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UN: Spike in Eritreans fleeing human rights abuses

June 19, 2014

GENEVA (AP) — A United Nations human rights investigator said Thursday that 4,000 Eritreans desperate to escape its government’s rights abuses are fleeing the country every month — almost double from just a year ago.

Sheila Keetharuth, the U.N. special rapporteur for the small Horn of Africa nation, said many Eritreans are running from a government that forces men and women to serve for an indefinite number of years in the army. She said the government also arbitrarily detains people and punishes them with impunity in secret detention centers.

“The situation leaves a desolate landscape of people fleeing, young people who don’t want to be in this situation,” she told reporters in Geneva. “My analysis is that the national service equals forced labor.”

Advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch call Eritrea one of the most closed countries in the world since the country gained independence in 1993, following a U.N.-backed referendum in which Eritreans voted to break away from Ethiopia.

Keetharuth told the U.N.‘s 47-nation Human Rights Council that the rights situation appears to be further deteriorating in Eritrea, despite government claims of progress toward six of the U.N.’s eight anti-poverty goals.

“What is shocking also is that people know those risks,” she said of the Eritreans fleeing across deserts and seas into Ethiopia and Sudan, which each receive about 2,000 refugees a month. In last year’s report, she put the number of total refugees each month at 2,000 to 3,000. “People know those risks — they take them because there are no other choices.”

Somalia has tabled a resolution at the council’s session this month that would extend Keetharuth’s mandate and authorize a commission of inquiry into the alleged violations she has outlined.

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