Prof Dan Connell, a visiting scholar from Boston University’s African Studies Centre and senior lecturer in journalism and African Politics at Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts, has raised concern about the forced migration and human trafficking situation in Eritrea. He highlighted the grave situation in Eritrea during an open lecture titled ‘Eritreans at risk: Refugees, migrants or migrating refugees?’ hosted by the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria as part of its ongoing efforts to raise awareness on the human rights situation in Eritrea. The lecture was aimed at situating the refugee and migrant problem in Eritrea in the global discourse on causes, consequences and responses to forced migration and human trafficking.

Prof. Connell has written seven books and numerous articles on the human rights situation in Eritrea since 1976.

Eritrea has been under a harsh dictatorship since 2001. The 1997 Constitution has not yet come into force and this means that most of the rights and freedoms are restricted. Many Eritreans therefore cross the border in search of a better life abroad. Unfortunately, many fall victim to human traffickers, who exploit and torture them for ransoms from family members. According to Connell, ‘human trafficking has become a contagious disease, so lucrative, it attracts many new copycats and there is now a huge network of trafficking through the Sahel region.’

‘The ransom demands are as high as US$40,000, a significant amount for poor Eritreans. Once the ransom is paid they are released and left to die in the Sahara or drown trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who manage to get to their countries of refuge are either attacked as foreigners or threated with mass detention in countries like Egypt,’ he said.

The national service is the main driver of the migration problem in Eritrea. Eritrea is classified as a ‘no peace, no war’ situation as a result of the border dispute with Ethiopia.

Unlike other refugee camps which are often populated by women, children and the disabled, the refugee camps that Prof. Connell visited are populated by young men and women fleeing the national service. Although the national service was initially for a period of 18 months, it was extended indefinitely. The number of migrants increases every year. Eritrea is now classified as the largest producer of refugees per capita. ‘Eritrea was not always like this. Many people were flowing back into the country after the liberation struggle. The liberation movement was remarkable in its commitment for social transformation with its focus on education and health. As a result, it enjoyed popular support. However with the attainment of independence, the government became repressive after the border dispute in 2000. Soon after the dispute, the government began to crack down on opposition and restrict freedoms of movement and expression. Thousands of young people were rounded up for the national service which although was initially popular became a symbol of indefinite servitude. Eritrea now competes with North Korea and Turkmenistan for lowest human rights rankings,’ said Connell.

Prof Connell pointed out that the human trafficking and forced migration problem will only be resolved once the political situation in Eritrea changes and the national service is for a definite period. This would mean that Eritreans stop trying to escape and only leave using legal means.

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