Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
Although the law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, the government severely restricted these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The government severely restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government in public or in private through intimidation by national security forces.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of media. The government controlled all domestic media, including one newspaper published in four languages, three radio stations, and two television stations.
The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are punishable under the law.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 16 journalists in detention.
The government did not prevent persons from installing satellite dishes that provided access to international cable television networks and programs. The use of satellite dishes was common nationwide in cities as well as villages. Access to South Africa’s Digital Satellite Television required government approval, and a subscriber’s bill could be paid only in hard currency, but access to free Egyptian satellite television was common. Satellite radio stations operated by diaspora Eritreans reached listeners in the country. Citizens could also receive radio broadcasts originating in Ethiopia.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not provide information on the location or health of journalists it detained and who were held incommunicado.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law requires submission of documents, including books, to the government for approval prior to publication. Most independent journalists were in detention or lived abroad, which limited domestic media criticism of the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain government permission to take photographs. Journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel as a misdemeanor and prescribes a punishment of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine. The law also criminalizes “malicious injury to honor or reputation,” which covers true statements communicated solely to damage a person’s reputation and prescribes a punishment of less than one month in prison and a fine. It is unclear if these provisions were enforced.
National Security: The government repeatedly asserted national security concerns were the basis of limitations on free speech and expression.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law does not provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation, and the government restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: The government requires citizens to notify local authorities when they change residence, although many did not. When traveling within the country, particularly in remote regions or near borders, authorities required citizens to provide justification for travel at checkpoints.
Travel restrictions on noncitizens lawfully in the country remained in effect. The government required all diplomats, international humanitarian workers, UN staff, and other foreigners to request permission from the government at least 10 days in advance to travel outside of Asmara. During the year, however, the government on many occasions approved requests with fewer than 10 days’ advance notice.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government required citizens, including dual nationals, to obtain exit visas. Requirements for obtaining passports and exit visas were inconsistent and nontransparent. The government often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military, national service, or militia duties; had unpaid income taxes; or for arbitrary or unstated reasons. Authorities generally did not give exit visas to children older than age five. Categories of persons commonly denied exit visas included men younger than 40, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than 30. Authorities were more likely to approve exit visas for married women and those with children. The land border with Sudan was open, but other land borders remained closed, preventing legal overland travel for most citizens. Members of some cross-border ethnic groups (such as the Afar in the east and the Beja in the west) were allowed to cross the borders.
Exile: In general, citizens had the right to return, but citizens residing abroad had to show proof they paid the two percent tax on foreign earned income to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be eligible for some government services and documents, including birth or marriage certificates, passport renewals, and real estate and vehicle transactions. Those who have left the country illegally have to sign a document called the “regret form,” in addition to agreeing to pay the two percent tax, to obtain a passport or any other services while abroad.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not cooperate with the UN refugee agency regarding treatment of refugees. The government defined refugee status differently than the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The government closed the Umkulu Refugee Camp on January 12.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not recognize Ethiopians, Sudanese, or South Sudanese as refugees, instead considering them economic migrants. The government, however, allowed these refugees to remain in the country.
Refoulement: According to observers, the approximately 53 remaining Somali refugees were returned to Mogadishu. The UN refugee agency stated that it was not involved in, nor informed of, this return of refugees.
Employment: Refugees were not granted formal work permits, but some worked informally.
Access to Basic Services: The UN refugee agency was no longer able to provide basic support for persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin.
Durable Solutions: Although the government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status, authorities permitted them to remain in the country and to live among the local population instead of in a refugee camp. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, or up to 16 years in aggravated cases (such as those that inflict serious bodily injury, involve a minor or someone under the perpetrator’s care, or involve a group of perpetrators). The law makes no distinction based on the gender of the assailant or the victim. Rape between spouses is punishable only when the spouses have permanently separated.
While the law does not specifically criminalize domestic violence, assault carries a punishment that varies based on the seriousness of the crime, ranging from nine months to 19 years in prison. Authorities rarely intervened in domestic violence cases.
It is difficult to determine the extent of such abuses, as stigma prevents individuals from coming forward, and the government does not publicize statistics.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C for both women and girls. Government efforts to reduce FGM/C included public awareness campaigns at the local level targeting religious and community leaders. Government reports stated certain regions and subzones were considered entirely free of FGM/C. Local UN representatives confirmed that the government took FGM/C seriously as a problem and acted credibly to combat the practice. The UN Population Fund worked with the government and other organizations, including the National Union of Eritrean Women and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, on a variety of education programs to discourage the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not specifically criminalize sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by government authorities. Vulnerable populations can provide informed consent to medical treatment affecting reproductive health, including sterilization.
The Ministry of Health promoted modern contraceptive means and took steps to inform women throughout the country of these means. Contraception was provided free of charge in many cases; however, in more rural areas, women still lacked access or information. The World Health Organization reported that from 2010 to 2019 only 21 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.
Women in major population centers have access to prenatal and childbirth health-care services. Rural areas lack the same level of health care for pregnancy, and there is a lack of skilled health-care attendance at birth. According to the World Health Organization, only 34 percent of births from 2010 to 2019 were attended. Barriers included education and transportation.
Women had access to emergency health care, including services for the management of complications arising from abortion; however, in doing so they risked arrest and prosecution for the illegal abortion.
The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including emergency contraception and postexposure prophylaxis for HIV.
According to the World Health Organization, the maternal death rate was an estimated 480 deaths per 100,000 live births. The high maternal death rate was likely due to such factors as limited health-care services, particularly in rural areas. No information was available on the adolescent birth rate. While this has traditionally been a problem in the country and likely contributed to high maternal death rates, the government has made a concerted effort to convince individuals to delay marriage and childbirth.
Discrimination: Family, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws provide men and women the same status and rights. The law requires equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women, particularly in rural areas, continued to face economic and social discrimination. The government did not enforce the law effectively.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The law prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity. There were reports that governmental discrimination continued against ethnic minorities, particularly against the Afar, one of nine ethnic groups in the country.
Birth Registration: A child derives citizenship from having at least one citizen parent, whether the person is born in the country or abroad. Registration of a birth within the first three months requires only a hospital certificate. If not registered, a child may not be allowed to attend school but may receive medical treatment at hospitals.
Education: Education through grade seven is compulsory and tuition free, although students’ families were responsible for providing uniforms, supplies, and transportation. Access to education was not universal, but the government took steps to encourage attendance, including public awareness campaigns and home visits by school officials. In rural areas parents enrolled fewer daughters than sons in school, but the percentage of girls in school continued to increase.
Child Abuse: The law provides that assault of a person incapable of self-defense or against a person for whom the assailant has an obligation to give special care is an aggravated offense. The law also criminalizes child neglect, with a punishment between one- and six-months’ imprisonment.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18, unless the woman is pregnant or has already had a child, in which case the minimum for both is 16. The minister of justice or someone appointed by the minister may also waive the age requirement. There were no recent statistics on early marriage. Officials spoke publicly on the dangers of early marriage and collaborated with UN agencies to educate the public regarding these dangers, and many neighborhood committees actively discouraged the practice.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes most commercial sexual exploitation and practices related to child pornography. The use of a child for commercial sex, however, is not specifically prohibited by law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
One Jewish person remains in the country, and he maintained the only synagogue without reported government interference. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The government implemented programs to assist persons with disabilities, especially combat veterans, and dedicated substantial resources to support and train thousands of persons with physical disabilities. No laws mandate access for persons with disabilities to public or private buildings, information, and communications. There were separate schools for children with hearing, vision, mental, and intellectual disabilities. Most of these schools were private; the government provided some support to them. The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, including mental disabilities.
No information is available on the rate of school attendance for children with disabilities compared to those without disabilities.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity “or any other indecent act,” which is punishable if convicted by five to seven years’ incarceration. The government actively enforced this law. Antidiscrimination laws relating to LGBTQI+ persons do not exist.
There were no known LGBTQI+ organizations in the country. The government tightly restricts freedom of expression (see section 2.a.), including on subjects related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. Labor laws did not fully cover all workers, including civil servants, domestic workers, police, national service conscripts, and those in the informal sector. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers dismissed for legally sanctioned union activity. The law allows for the establishment of unions in workplaces with at least 20 employees and requires a minimum of 15 members to form a union. Workers from multiple smaller worksites, however, can band together to create a “general association,” if there are at least 20 members. The law requires prior authorization from the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare to establish a union, but it deems registration granted if the ministry does not respond within one month.
The government did not respect or effectively enforce the law. The Labor Relations Board decided penalties and legal protections against antiunion interference on a case-by-case basis. Penalties were not necessarily commensurate with those for denials of civil rights.
The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in practice. Most workers fall under the exceptions noted above. For the few formal workers who are not in national service, the only option for collective representation is the one umbrella trade union, the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers. No independent unions exist. The confederation was directly linked to the ruling party and did not take steps against party-owned enterprises. While strikes are technically legal, only the union may call for one, and it does not. The confederation’s members represent hotel workers, service personnel, agricultural professionals, and teachers, among other occupations. In general, no nongovernmental organizations were permitted to play a role in promoting the rights of workers in the country.
The law prohibits forced labor and slavery, but gaps in the law allowed widespread forced labor to occur. The government enforced these laws within private industry; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes. The definition of forced labor in local law excludes activities performed under national service or other civic obligations, compulsory labor for convicted prisoners, and “communal services rendered during an emergency.” This definition excludes nearly all public sector employees, who are mostly national service workers. Labor protections limiting hours of work and prohibiting harsh conditions do not apply to persons conscripted into national service.
The country’s national service obligation amounted to a form of forced labor. By law all citizens between ages 18 and 50, with limited exceptions, must perform national service. The national service obligation legally consists of six months of military training and 12 months of active military or civilian national service, for a total of 18 months, or, for those unfit to undergo military training, 18 months of service in any public and government organ. During times of emergency, however, the government can suspend the 18-month limit, which it did in 1998 with the outbreak of the war with Ethiopia and has not rescinded. The result is an indefinite extension of the duration of national service, in some cases for more than 20 years; discharge from National Service is arbitrary and procedures for doing so remain opaque. Conscripts were employed by all governmental and party-run agencies, including for-profit enterprises, in conditions of forced labor.
Wages for conscripts are low, although pay scales have been revised for several job functions in recent years, particularly for those with higher education or skilled training credentials. National Service workers without educational or vocational qualifications continue to be paid extremely low wages, and the government often substitutes food or nonfood rations for wages. The law provides for assignment to a job category according to the person’s capacity and profession, but this was not always followed in practice. There is no provision for alternative service for conscientious objectors.
The government required those not already in the military to attend civilian militia training and carry firearms, including many who were demobilized, the elderly, and persons otherwise exempted from military service. Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention. Militia duties mostly involved security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling and agricultural work. Militia training involved marches, weapons training, and shooting practice as well as listening to patriotic lectures. Recruits as young as 16 underwent military training and were subject to forced labor (see section 7 c.).
Penalties involving compulsory labor may be imposed for the peaceful expression of opposition to the established political, social, or economic system or the practice of a religion. There were no reliable data on the number of prisoners subjected to compulsory labor for political offenses. The government did not effectively enforce prohibitions on forced and compulsory labor in the informal sector, which included 80 percent of workers.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum age for employment is 14, although this restriction does not apply to children working outside of formal employment relationships, including self-employed workers. The government prohibits persons younger than 18 from employment between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and for more than seven hours per day. The government has not determined by law or regulation the types of hazardous work prohibited for children.
Labor inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, but enforcement was inconsistent and did not extend to the informal sector. Inspections were infrequent, and penalties, if imposed, were arbitrary and not necessarily commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes.
Children in rural areas commonly worked on family farms, fetched firewood or water, worked in illegal mines, and herded livestock. In urban areas children worked as street vendors. Children also worked in small-scale garages, bicycle repair shops, metal workshops, and tea and coffee shops. They also transported grain or other goods via donkey cart or bicycle. Child domestic service occurred, as did begging by children, often under conditions of forced labor.
Secondary school students participated in the Summer Work Program, which mostly included planting trees. In past years, the program included school and hospital maintenance. Students worked for four to six hours a day, five days a week, and at least some students were given a small stipend for participating. Reports indicated students who did not participate in the work program in past years were fined, although waivers were sometimes available.
To graduate from high school and meet national service requirements, students complete their final year of schooling (12th grade) at the Sawa military complex. Nearly half the year is devoted to mandatory military training. Some students at Sawa were reportedly as young as 16. In addition, some students are forced to work on government-owned farms.
To enforce this system, the government conducted forcible roundups of students and young persons across the country who did not report to military training. Furthermore, the military occasionally performed identity checks that led to the imprisonment of children alleged to be attempting to evade compulsory national service.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
Labor laws prohibit employment and occupation discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, social origin, nationality, political orientation, or religion. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, language, or age. The Labor Relations Board has responsibility for enforcing antidiscrimination law but provided no public information on cases or their resolution.
Discrimination against women in pay was common in the workplace and occurred in an environment of impunity. The law does not criminalize sexual harassment (see section 6, Women). Persons with disabilities in the private sector reportedly experienced discrimination in hiring and in access to the workplace.
Wage and Hour Laws: The national minimum wage for employees of party-owned enterprises and government employees was below the international poverty line. There was no national minimum wage for private sector workers. The law provides for a standard workweek of 48 hours and no more than two hours per day of overtime, but it includes exceptions for when an employee is absent or when there is “urgent work.” The law entitles workers, except for those employed in national service, to overtime pay, but this was not always enforced. The legal rest period is one day per week, although most employees received one and one-half days.
The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for enforcement of wage and hour laws. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance. The government did not report on violations of wage and hour laws.
Occupational Safety and Health: No published occupational health and safety standards exist. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Each government enterprise has a separate agreement with the local union defining the work standards, including occupational health and safety regulations, for that enterprise. There were 168 government enterprises in the country, accounting for most large-scale employers.
The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for worker safety and welfare. The government did not effectively enforce the negotiated standards. The ministry employed 28 inspectors, which was insufficient to enforce compliance. The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers reported that every enterprise has an inspection at least once per year, which is then reviewed by the enterprise, the union, and the ministry. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and demand changes, but they may not initiate sanctions.
The government did not report on abuses of safety or health standards. There was no information on major industrial accidents during the year.
Informal Sector: Approximately 80 percent of the population was employed in the informal sector in subsistence farming or livestock and small-scale retail trading. No labor laws apply to the informal sector. There were no reliable data on the informal economy and no effective mechanisms for monitoring conditions or protecting workers in the informal economy.