In conjunction with the new peace deal signed with Ethiopia earlier this month, the Eritrean government signaled it may reverse a decades-long policy.
After 20 years, the country told its latest batch of military recruits that their service would not exceed 18 months, potentially reforming a policy of unlimited forced conscription that has prompted thousands of Eritreans to flee abroad.
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Relatives of new recruits heard the news at a graduation ceremony for Eritrean conscripts. “Last week, they were told that they won’t serve beyond 18 months because the dynamics have changed,” said one source who requested anonymity.
In 1995 Eritrea first introduced mandatory conscription for Eritreans aged 18 to 50 to help ‘rebuild’ Eritrea after it won a 30-year war against Ethiopia. This included six months of military training, but also a year working on ‘developmental’ government projects.
However, indefinite and forced conscription began after a two-year war flared up between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998.
Ventures Africa reports:
After both countries signed a ceasefire deal in 2000, Eritrea still continued to recruit anyone aged 18 for an indefinite national service, drawing comparisons with North Korea’s.
As a result, many young Eritreans have braved harsh conditions while traveling through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in a bid to escape being forcibly conscripted into national service.
Eritrea’s national service is not only indefinite, it is also massively underpaid. The basic monthly salary for a conscript is between $43 – $48, making it nearly impossible to meet family needs.
Many young Eritreans believe it is better to emigrate from their country, than subject themselves to a life of servitude and low pay for their country.
Amnesty International documented the effects of forced conscription in 2016, publishing a report titled “Eritrea: Just Deserters: Why indefinite national service in Eritrea has created a generation of refugees.”
The human rights organization found that boys and girls as young as 16, as well as old people, were conscripted often by force and immediately after high school.
However, the thawing of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia may signal a welcome change in this policy, especially for the Eritrean diaspora.
As Ventures Africa points out, “A reduction in national service time will for many of Eritrea’s educated young be good news, as many of the country’s best-trained professionals in the diaspora have refused to return home for fear of being stuck in a cycle of servitude in the Eritrean army.”
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