Eritrea: Political Persecution of Desertion and Conscientious Objection

by Rudi Friedrich

(15.09.2010) It was very depressing. Together with Eritrean opposition groups, we held a demonstration in early May in Frankfurt am Main to prevent two Eritrean deserters being deported. But they were still sent off to Eritrea on 14 May 2008 in a private plane chartered for the purpose. Many people had warned what would happen when they arrived in Asmara: they were arrested at once, and taken to an unknown location. The German authorities had not wanted to recognize the likelihood of this.

Yonas M. 1nd Petros M. had arrived in the transit section of Frankfurt airport in November 2007 with forged Eritrean passports and transit visas. They were trying to enter Germany. This was not allowed, since they could not produce a Schengen-agreement visa. Once they applied for political asylum, the German authorities considered the passports genuine. The Federal Bureau of Migration rejected their asylum applications as being “obviously unfounded”, and refused them entry into Germany, saying that since what Yonas M. and Petros M. claimed contradicted the data given in the passports, their statements were not credible. Two attempts to deport them in January and February 2008 failed, since the two resisted, and the pilots therefore refused to take them. In May, their resistance was broken by fastening their hands to their torsos with a “body cuff”, and their thighs and calves with cable ties. Prepared in this way, they were taken on a chair directly to a plane chartered for the purpose and deported.

Now, more than two years later, Yonas M. and Petros M. were able to tell us what happened afterwards. After their odyssey through Eritrean prisons, we have to say that they barely escaped with their lives. They managed to flee again, to Sudan and Ethiopia. Only there did they learn that their lawyer in Germany had continued with the asylum application – and was successful, based on confirmed reports of their arrest. In April and June 2010, they were finally able to enter Germany.

Eritrea, a military state

After gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has developed into a military state. Under President Isayas Afewerki, the ruling party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which grew out of the independence movement, has established a state which is thoroughly militarized, prevents any criticism, and persecutes critics and renegades and their families.

The relationship between the state and the population is largely determined by conscription for men and women; this national service formally comprises six months’ basic training and twelve months’ service in the military or in labour services. But in practice, the conscripts are seldom released from service. “Not all national service is military service”, reported Human Rights Watch, “since many conscripts are not deployed in the army but on civilian development projects, or are assigned to commercial enterprises with their salary paid to the Ministry of Defense. However, the Ministry of Defense is in control of the national service program and if someone working on a construction project were to abscond, they are still regarded as a deserter under military law. Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch emphasized that there was no difference between military and civilian national service—conscripts are equally at the mercy of the state. One Eritrean academic notes that, “What people do not realize is that in Eritrea, there is no military service. There is only Hagerawi Agelglot (National Service) which is much more ambitious and broader than common Military Service. At the time of writing, most of the able-bodied adult population is on active, indefinite, compulsory national service or on reserve duty. The only exceptions are on health grounds, or, for women, pregnancy.”1

Yonas M. is an example of this. He reports: “I would like to mention that the military service in Eritrea never ends. If you join the army once, you’ll stay there forever. In 2000, I was forced to join the army. Later, I was appointed guard of a prison in Sawa which was managed by the 6th Brigade. I didn’t want to do it, but I was forced to. I had been in the army for approximately seven years, and still no end of the military service was in sight.“2

In addition, the education system has been integrated into the military. Since 2003, the twelfth year of school is not held in the existing high schools, but in the Army’s basic training centre in Sawa. The pupils “in high school are enrolled compulsorily for their training in military training centres, and subjected to strict military discipline there.”3 “This ’reform’ clearly embodied a militarization of higher education, a reinforcement of the control of the state and military over the high-school pupils and college students, whom the government mistrusts greatly...”4 University education is also almost entirely dependent on the military.5

Petros M. also found himself in Sawa as a pupil: “After eleventh grade, I was sent to Sawa in order to attend twelfth grade. That means you have to join the army for six months, and then you’ve got another six months to prepare for the exam. By the time they take you to Sawa, you’ve already become a soldier. They tell you that you’re a student who takes part in a training program. But the training comprises two elements: military drill and school. And actually, they only offer military training. The government wants you to serve the government for a lifetime.”6

The obligation to perform national service applies to men up to the age of 54 and women up to 47 today. However, women are usually released from active national service when they reach the age of 27. Until the age of 47, they remain part of the National Reserves. For men, there is no specific criterion for release from active national service.7

Another aspect of this comprehensive militarization is that practically all careers have been integrated into military service. After basic training, the conscripts are assigned by the government to service in the military, or to a job, without being released from military service. This is accompanied by a government takeover of the privated sector, as Gaim Kibreab writes in a study: “Since April 2006, only PFDJ construction firms are allowed to engage in construction activities, after private firms and individual entrepreneurs were banned from the construction industry as part of the government’s crackdown on the private sector. On 3 April 2006, the government issued a directive ordering all ‘contractors, consultants, practicing professionals and studio operators’ to submit to the Technical Office of the Central Region: their original licenses, detailed accounts, addresses, types and sizes of their projects, owners’ names, estimated total costs, on the day after (4 April 2006) the directive was issued. On 7 April 2006, the government also ordered all of them to cease their activities within ten days. The prohibition is still in force. The major beneficiaries of the ban are the ruling party’s more than forty enterprises which dominate every aspect of the country’s economy, the enterprises of the PFDJ’s mass organizations and the mushrooming construction firms belonging to the Ministry of Defence.”8

This approach not only reflects an economic interest of the Eritrean regime in controlling the economy. It also developed from the ideology of the independence struggle of the units under the command of Isayas Afewerki in the armed struggle against Ethiopia, at that time under the name Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF). “Even in its initial phase, the EPLF associated liberalism, individualism, and intellectualism (called the trio of mortal sins) as a central threat to its claim to leadership, which had to be eliminated."9 The recruitment of the entire population, men and women, to national service as a “national duty” in the sense of the EPLF/PFDJ thus serves the purpose of indoctrinating young people comprehensively in the ideology of the autocratically ruling party. The Swiss Refugee Aid group goes into detail: “The recruitment of the new recruits is based on the twin pillars of political education and basic military training. In the training camps, the recruits are trained militarily, indoctrinated politically, and ‘socialized comprehensively into the community of tegadelti [warriors]’. In the first, military part of this process, the recruits undergo rigorous physical training, which, besides physical fitness, also or above all serves for social indoctrination. Indoctrination in the EPLF ideology is also done by means of political education. In addition, the recruits are disconnected and isolated from their previous social milieu. ‘In the course of this re-education processs, the recruits should abandon all previous ethnic, religious, and social ties, and the obligations resulting from them, and also individual special interests, in favour of complete subordination to the needs and orders of the EPLF.’ In this way, in order to implement an independent nation of Eritrea, loyalty to the EPLF and loyalty to the nation are equated.”10

In consequence, all those who evade their obligation of national service or desert are regarded as traitors to the common cause, and their desertion thus represents per se an act of political opposition, which is prosecuted accordingly rigorously.

Desertion and flight

These comprehensive conscriptions and militarization of the country are major causes for the large number of deserters. This is also shown by the numbers of those who leave the country. Every month, hundreds flee across the border to neighboring countries such as the Sudan or Ethiopia. In its 2008 World Report, Human Rights Watch reports that “approximately 120 young men fleeing conscription in Eritrea arrived in Sudan each week in 2006 and 2007 and that another 400 to 500 reach Ethiopia monthly”.11 Sudan Tribune reported on 22 July 2010, that every month over 1800 Eritreans from all wakes of life cross into Ethiopia complaining of alleged persecution and harassment by the Eritrean government. The Administration alleged 45% of the arrivals are government soldiers.12

The Eritrean government has taken various measures to seize those fleeing and prevent their flight abroad.

At irregular intervals, raids known as giffa are conducted. Whole districts of cities are sealed off. “Anyone of age found without the relevant documents exempting them from national service is taken to the military camps of Sawa and Wi’a for training.”13 Those affected are not only evaders of conscription and deserters, but also other civilians who are not able to produce the necessary documents during such a raid.13

The Eritrean government has restricted the possibilities of legal departure massively. Exit visas are only granted to persons who have completed their national service or been exempted.14 In practice, exit visas are refused generally to men below the age of 43, women below the age of 47, and Jehova’s Witnesses. From 2006 on, the government has also refused to issue exit visas to children over the age of 11.15

On 11 February 2009, the opposition Eritrean People’s Party (EPP) reported that four youths had been shot dead by soldiers while attempting to cross the frontier to Ethiopia. “The soldiers surrounded the youths, drew their weapons, and took them prisoner. They asked the pupils for their school ID cards, and where they came from. The youths complied with the demands. The next moment, the soldiers shot at the youths from an arm’s length and killed four of them.”16 Soon after, Human Rights Watch wrote that “there is an official ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in operation against all those trying to cross the border.” A former officer told the organization: “This was issued by the Ministry of Defense in April 2007.”17

Another measure to deter desertion and flight since July 2005 is the practice of holding families to account. Parents of pupils who have not reported to Sawa after the eleventh grade, and parents of deserters and persons who have left the country without exist visas, had to pay fines of between 10,000 and 50,000 nakfas.18 According to Amnesty International, relatives have sometimes been held as hostages in order to force the wanted person to return.19

Imprisonment and torture of resisters and deserters

The documents from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Swiss Refugee Aid cited in this pamphlet go into great detail about the measures to persecute deserters and draft evaders. These are characterized by four features: torture and mistreatment, arbitrary and unlimited detention at an unknown location, no trials, and cruel conditions of imprisonment.

For example, Human Rights Watch gives detailed examples of the torture methods, such as “Otto”, “Helicopter”, “Ferro”, “Jesus Christ” and “Goma”, which consist of tying up the victim in extremely painful positions, sometimes leaving him lying thus in the sun for days.20

The reports agree that deserters are confined in unknown locations under inhuman conditions, and that no trials are held. Yonas M. und Petros M. were also exposed to this situation after their deportation in May 2008.

For example, Yonas M. reported: “We came to Wi’a. The name of the city means ‘hot’. It derives from the heat there. That region is one of the hottest in Eritrea. Finally, I arrived at a prison named Under. The prison consisted of an underground cell. It was pitch-dark. They pushed us into the room – a former cistern originally created for the water supply. At the beginning, I could hardly move until my eyes adjusted to the dark. Little by little, I felt my way. Then, I saw that there were already lots of people, I could see the ones standing next to me. They were naked except for the underpants. It was unbearingly hot. I also could not keep my clothes on and undressed except for the underpants. The people crowded in the room were weak, blistered and wounded. The size of the room was about 10 x 15 metres, and there were 400 people crammed together in that little space. Even with everybody standing, there was not enough space. Sometimes, when your body got too weak, you fall to the ground – if you’re lucky. If not, you land on top of another person’s body. As a result, it can occur that one person’s legs are covering your body, or that the body of another one is on top of your stomach. And there you are: lying on top of one another just like sardines. The next day, when you get up and the bodies begin to separate, the pain is almost unbearable. Diseases broke out. We didn’t receive any medical treatment. Some of the prisoners went insane. Under these circumstances, I spent six months in the underground cell. My body was sore all over.”21

In his first month in Wi’a, Petros M. was confined in another facility named Singo, which means “zinc”. “When I came to Singo, they put me into a hut first. The roof and the walls of that hut were made of zinc and this panelling multiplied the heat of Wi‘a. They put the newcomers into these huts to weaken them and to prevent them from escaping. The size of the room was about 4 x 4 m. They squashed up to 40 people – only men – into the room and locked the door. After a few days you’re at the end of your tether.”22

Besides the hundreds of deserters who are imprisoned in Eritrea under such conditions, there is also a small community of Jehova’s Witnesses in Eritrea, who refuse military service because of their religious convictions. Eritrea does not recognized the right to conscientious objection. Some Jehova’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for fifteen years now, without ever having been put on trial.23

In the reports of Yonas M. and Petros M. it is noteworthy that they were not tortured during their interrogations, even though the prison conditions were extremely harsh. Yonas M. reports about the interrogation sessions in the Fifth Police District building in Asmara: “During the interrogations, they constantly tried to force us to incriminate others: ‘How did you manage to escape? Who have you given money to? Did anybody accompany you? Who did you take with you?’ They only wanted to be told the names of others. (...) They kept on asking the same questions over and over again, and their way of asking was anything but friendly. The interrogation was conducted in a sharp and military commanding tone. Its aim was to threaten and intimidate us.”

And Petros M. adds: “Indeed, we weren’t beaten during this month. But actually, they didn’t have to beat us. Desertion already carries a punishment of two to three years’ imprisonment – for everyone. The two of us faced additional punishments for having used fake passports and for the things we said back in Europe, i.e. about the dictatorship and the human rights violations in Eritrea. They already knew about all those offences. Maybe they only beat the people they want to extract information from. About us they already knew everything. (...) They didn’t beat me during the interrogations but I was severely threatened: ‘You’re traitors, traitors to your own country! Beating you would be not enough, you are going to receive a worse punishment than that and you’ll deserve it’. Soon, we were nervous wrecks. We wondered: what exactly do they mean by ‘a worse punishment’? Are we going to be killed?”24

According to the descriptions of the interrogations, the Eritrean authorities were obviously already informed about the events of the flight of Yonas M. und Petros M. The questioning was not aimed at understanding the motivation for their flight. Their desertion and flight from Eritrea are interpreted as treason. The security forces were mainly interested in discovering names, contacts, and connections to the people who had assisted in their flight, and thus supported this act of treason.

And the reference to the “severe penalty” to be expected indicates that the prison conditions are indeed known. It is a matter of bare survival, whether in view of a threat that may mean execution, or the reference to prison conditions which dehumanized, and can only be termed cruel. The arbitrary despotism of the Eritrean security forces expressed here tells the people arrested: We alone decide about life and death. We are the law.

Deportations to Eritrea

How deserters and evaders are treated is well-known. And thus the number of approvals in asylum application proceedings in Germany has increased continuously since 2004. While in 2004, asylum, or at least prevention of deportation, was granted in only 7.8% of the 616 decisions on Eritrea, it was a total of 55.5% of 452 decisions in 2007 (of which 34.8% granted some form of asylum).25 Thus 45% were rejected – and two of these applicants were Yonas M. and Petros M. After it became known what had happened to them in Eritrea, the percentage of approvals increased considerably again. In 2009, there was a total of 90.8% positive decisions by the Federal Bureau. 75.1% were granted recognition as political refugees under Sec. 16a of the German Constitution, or under the Geneva Convention on Refugees, and in 15.7% of cases, grounds preventing deportation were determined.

In a publication of Amnesty International in May 2009 the organization showed that since June 2008, over 1,200 people have been forcibly returned to Eritrea after attempting to claim asylum in countries across North Africa and Europe. Since 2007 there were deportations from Germany, Egypt, Libya, Sweden and United Kingdom. “Nearly all were detained immediately upon their arrival in Eritrea, and the vast majority of these individuals remain in incommunicado detention in locations across Eritrea.”26

On the basis of the “re-admission treaty” between the European Union and Libya of 2004, there have also been sequential deportations since then. For example, Italy has conducted mass deportations to Libya with examining the right to asylum of those concerned. And since May 2009, the rejection in international waters of the Mediterranean adopted in the “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” is being practiced. “Boat people” are deported, without examining their refugee status, to Libya, where they risk mistreatment, detention for an indeterminate period, and deportation to Eritrea.27

On the Egyptian-Israeli border, across which many Eritrean refugees attempt to flee to Israel, refugees are being shot by Egyptian security forces increasingly since 2007. Since then, the number of refugees killed has risen to more than eighty. In addition, people seeking refuge are turned back regularly by Israeli border patrols. Since in Egypt, they are in danger of being deported to their country of origin, Israel is violating the Geneva Convention on Refugees with this policy.28

The grounds for the rejections in Germany in past years were repeatedly a determination by the Federal Bureau of Migration that the statements by the applicants in their hearing were not credible. The knowledge which the individual case decision-makers had acquired by studying the files was assumed to be true, and any difference between it and the statements of the applicants for asylum was taken to be an indication that their application was not credible in total.29 Furthermore, in the airport proceedings, the asylum seekers are practically imprisoned, and have barely any possibility of contacting people outside.

This was the situation, at the time of the deportation of Yonas M. and Petros M., of another Eritrean deserter, Abdelrahman Ferah. He also faced deportation straight from the airport proceedings in 2008. Only by intervention from outside, and due to the arrest of Yonas M. and Petros M. in Asmara, could his application be made credible, and in particular could it be made clear that he also would be arrested as a deserter if deported to Eritrea. After the Federal Constitutional Court had forbidden his deportation to Eritrea, the Federal Bureau of Migration recognized Abdelrahman Ferah as a refugee according to the Geneva Convention.30 As can be seen from the table of asylum proceedings for Eritreans, the overall number of positive decisions in asylum proceedings thereupon increased considerably once again.

Necessary protection

Today, Eritrea is one of the main sources of refugees. In the year 2009, 42,200 Eritrean citizens filed applications for political asylum throughout the world,31 most of them being deserters and evaders evading comprehensive conscription. However, due to the policy of the European Union of denying access to refugees, only 5,027 of them were able to apply for asylum in the EU.32

As pleasing as the trend in percentages of approvals for refugees from Eritrea by the Federal Bureau of Migration and Refugees may be, we must recognize that this obviouly only happened because of the documentation of the situation in Eritrea by various organizations. This is the only explanation for the increases after 2004 and 2008, for the situation itself has been known for a considerably longer time. It is irresponsible that they obviously tried to turn down refugees’ applications for asylum on the basis of false claims. The deportation of Yonas M. and Petros M. shows how irresponsibly the legal provisions in the asylum proceedings are turned against those needing protection by German authorities.

Because of their flight from the military or their evasion of conscription, and in the same way because of their flight from Eritrea, these people are regarded by the Eritrean government as traitors to their country, but also as traitors to the political concept and ideology of the ruling party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Their actions, whatever the motivation may have been, is seen as a political act hostile to the regime. The persecution, which takes a particularly cruel arbitrary form in Eritrea, is thus always political persecution.


Rudi Friedrich is general secretary of Connection e.V., a German-based organization supporting deserters and conscientious objectors internationally. He has been researching the situation in Eritrea since 2004.


1 Human Rights Watch: Eritrea – Service for Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea. April 2009. 1-56432-472-9, p 44

2 Interview with Yonas M. and Petros M., June 17 and 24, 2010

3 Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe: “Eritrea: Wehrdienst und Desertion”. Thesis of Rico Tuor, February 23, 2009, p 4

4 Howard Hughes (2004); “Eine Volksarmee besonderer Art – der Militärkomplex in Eritrea:”, p 32

5 Amnesty International Report 2008. “Eritrea”:

6 Interview with Yonas M. and Petros M., June 17 and 24, 2010

7 Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe: “Update February 2010”, by Alexandra Geiser. 8 February 2010, p 3

8 Gaim Kibreab: “Forced Labour in Eritrea”, Journal of Modern African Studies, 47, 1 (2009), p 41-72

9 Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe (2009), p 6

10 Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe (2009), p 6, referring to Howard Hughes (2004)

11 Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2008), World Report. Events of 2007, p 113:

12 Sudan Tribune: “More Eritrean refugees fly to USA from Ethiopia”.

13 Human Rights Watch: Eritrea – Service for Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea. April 2009. 1-56432-472-9, p 48

14 Howard Hughes (2004); “Eine Volksarmee besonderer Art – der Militärkomplex in Eritrea”:, p 24

15 United States Department of State (2008), 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Eritrea:

16 Eritrean Peoples Party (EPP): “The Shoot-to-Kill Heinous Policy Brings the Death of Four Innocent Teenager Boys”. February 11, 2009.

17 Human Rights Watch: Eritrea – Service for Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea. April 2009. 1-56432-472-9, pp 39-40

18 Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe (2009), p 10

19 Amnesty International Report 2008. Eritrea:

20 Human Rights Watch: Eritrea – Service for Life – State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea. April 2009. 1-56432-472-9, pp 29-34

21 Interview with Yonas M. and Petros M., June 17 and 24, 2010

22 Interview with Yonas M. and Petros M., June 17 and 24, 2010

23 Abraham Mehreteab: “Is there a safe place for the Eritrean refugees?”,

24 Interview with Yonas M. and Petros M., June 17 and 24, 2010

25 Source: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Germany

26 Amnesty International: “Eritrea: Sent Home to Detention and Torture”. May 2009. AFR 64/002/2009, p 4

27 Fortress Europe Report 2007: “Escape from Tripoli”,;

 “Italien finanziert, Libyen deportiert die Eritreerinnen von Misratah”,

28 Sudan Tribune: “Sudanese refugee shot fleeing Egypt for Israel”. 4 July 2010. The Jerusalem Post: “Egypt kills 3 African migrants in Sinai border ‘death zone’”. 4 Feb. 2010, See also Aida Ibrahim: “Eritreische Frauen auf der Flucht”. In: Connection e.V., Pro Asyl and Eritreische Antimilitaristische Initiative, Eritrea: Desertion, Flucht & Asyl. September 2010, p 36

29 cf. the negative decision of the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge [German Federal Bureau of Migration and Refugees] on Yonas M., and the reponse of their lawyer in her application for a temporary injunction. In: Connection e.V., Pro Asyl und Eritreische Antimilitaristische Initiative, Eritrea: Desertion, Flucht & Asyl. September 2010, p 23-26

30 Connection e.V. and AG “KDV im Krieg” (ed.): Newsletter KDV im Krieg, July 2008 and September 2008

31 UNHCR: Global Trends 2009,

32 UNHCR: Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2009.

Rudi Friedrich: Eritrea - Politische Verfolgung von Desertion und Verweigerung. September 15, 2010. Translation: Tim Slater

Keywords:    ⇒ Asylum   ⇒ CO and Asylum   ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Desertion   ⇒ Mistreatment   ⇒ Prosecution   ⇒ Refugees