US Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 gives devastating criticism of Eritrea

Despite all the efforts and spin by its supporters, official or otherwise, the Eritrean government has been hit by yet another damning report, released this week. This is the official report from the US Department of State's 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.  The section on Eritrea, which is classified at the lowest level of Tier 3, is part of the wider Report covering numerous other relevant countries, including Ethiopia (Tier 2) as well as other states in the Horn of Africa.

The State Department's Report is particularly relevant to Eritrea's attempts to defend itself against the recent shocking conclusions of the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in Eritrea and the referral of the Commission's Report and all its recommendations "to the United Nations and its relevant organs for consideration and urgent action. These include the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and as well as the UN Secretary-General." The Commission's Report was also referred to the African Union.

One of the main points raised by Eritrean officials, and by Eritrea's international supporters, in trying to defend its record and respond to the UN Commission of Inquiry, has been the claim that Eritrea's national service conscription, despite its unlimited duration, often appalling conditions and minimal pay, is really devoted to national development. Another has been the claim that Eritrea has been active in trying to participate in efforts to end human trafficking. They have also referred to Eritrea's involvement in the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, the Khartoum Process, established in 2014. This State Department Report makes it very clear that these arguments have no relevance to the situation on the ground or the behavior of Eritrean officials. It states firmly: "The government continues to be complicit in trafficking through the implementation of national policies and mandatory programs amounting to forced labor within the country, which cause many citizens to flee the country and subsequently increases their vulnerability to trafficking abroad." It goes on: "Some Eritrean military and police officers are complicit in trafficking crimes along the border with Sudan," adding that "reports allege Eritrean diplomats, particularly those posted in Sudan, provide travel documents and legal services to Eritrean nationals in exchange for bribes or inflated fees, potentially facilitating their subjection to trafficking." 

The State Department's Report is uncompromising. It begins: " Eritrea is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor. To a lesser extent, Eritrean adults and children are subjected to sex and labor trafficking abroad." It points out that the 18-month timeframe for compulsory national service is "arbitrary and unenforced; many 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. 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 national development programs, such as soil and water conservation projects. Working conditions are often harsh and sometimes involve physical abuse.

The Report also details the requirement of all 12th-grade students, including some younger than age 18, to complete their final year of secondary education at the Sawa military and educational camp. This, it points out, is effectively also compulsory as those who refuse "cannot receive high school graduation certificates, attain higher education, or be offered some types of jobs." It notes that although government policy officially bans persons younger than 18 from military conscription, nevertheless there is clear evidence that children younger 18 have been sent to Sawa where "male and female recruits at Sawa were beaten, and female recruits sexually abused and raped in previous years." It also notes the government operates "Maetot, a national service program in which secondary-school children are assigned to work in public works projects, usually within the agricultural sector, during their summer holidays. Some Eritrean children are subjected to forced labor, including forced begging, and some women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking within the country."

It is in order to avoid all this, the report notes: "thousands of Eritreans flee the country overland to Sudan, Ethiopia, and, to a lesser extent Djibouti, to escape forced labor or government persecution, as well as to seek better economic opportunities". It points out quite correctly, "Unaccompanied minors are increasingly at risk of being subjected to violence and exploitation."  The report notes that because the government's strict exit control procedures and limited issuance of passports and departure visas prevent most Eritreans from travelling abroad legally, more and more resort to efforts that increase vulnerability to trafficking. "Children who attempt to leave Eritrea are sometimes detained or forced to undergo military training despite being younger than the minimum service age of 18. Some Eritrean women and girls travel to Gulf States for domestic work but are subjected to sex trafficking upon arrival. Smaller numbers of Eritrean women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking in South Sudan, Sudan, and Israel; reportedly, some Eritrean men are vulnerable to sex trafficking in Israel. International criminal groups kidnap vulnerable Eritreans living inside or in proximity to refugee camps, particularly in Sudan, and transport them primarily to Libya, where they are subjected to human trafficking and other abuses, including extortion for ransom."

The report says that the Government of Eritrea "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so." It emphasizes that the government continues "to subject its nationals to forced labor in its citizen militia and compulsory national service, often for periods of indefinite duration." It also fails to investigate or prosecute trafficking offenses or identify or protect victims. It did carry out some attempts to warn people of the dangers of people smuggling and human trafficking but its efforts were less effective because it conflated transnational migration and human trafficking.

It notes the government did not investigate, prosecute, or convict trafficking offenders during the reporting year despite the fact that articles of the Eritrean Transitional Criminal Code prohibits trafficking in women and young persons for sexual exploitation, and enslavement and prohibits forced labor. Equally, the Report emphasizes that Eritrea's 2001 Labor Proclamation specifically excludes national and military service or other civic obligations from the definition of forced labor; and it also notes that existing labor protections "were not applicable to persons engaged in compulsory national service," a category that includes most of the work force today. It notes that the government did not investigate, prosecute, or convict anyone, including complicit officials, for trafficking offenses during the last year. It also adds that the government demonstrated "negligible efforts" to identify and protect trafficking victims and provided "limited assistance to female victims subjected to sex trafficking in Gulf States". It did not assist any other potential trafficking victims or develop procedures to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable groups; it noted Eritreans fleeing the country and those deported from abroad, including some possible trafficking victims, were vulnerable to being arrested, detained, harassed, or recalled into national service upon return. Overall, its conclusion was that the government made minimal efforts to prevent trafficking.

The report makes a series of recommendations, calling on the Government of Eritrea to "Develop, enact, and enforce an anti-trafficking statute that criminalizes all forms of trafficking," as well as "limit the length of active national service to 18 months and cease the use of threats and physical punishment for non-compliance". It wants to see investigation of allegations of conscripts being forced to perform duties beyond the scope of the national service program, and for the government to ensure children younger than 18 do not participate in activities that amount to military service and are not exploited in forced labor. It calls for the government to put an end to punishment for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking or for fleeing government-sponsored forced labor, provide training to all levels of government and in partnership with NGOs, ensure the provision of short-term protective services to trafficking victims.