UN Special Rapporteur Sheila Keetharuth [official website] on Monday urged [press release] the Eritrean government to respect its obligation to human rights, and called for protection for the hundreds of thousands of citizens currently fleeing the country for safety. It is mandatory that young Eritreans, both male and female, serve in the national military, regardless of religious or other conscientious objections. Though such service was originally intended to last for only 18 months, it is frequently extended indefinitely. According to Monday's statement, while serving in the military, Eritreans are subject to several human rights abuses including torture, inhumane living conditions and sexual abuse. Keetharuth cites this compulsory national service among chief concerns of citizens, stating that such requirements have caused many to flee, taking "unimaginable risks in search of freedom and a safe haven." According to Keetharuth, it is not the difficult economic and social conditions of Eritrea, but rather the "complete deprivation of the freedom and security of the person" that compel most people to leave their country. She called on the nation to put an end to this "blanket disrespect of fundamental human right," and asked the international community to listen to the voices of those seeking asylum.
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, though the journey is often life-threatening. Keetharuth appealed [JURIST report] to the international community last month to keep the Eritrean human rights situation in focus and to increase efforts to aid refugees. This call came in the wake of two incidents earlier October, 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.