Eritrea’s forced labour funded with EU funds?

Funded with EU funds?

Source: Deutschlandfunk

[Computer translation from German]

The EU subsidizes a road construction project in Eritrea in which primarily national service providers work – and forcibly. According to the EU, the project is intended to help promote peace and trade between Eritrea and Ethiopia. By contrast, the EU supports forced labor and oppression for human rights defenders.

By Bettina Rühl

Workers stand on the deck of a messenger in the fishing port of Massawa, Eritrea (picture alliance / dpa / imageBROKER)

The project is to connect Ethiopia with the ports of Eritrea (picture alliance / dpa / imageBROKER
Eritrea and Ethiopia Historic peace is starting

It is about the repair of a road that leads from the Ethiopian border to the two ports in Eritrea. The two neighbors had been hostile for decades, and they made peace in July 2018. A few months later, the EU paid 20 million euros for construction machinery and materials to make the long neglected route usable again. At the end of last year, Brussels approved another 60 million for the project.

At first glance, this is an unproblematic project that should promote peace and trade. Human rights activists see it differently, from them comes sharp criticism. The reason: the road is built through forced labor. Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch: “By those who are committed to national service in Eritrea. For the first time, the EU admits that a project that it is committed to and supports may also include forced labor. It is a U-turn that is very worrying for us. “

Lifetime national service

The East African Eritrea is one of the toughest dictatorships in the world. In the five million state, men and women are committed to national service for life. After completing military training, those subject to national service can be deployed militarily or civilly, for example as teachers, in road construction or as agricultural workers. There is practically no free labor market because the entire working population has to work for the army and government for life – for a wage that is not enough to live on.

The Eritrean government justified this permanent forced service with the impending war against Ethiopia. Since there has officially been peace between the two countries, the reason has changed: thanks to the national service, people have at least work. Ana Pisonero, spokeswoman for the EU Commission, seems to take this perspective.

“You know yourself that creating enough jobs will be one of the conditions that we can help Eritrea reform the unlimited character of its national service. And the EU will continue to push for this in its political dialogue with Eritrea. ”

Isolation didn’t change anything

After years in which the EU insisted on compliance with certain standards and therefore did not cooperate with Eritrea, it has now opted for a two-pronged approach: on the one hand it maintains political dialogue, but on the other hand transfers money without waiting for the implementation of minimum human rights democratic requirements , Given the harsh criticism from human rights defenders, Commission spokeswoman Pisonero emphasizes:

“We emphasize that we condemn human rights violations. We also believe that the permanent nature of the Eritrean National Service does not respect the International Labor Organization convention. We are pressing for this and will continue to press for it to change in the future. But we also have to say clearly that Eritrea’s past policy of isolation didn’t work. ”

So now money is flowing – but not to the forced laborers. The EU Commission has ensured that there is some distance between itself and the project: it is implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services UNOPS. In response to criticism from human rights defenders, the EU also emphasized that it does not pay for work and therefore has no responsibility for it. Brussels only pays for building materials and technical equipment.

“We are also concerned about the EU’s support for Eritrea that the use of funds cannot be independently verified. The Eritrean government is very reluctant to allow trips outside the capital Asmara. ”

On request, an EU spokeswoman disagreed with the accusation that Brussels could not control the use of the money: The EU regularly got an idea of ​​the situation, through the dialogue with its Eritrean partners and the inspection of the supplied building materials. In addition, three visits to the site had taken place in the past year and had not revealed any abnormal working conditions.

Government cooperates with smugglers

The EU transfers to the Eritrean government are also noteworthy because the government and the military in turn earn money from the mass exodus of the population: they cooperate hand in hand with people smugglers, help those willing to flee for a lot of money across the borders, which are otherwise closely guarded. This is proven by interviews with refugees in several African countries. For example, with a 30-year-old Eritrean who fled to Uganda at the end of 2015. His tug worked with the government.

“I saw the evidence of this when we were on the road. First, we drove government vehicles. Second, there are many checkpoints between Asmara and the border. Our driver showed some documents every time and we were able to pass – normally no car can get through without being searched. We were traveling with a total of three cars. We drove very quickly. The roadblock was opened at some checkpoints when they saw us rushing up. We could just drive through. “

The Eritrean government therefore drives people to flee through lifelong forced service – which they then illegally pay for by the refugees. And it receives additional money from Europe in the hope that it will change a system in which it enriches itself in many ways together with the army.

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