I met 19-year-old Dawit (not his real name) in Italy. He was among the few Eritreans who escaped unscrupulous smugglers in Libya and reached Italy in 2018 in spite of its efforts to prevent new arrivals. He explained why he took the dangerous journey to Europe rather than finishing high school in Eritrea: “They were making us into slaves, not educating us.”
Since early last year, we have spoken with 73 Eritrean former secondary school students and their teachers to understand why thousands of young Eritreans go into exile. Their answers are clear: back home, they have no freedom or control over their future. “It’s a life in prison, in our own country,” another 19-year-old Eritrean told me.
Since Eritrea’s border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, President Isaias Afewerki has used the “no war, no peace” stalemate that ensued to justify holding much of the country’s population hostage.
Secondary schools are central to this repressive system. Since 2003, the government has forced final year secondary school students - boys and girls - into compulsory military training at the Sawa military camp. They are then channelled into indefinite national service, either in military or civilian roles. During their prolonged conscription, they risk systematic abuse, including torture, harsh working conditions and pay insufficient to support a family.
This summer, while European students are enjoying their summer holidays, thousands of Eritreans will be bused off to the remote, hostile Sawa camp. Former students said that the military personnel controlled them with physical punishment, military-style discipline, and forced labour.
“Sawa is hell,” Dawit said. “The alarm rings at 5 am, they make you run to the toilet, five minutes to put your uniform on, and you get punished if you don’t manage.”
Punishments are harsh: “The military official made me lie on the ground and roll on the ground very fast while he beat me. After, I had a terrible headache and fell over and vomited,” said a former student who was late for class.
Final exams determine the future. Those with poor grades go into vocational training and most likely military service; those with better grades go to college, then into a civilian government job.
A teacher said that students in lower grades are not motivated to learn: “They feel discouraged. The good students will become teachers, the bad ones, soldiers. The students would ask us, ‘Whether we learn or not, what difference does it make?’”
Most teachers are themselves national conscripts, forced to teach with no choice of where or what, and with no end in sight. Their salary – despite an increase in recent years - doesn’t even cover their expenses.
Some students try to evade forced conscription by failing to stay in lower grades or by dropping out. For girls and young women, this means opting for motherhood and early marriage. For boys, this means trying to escape the government’s notorious roundups to be sent directly into military service.
The government’s policies are taking a massive toll on the quality of education. The only alternative is to flee. Flight comes with significant risks, both inside Eritrea - including imprisonment in dire conditions and mistreatment if caught - and along migration routes. Many of those on board the boat that capsized off the coast of Libya on 25 July - which left over 100 people dead - were reportedly Eritreans.
Last July, Ethiopia and Eritrea finally signed a peace agreement. But national service remains indefinite - and so the exodus persists.
The government should end compulsory military training during secondary school, as well as ensuring that no one underage is conscripted and making teacher recruitment voluntary.
Recognising this stark reality, member states of the European Union by and large grant Eritreans refugee status. Yet increasingly the EU, especially its international development arm, sees job creation in Eritrea as the key to stemming the exodus. It recently supported a roadbuilding project, accepting the risk that it may include national service conscripts. Job creation is important– but EU funding or activities shouldn’t contribute to forced labour.
The EU and other bilateral donors should press the Eritrea government to offer its youth freedom and what’s more respect their basic rights. Students like Dawit could then look forward to their future and not feel forced to endure an incredibly dangerous journey to Europe.
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