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UNITED NATIONS RIGHTS EXPERT CALLS FOR INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION OF ERITREANS IN THEIR QUEST FOR SAFETY

25 November 2013

GENEVA (25 November 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, has expressed great concern about rampant human rights violations in Eritrea which has caused hundreds of thousands to leave their country for an unknown and precarious future.

“I call on the Eritrean Government to respect its human rights obligations and to put an immediate stop to human rights violations that are committed in the country,” Ms. Keetharuth stressed after interviewing Eritreans during an official mission* to Tunisia and Malta.

The blanket disrespect of fundamental human rights in Eritrea is pushing some 2,000 to 3,000 people to leave the country monthly, although the risks along the escape routes are of a life-threatening nature. In 2012, the total Eritrean population of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) amounted to 305,723.

During her 10-day mission, the indefinite national service was quoted as the main reason inciting Eritreans to leave their home country. “The open-ended national service is a system which keeps Eritreans captive in a situation of despair, forcing them to take unimaginable risks in search of freedom and a safe haven,” she noted.

Young Eritreans, both women and men, often before reaching 18 years, are recruited into a compulsory national service characterised by severe human rights abuses. Punishment amounting to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as detention in inhumane conditions is routine in the military. Women explained they were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuses by officers.

“These violations are committed with complete impunity, without any structures and procedures in place for victims to bring the perpetrators to justice,” she said.

Most of those she interviewed described difficult economic and social conditions in their home country; however, they noted that the daily struggle for access to food and water, and lack of adequate health care and electricity had not motivated their departure.

“It is the complete deprivation of the freedom and security of the person, a fundamental human right also recognised by Eritrea that drives entire families to leave their country in the hope to find a place where they feel protected,” Ms. Keetharuth explained.

Many refugees she met during her mission were rescued at sea after a dangerous journey across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea. One young man told her: “We are aware of the risks associated with crossing the desert and the sea. Nobody in his right mind would take such a decision. We do it because there is no other choice.”

Ms. Keetharuth called for the protection of those fleeing from risking their lives by undertaking highly dangerous journeys to reach a place they feel is safe. She also urged the international community to address the root causes of the refugee situation by listening to the voices of victims of human rights violations in Eritrea who reach the conclusion that their only option is flight.

The human rights expert reiterated the importance to end bilateral and other arrangements between Eritrea and third countries that would provide for Eritreans to be returned to their home country where they risk facing persecution, torture, inhuman treatment, and forced recruitment into indefinite military service.

Since her appointment in November 2012, the Special Rapporteur has made several requests to visit Eritrea, which have so far not been granted. Consequently, the Expert resorted to gathering first-hand information from those who have left Eritrea.  She reiterates her call for access to the country to assess the human rights situation.

The expert’s findings will be presented in her second report to the Human Rights Council in June 2014.

(*) Read the full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14024&LangID=E

Sheila B. Keetharuth was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea during the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012.  She took her functions on 1 November 2012.  As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity.  A lawyer from Mauritius, she has extensive experience in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, advocacy, training and litigation in human rights in Africa. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/ER/Pages/SREritrea.aspx

Check the Special Rapporteur’s first report on Eritrea to the UN Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.53_ENG.pdf  or  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session23/Pages/ListReports.aspx

UN Human Rights, country page – Eritrea: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ERIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Birthe Ankenbrand (+41 22 928 9465 / bankenbrand@ohchr.org) or write to sr-eritrea@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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For use of the information media; not an official record

HR13/345E