Eritrean case doesn’t grasp the imagination as much as either North Korea or Syria, but it’s one of the least pleasant places in the world to live, and its refugees are without a doubt some of the most genuine in the world.

- Mike Bird

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