As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Eritrea, and traffickers exploit victims from Eritrea abroad. Proclamation 82 of 1995 requires all persons ages 18 to 40 years to perform compulsory active National Service ostensibly for a period of 18 months—six months of military training followed by 12 months of duty in a variety of military, security, or public service positions. However, since the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian border conflict, the 18-month limit has been suspended; most individuals are not demobilized from government work units after their mandatory period of service but rather are forced to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or familial reprisal. National Service takes a wide variety of forms, including office work in government agencies and enterprises (functions ranging from lawyers, diplomats, and mid-level managers to skilled technicians and mechanics, to clerical, maintenance, and janitorial work); medical professionals; elementary and secondary school teachers; construction or other types of physical labor; and active military duty, which constitutes a small and diminishing percentage. Reports also allege officials force National Service workers to work in mining enterprises partially owned by the government; specific instances alleged to date have involved white collar occupations in mine management, technical analysis, and/ or government oversight responsibilities. Conditions are often harsh for those in military service or physical labor, although some National Service members experience normal, civilian workplace conditions, albeit with low pay and, in many cases, negligible to complete lack of freedom to pursue alternative employment opportunities. International organizations report the government often subjects conscripts in the National Service to inhuman and degrading punishment, including torture, without recourse and punishes individuals that conscientiously object to service; the government continues to force conscripts to serve for indefinite or otherwise arbitrary periods. Additionally, the government broadly restricts recruitment of Eritreans to work abroad, denying travel to most Eritreans, including those enrolled in National Service and those who have not yet performed National Service. Eritreans may be released from National Service after an indefinite number of years by petitioning the government based on criteria that shift periodically and are not fully transparent; policies and practices for obtaining release from National Service are inconsistent across organizations and job fields, but officials generally release expectant mothers and individuals who can show they have become the sole or primary source of familial support. Certain professions (e.g., medicine and teaching) exist almost exclusively within the ranks of the National Service. National Service workers without educational or vocational qualifications continue to be paid extremely low wages, and the government often substitutes food or non-food rations for wages. In addition to National Service, the government instituted a compulsory citizen militia in 2012, requiring medically fit adults, up to age 70 and not currently in the military, to join their local militia. This requirement compels individuals to carry firearms and attend military training. Local militia leaders also assign individuals to additional unpaid forced labor in agriculture work, guard duties, or national development programs, such as soil and water conservation projects on a part-time basis.
All 12th-grade students are required to complete their final year of high school education at the Warsay-Yikealo Secondary School, which is embedded within the Sawa military and training academy; those who refuse to attend cannot receive high school graduation certificates, attain higher education, or be offered some types of jobs. The program comprises seven months of academic instruction, followed by five months of basic military training. Upon graduation from Sawa, the government requires all students to participate in National Service in either civilian or military roles. Although it remains likely some of the students are age 17 at the time of their participation in the military training component of the Warsay-Yikealo/Sawa academy, there are no confirmed reports anyone younger than age 18 began military service. Government policy bans persons younger than 18 from military conscription; however, as National Service is mandatory starting at age 18, the government does not report recruiting any members of the armed forces, and it remains unclear if there is an age verification procedure that is consistently applied prior to it sending new Sawa graduates to active military service. Some officials detain or force into military training children who attempt to leave Eritrea, including unaccompanied children, despite some of them being younger than the minimum service age of 18. An international NGO reports that officials exploit some Sawa students in forced labor on either privately-owned, commercial farms or Sawa-owned farms. NGOs also report military commanders regularly commit gender-based violence, including sexual abuse and potential sex trafficking crimes, against girls during military training or service.
Perennially, thousands of Eritreans who flee the country are smuggled migrants seeking to be reunited with family members already overseas; escaping human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest and detention, lack of due process, and religious persecution; searching for better economic opportunities; or hoping to avoid indefinite periods of service in the government’s National Service program. Most Eritreans consensually commence their outbound journeys by paying smugglers, with the ultimate goal of seeking asylum in Europe or, at a minimum, obtaining refugee status in Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, or Uganda; some also strive to reach the United States. An international organization assesses that many Eritrean asylum seekers, particularly those who flee the National Service, express well-founded fears of persecution in Eritrea. Eritreans fleeing the country and Eritrean refugees in neighboring countries remain particularly vulnerable to the government indiscriminately arresting, detaining, harassing, or forcibly recalling them into the National Service. Eritrea’s strict exit control procedures and limited issuance of passports compel those who cannot obtain exit visas or passports to travel clandestinely and increase their vulnerability to trafficking abroad, primarily in Sudan and Ethiopia. In 2019, an international organization assessed that traffickers exploited Eritreans in forced labor and sex trafficking primarily in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Libya. Previous reports allege international criminal groups kidnap vulnerable Eritreans living inside or in proximity to refugee camps, particularly in Sudan, and transport them to Libya, where traffickers subject them to human trafficking and other abuses, including extortion for ransom. Some Eritreans report traffickers forcing them to work as cleaners or on construction sites during their captivity. International organizations report Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) officials, alongside Ethiopian federal and regional forces, committed widespread human rights abuses and gender-based violence against women and girls in Tigray, including potential trafficking crimes, during the conflict in northern Ethiopia that began in November 2020. Observers report unspecified military personnel, which may have included the EDF, and other officials forced women to have sex in exchange for basic commodities and humanitarian assistance.