UN Special Rapporteur Sheila Keetharuth [official website] appealed [press release] to the international community on Thursday to keep the Eritrean human rights situation in focus and to increase efforts to aid refugees. Approximately 300,000 Eritrean refugees fled the country in 2012 alone, and the UN Refugee Agency estimates [UNHCR report] that between two and three thousand people attempt to escape every month. Keetharuth reported that the government has issued a shoot-to-kill order [report, PDF] for people attempting to leave the country illegally. According to the Special Rapporteur, Eritreans are fleeing from abuses that include extrajudicial killing, arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention, inhumane prison conditions, torture, and a severe restriction on freedom. Despite the efforts of the UN Human Rights Council and the international community, Keetharuth said the situation in Eritrea has yet to substantially improve, and many human rights advocates have cited [press release] the Eritrean government's "blatant disrespect for the rights and dignity of its people" as the main obstacle to resolving the situation. The difficulties and dangers involved in fleeing the country have prompted Keetharuth to beseech the international community to contribute in helping provide safe channels of migration from Eritrea and promoting regional cooperation to combat human trafficking. Additionally, Keetharuth urged for an improvement and innovation in the country's development. "Only when the human rights situation on the ground improves will people stop putting their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys."
Thursday's call comes in the wake of two incidents earlier this month, when two separate boats [OHCHR press release] full of African refugees, many of them from Eritrea, capsized in the Mediterranean, killing more than 350 refugees. In May, Keetharuth warned that the current situation in Eritrea warrants close scrutiny [JURIST report] from the international community. The international community has become increasingly concerned with forced labor issues and human rights abuses that have led to the increase of refugees leaving Eritrea [JURIST news archive]. In January Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] alleged that the Eritrean government's national service program requires all able-bodied men and women serve indefinitely as conscripts for the government, and it assigns some of these conscripts to state-owned construction companies as forced laborers [JURIST report]. In June 2012 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned Eritrea [JURIST report] for its failure to address the human rights violations in the country. These sentiments came on the heels of the US State Department [official website] Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 [text], which added Eritrea and five other countries to its list of countries with the worst human trafficking records.