Veiled in Secrecy: Unravelling Eritrea’s Forced Labour Enigma

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Decades of secrecy, authoritarian rule, militarization, and exploitation have shaped Eritrea’s landscape. The plight of forced labour adds another distressing layer to its complex narrative.

 

Introduction

Situated in the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa, Eritrea emerges as a country shrouded in secrecy, intriguing the global community with its complex puzzle. Yet, beyond this veneer of mystery lies a profound question about its rightful place among recognized nations. In a peculiar turn of events, the late Girma Asmerom, once the official emissary of the Eritrean regime in the UN, proclaimed the country’s population to be 3.5 million. However, a mere three weeks later, in April 2015, during a European Union assembly in Frankfurt, and at the international ‘Bruno Kreisky’ summit held in Vienna, Austria, Yemane Gebreab, the Head of Political Affairs of the ruling party and the iron-fisted dictator’s closest advisor, asserted a starkly different figure: 6.4 million. But how could millions vanish into thin air within such a short span?

Yet, this discrepancy serves as a mere symptom of a deeper truth—Eritrea’s ruling elite, devoid of social welfare provisions, lack the necessity or perhaps the will to ascertain the true size of its populace. In this Orwellian country, every piece of information is deemed top secret. No parliament, no elections, no free media, no annual fiscal reports of the country’s income and outcome—practically nothing!

Moreover, the genesis of Eritrea’s contemporary struggles can be traced back to a protracted armed conflict with Ethiopia, spanning three decades from September 1961 to May 1991. This tumultuous period, characterized by relentless warfare, laid the groundwork for the myriad challenges plaguing the country today. Rooted in a complex web of geopolitical tensions and ideological currents, Eritrea’s apparent struggle for self-rule has been shaped by diverse influences, ranging from Arab Ba’athism to nationalist fervour, and encompassing the principles of Leninist and Maoist communism.

Amidst these unbridled currents, authority in Eritrea evolved into a stark “One Man’s Show,” dominated by the whims of a severe ruling dictator. The absence of democratic institutions and the rule of law left the country adrift, lacking the foundational principles of a legitimate social contract between its people and the ruling regime.

Despite global outcry over severe human rights abuses, Eritrea remains trapped in a cycle of oppression, with forced labour and the nightmare of modern-day slavery persisting as grim realities for its citizens.

 

Eritrea: The Formation of a Nation-State

After World War II, Eritrea underwent a transition from an Italian colony to a British protectorate. In the early 1950s, with United Nations approval, Eritrea was ‘legally’ federated with Ethiopia. However, tensions escalated in the subsequent decade when a group of Muslim students from Al-Azhar University in Cairo initiated an armed conflict. This conflict was initially fuelled by proxy disputes between Ethiopia, led by Emperor Haile Selassie, and Egypt, which deemed control over vital water resources crucial for its survival.

By the early 1970s, the Christian-dominated highlanders, once supportive of Ethiopia, distanced themselves from the Arab-influenced and Muslim-dominated Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). This divergence culminated in a ten-year civil war in the early 1980s, leading to the demise of the ELF. Consequently, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) emerged as the dominant force, engaging in conflict with Ethiopian forces until May 1991 when it gained control of the entire country.

 

The EPLF’s Firm Grip on the Country

The EPLF Junta established a cult-like group amidst the rugged mountains of the Sahel region in northern Eritrea. This enclave, characterized by absolute devotion, represents the exploitation of labour not merely as an economic pursuit but as a sacrificial commitment akin to moths drawn to a flame. In this insular society, where material wealth holds little sway, individuals willingly relinquish their autonomy in service of a collective purpose, thereby perpetuating the dominance of the ruling elite.

 

Militarization as Forced Labour

In the aftermath of the outlawed rebel forces’ rise to power in 1991, Eritrea’s course shifted dramatically, descending into a state reminiscent of dystopia. With the declaration of “Sahel as a nation, EPLF as a government,” by the ruling junta, the country spiralled into despair, earning comparisons to “Africa’s North Korea.” Compulsory and forced military service, mandated for Eritreans aged 18 to 40 by Proclamation No. 11/1991, marked the onset of perpetual military and forced labour hardships. Further entrenching this system, the regime issued Proclamation No. 82/1995, extending national service obligations to citizens aged 18 to 50. The training regimen at Sawa commenced in 1994.

Despite global outcry over severe human rights abuses, Eritrea remains trapped in a cycle of oppression, with forced labour and the nightmare of modern-day slavery persisting as grim realities for its citizens.

 

Militarization through Education and the Arts

To support its policy of pervasive militarization, Eritrea reached into the educational system and the arts, where the Junta can shape the minds and values of people and indoctrinate youth. The extension of military service from the initially stipulated 18 months to an indefinite period, justified by the “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia, has sparked significant unrest among the populace. This dissatisfaction has driven many citizens to seek refuge abroad or hide themselves to evade conscription. To address this issue, the regime protracted secondary school education by one year and established Sawa as a training facility where students undergo military training alongside academic studies, with a clear stress on the former. Upon completing 12th grade, many students who fail to achieve the required marks for admission to the indoctrination-style colleges are compelled to enlist in the military.

This pervasive militarization extends beyond education by influencing literature, arts, and cultural works, which are carefully curated and controlled to align with and propagate the regime’s narratives. Consequently, Eritrean society has become conditioned to accept information provided by the regime without question, resulting in a loss of critical thinking abilities and a prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. This situation echoes the sentiment expressed by South African freedom fighter Steve Biko: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

 

Insights from Statistical Data

Statistics and data, while valuable, often fail to fully capture the human suffering experienced on the ground. Nonetheless, they do offer some insight into the extent of certain issues. For instance, the Global Slavery Index identifies Eritrea as a leading country in the 21st century where slavery remains prevalent among its citizens. The 2023 report reveals that an estimated 90.3 out of every thousand individuals were subjected to modern slavery in Eritrea at some point in 2021. This translates to approximately 320,000 people enduring forced labour or forced marriage.

I can’t outright annul the statistics without conducting thorough and credible research myself. However, in a country where nearly every military official compels conscripted individuals to toil on his farm and tend to his livestock, I find it hard to trust the accuracy of the reported numbers. Moreover, Eritrea’s closed-off nature makes it nearly impossible to conduct independent research, further adding to the challenge of obtaining accurate data.

 

Foreign Mining Companies’ Role in Exploiting Forced Labour in Eritrea

Foreign mining companies, including Nevsun, have been accused of exploiting forced labour in Eritrea, particularly at the Bisha mining located 150 km west of the capital, Asmara. Nevsun, a Canadian mining company with a 60% stake in the venture, alongside the Eritrean regime which holds the remaining 40%, has faced allegations of employing regime conscripts. The mine, initially focused on gold production, has since expanded to copper mining with potential zinc deposits. While there are/were other companies involved in mining projects in Eritrea, Bisha remains the main operational mine.

Construction at the Bisha mine, which commenced in September 2008, involved subcontracting to Eritrean companies, such as Segen, with Senet, a South African company, overseeing infrastructure development. The UN Commission of Inquiry to Eritrea noted that while foreign workers and some released Eritreans were directly employed for technical roles, unskilled labour and basic construction work were mandated by the military staff to be carried out by Eritrean public companies like Segen and Mereb.

In numerous instances, foreign mining companies face restrictions on independent hiring, compounded by the challenge of sourcing the required workforce due to the majority of youth being already enlisted in conscription. Consequently, government-affiliated national companies often act as intermediaries, bridging the gap by facilitating recruitment processes for these foreign entities.

The UN Commission also found evidence of attempts to conceal the workforce’s status, most of whom were military service conscripts. Testimonies revealed that conscripted units were deployed to the mine without clear instructions, often performing construction work without understanding its purpose. Workers were instructed to conceal their military identity, wore civilian clothing, and had limited interaction with other personnel. Despite agreements between Segen and military commanders, workers received significantly lower wages than agreed upon, highlighting the exploitation and coercion within the mining operations.

Elizabeth Chyrum, a prominent Eritrean human rights activist and the director of Human Rights Concern Eritrea, stated that Nevsun Resources Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, faced a lawsuit for its involvement in the utilization of forced labour and conscripted labour provided by the Eritrean military at the Bisha mine. The conscripts, who were coerced to work there, alleged enduring harsh conditions, torture, starvation, and enslavement. In November 2014, three former conscripts who were compelled to work at the Bisha mine initiated a legal case against the company in Vancouver. Subsequently, more plaintiffs joined the lawsuit, resulting in the company compensating 58 individuals because of the legal proceedings.

 

Conclusion

Eritrea stands at a critical juncture, balancing precariously on the edge of uncertainty. Its future, shaped by an authoritarian ruler lacking constitutional legitimacy, hangs in the balance. As we grapple with the crucial question of its survival beyond the current regime, we must confront the nation’s precarious reality and rally for substantive change. Criminalizing forced labour and prioritizing human rights reforms are essential steps toward paving a path to justice and liberation for Eritrea’s beleaguered populace.

Despite concerted efforts to shed light on these issues, Eritrea’s closed-off nature and authoritarian control persistently impede independent inquiry, transparency, and accountability. The pervasive culture of coercion and exploitation, stemming from historical conflicts and entrenched power structures, remains a harsh reality for its people.

As we endeavour to comprehend and tackle the challenges confronting Eritrea, it is imperative to acknowledge the resilience and bravery of its Diaspora-based youth who spearheaded “The Blue Revolution,” challenging the regime’s authority from abroad. Only through sustained international scrutiny, advocacy, and support can we aspire to instigate lasting change and secure a brighter future for Eritrea and its citizens.

As of now, if I were to portray Eritrea in a single image, it would resemble a ship engulfed in flames amid a vast sea, with passengers compelled to leap into the unknown. For them, any destination, no matter how uncertain, holds more promise than the perilous conditions aboard the burning vessel.

In my final reflection on our own experiences, the grim reality of forced labour emerges as a distressing phenomenon, devoid of any benefit to those ensnared within its grasp. Instead, it becomes apparent that forced labour serves the interests of the regime alone, reverberating circumstances witnessed in other communist-led nations such as China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia. However, unlike these countries, which may witness eventual economic growth despite their hardships, Eritrea confronts a paradox of widespread deterioration and mass exodus.

Often, the media depicts Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa.” Yet, while North Korea’s elites wield power and the nation possesses a formidable military arsenal, Eritrea lacks basic institutions such as a single university. The social engineering in present-day Eritrea closely resembles that of Cambodia under Pol Pot’s regime (1975-79). The only distinction lies in the fact that our “Killing Fields” have yet to be excavated!

 

 

References

Ephrem, Sibhat. (1995). “Precedence to National Sovereignty,” Eritrea Profile, 18 November.

Eritrea Profile Newspaper, (4 June, 1994). “National Service—the Facts”

Human Rights Watch. (2019, August 8). Eritrea: Conscription System’s Toll on Education. [News Release]. Retrieved from www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/08/eritrea-conscription-systems-toll-education

Kidane, Y. (2019). Labor Movements in Eritrea: A Historical Overview. Journal of Eritrean Studies, 12(2), 45-68.

Solomon, M. (2018). Identity Politics and Labor Struggles in Eritrea. International Journal of Labor Studies, 15(4), 321-340.

Walk Free 2023, Global Slavery Index 2023, Minderoo Foundation. Available from: www.walkfree.org/global-slavery-index/

 

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