Photo source: Freedom United - Photo: 2019

EU and International NGOs Exploit Aid to Fortify Forced Labour in Eritrea

Viewpoint by Makeda Saba

BRUSSELS (IDN) – The Dutch Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, an organization of exiled Eritreans, is taking legal action against the European Union. It is demanding of the EU to immediately stop funding a project in Eritrea which involves use of forced labour and enslavement.

The European Union has allocated €20 million for the project aimed at “reconnecting Eritrea and Ethiopia through rehabilitation of the main arterial roads in Eritrea”. It will finance the reconstruction of the Nefasit-Dekemhare-Senafe-Zalembessa road, the main route that allows the easy transportation of goods between landlocked Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The summary of the action and objectives of the EU Emergency Trust Fund suggests that supporting economic development and the creation of jobs is enough to mitigate the exodus of Eritrean youth and the associated human trafficking.

But this objective will not be achieved. Because the policies of the country’s only political party that rules the roast, the People’s Front of Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), are responsible for the Eritrean youth leaving the country, and the associated human trafficking.

PFDJ is in-charge of implementing the EU project. This is well known to the powers that be at the EU in Brussels.

Furthermore, the PFDJ has replaced private enterprise with businesses owned by the party and organisations associated with it such as the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS).

There are hardly signs that the Eritrean government has any intentions to alter the actual arrangement that manifests the well-documented link between the nationalization of the Eritrean labour force, forced labour, enslavement, and crimes against humanity characterising this project.

The EU allocation has been made within the framework of the Khartoum Process, established to fight human trafficking. But, as the Human Rights Council found, PFDJ’s National Service programmes have been a major reason for Eritreans to flee the country. Those who escape suffering the hard conditions of the programme do so because of hoping to find favour with the regime.

The EU is for sure aware of resolution A/HRC/RES/32/24 adopted by the Human Rights Council on July 1, 2017, which states: “. . . the widespread use of indefinite conscription into national/military service, a system that constitutes forced labour, and the reported forced conscription of children under the age of 18 into military service and… the fear and experience of a lengthy national service causes large numbers of Eritreans to leave the country.”

Earlier, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea stated on June 8, 2016 that “the National Security Office is responsible for most cases of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and torture in official and unofficial detention centres” – including their “prolonged and indefinite duration, abusive conditions and the use of conscripts as forced labour”.

Less than one dollar a day

The conscripts receive less than one U.S. dollar a day net. While in 2015, the Eritrean authorities announced that the national service compensation was increased, they introduced a new system of deductions. As a result, the actual net compensation that the conscripts receive has in fact decreased in the last two years.

“Previously (the national service) recruits, who completed the first 18 months of their service, received 600 Nakfa gross monthly salary. After deductions, their net pay was about 400 Nakfa or about US$ 26 – at the official rate of exchange,” writes Martin Plaut. (One USD is 15 Nakfa at the official rate and 23 Nakfa at the black market rate.)

But instead of increasing pay, a new system of deductions means pay has actually fallen! The pay in the pockets of the servicemen and women has dropped to 370 Nakfa.

Against the current exchange rate, the monthly ‘pay’ € 20 in national service is too little for people to survive and to maintain their families.

The EU road construction project follows in the footsteps of a new trend among organisations and countries to work in Eritrea, despite the serious human right violations and ongoing crimes against humanity.

The price of ‘pragmatism’

This trend was started by three international NGOs: VITA, Finn Church Aid (FCA) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

All, except VITA, are recent arrivals after international NGOs, such as Oxfam GB, Lutheran World Federation and Norwegian Church Aid were closed in 2011 by the government when it directed all projects to be closed by the end of the year.

The presence of the new international NGOs in the country, is in no way an indication of a change in the Eritrean government’s attitude towards the civil society or concerning conditions within the country.

It is based on a pragmatic decision to favour and benefit from the presence of VITA, FCA and NRC. But the three international NGOs have to pay a heavy price:

They must accept that they have no possibility to influence any of the government’s policies.

They must accept the nationalization of the Eritrean labour force through the combined effect of militarized education; national service and the Warasy Yikaalo National Development Programme.

They have to admit that they are constrained to follow the direct instructions of the senior leadership of the regime which has no accountability and functions mostly through parallel systems and under no democratic institutions.

They have to accept that their financial resources are entirely fungible in a country that has no national or government budget, that relies on private accounts which belong to the leaders of the dictatorship, and whose treasury is managed by the Head of Finance of the PFDJ.

They have to accept that, given the context of arbitrary arrest, disappearance and general harassment of nationals working for international organisations, they have not carried out the necessary risk assessment or put in place any safeguards for their staff who are placed in very risky and dangerous situations.

The international NGOs are not only paying a heavy price but also providing goods and services that strengthen the hands of the PFDJ, which keeps absolute control over both, including any space for private business outside national service.

This affects the entire population, since the government has imposed a cap on the monthly amount of money that people are allowed to withdraw from the bank, and that is set at 5000 nakfa, which equals USD 333 or € 312 – if we consider an official USD Nakfa conversion rate of 15 and Euro to Nakfa as 16.

Such a paltry amount is however far from sufficient to pay bills, purchase food and manage life. 

National service

Conscripts within the national service and its extension, the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme, are deployed in every sector, whether the military, or government jobs, such as teachers, or jobs in administration, such as local government or government ministries.

There is no free choice, often people are not assigned according to their skills and there is no escape from places that one is assigned to.

Working conditions are generally harsh, and conscripts are subject to random punishments, detention, torture and sexual violence.

The right to a family-life is severely undermined as servicemen and women are removed from their families and stationed elsewhere for long periods of time without the right of free movement.

Employing the national service conscripts for the EU project constitutes forced labour and enslavement.

In 2016, the Human Rights Council expressed “deep concern at the commission’s findings that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea since 1991”.

The Human Rights Council – which replaced the Human Rights Commission in 2006 – also expressed grave concern over “the findings that Eritrean officials have committed and continue to commit the crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder”.

Map of project of EU road construction in Eritrea. Credit: EUMap of project of EU road construction in Eritrea. Credit: EU

Horrific circumstances

The Human Rights Council linked the vulnerability of Eritreans leaving their country under these horrific circumstances with a heightened risk of entering into the hands of smugglers and human traffickers.

The Council stated: “Deeply concerned that the situation of human rights in Eritrea is a primary factor in the increasing number of Eritreans leaving their country, often facing risks of abduction, abhorrent physical and mental abuse and other ill-treatment on their migration path, including abuses by smugglers and human traffickers.”

Eritrea’s National Service is severely criticized in the latest review by the UN Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties.

The Voice of America reports: “The committee expresses concern about Eritrea’s compulsory military service, which has been extended from 18 months for an indefinite period. This means people can be called up for the rest of their lives. The human rights experts say the national service is the main reason young people flee to Europe for asylum. They say conscripts allegedly are used as forced labor in various posts, including mining and construction plants owned by private companies. They add they work for very little or no salary.”

The devastating fact is that the EU and international NGOs are normalizing the practices of a regime that has one of the worst human rights records world-wide, which stands accused of committing crimes against humanity, and a country in which no work can be implemented without accepting the reality that work in the country is based on forced labour and enslavement.

These practices constitute a violation of international law, a violation of the EU law which absolutely prohibits the use of enslavement, and violate the humanitarian mission of the international NGOs.

The European Union and international NGOs should, therefore, halt all activities in Eritrea – immediately! [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 March 2019]

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Photo source: Freedom United

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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