Eritrean workers are labouring away, upgrading the road linking landlocked Ethiopia with the port of Massawa. The road project is being funded by the European Union. The aim of rehabilitating the route is to boost trade between these two neighbours who are attempting to put their conflicts behind them.
As the EU explained: “The specific objective is to improve transport connectivity for commercial trade along the arterial roads between Massawa and the Ethiopian border.”
It could provide Ethiopia with a more direct route to the sea than through the port of Djibouti.
The EU has committed Euros 20 million to the project. A further Euro 60 million has been promised for the second phase of project. The aid is part of broader EU plans to halt the flow of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa. There are 26 such projects from Senegal in the west to Somalia on the east.
But in Eritrea the EU project is at the centre of a controversy that refuses to go away. This is because Eritrea uses conscripts trapped in the country’s notorious National Service as labour. The conscripts are meant to serve for just 18 months, but are held indefinitely. Some have been held in National Service for 20 years or more.
The programme, initiated in 1995, involves all Eritreans on entering their twelfth grade at school, to complete their education with military service. Reports for the UN Human Rights Council provided evidence of the brutal treatment of these young people, with physical abuse frequently meted out to men and sexual abuse for women.
“there are reasonable grounds to believe that within the context of military and national service programmes, Eritrean officials exercise powers attaching to the right of ownership over Eritrean citizens. It further determines that despite the justifications for a military/national service programme advanced in 1995, the military/national service programmes today serve primarily to boost the economic development of the nation, profit state-endorsed enterprises, and maintain control over the Eritrean population in a manner inconsistent with international law. Thus there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement, a crime against humanity, in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner since no later than 2002.”
The European Union is fully aware that National Service conscripts held in slave-like conditions from which they cannot escape, on pain of facing military discipline, is being used in this project.
As the EU’s own document EU planned road project Eritrea the road rehabilitation project puts it: ‘National Service continues to provide employment in all aspects of civilian life for which remuneration is given.’
The European Union has sent its ambassadors to inspect the project. Brussels and other European capitals are fully aware of what is taking place. In February EU ambassadors visited the road rehabilitation project to inspect the work.
Eritrea’s use of forced labour is confirmed by the most recent report from the Danish Refugee Council. Following a visit to Eritrea, the council said that the situation was not improving:
“According to the interviewed sources, there has been no observed changes, or improvements, in the working or living conditions for conscripts of national service after the peace agreement. Furthermore, none of these sources anticipated any changes in the foreseeable future.”
As the Danish report explains, pay for National Service conscripts “in reality amounts to approximately 500-800 nakfas per month.” This is between US$33 and $53 per month – less than $2 a day for backbreaking work. Even this is subject to government taxes and deducations.
Worst of all, it is labour from which the conscripts cannot escape, since they live under military discipline. It is a form of modern slavery.
Europe hides the reality
The EU has been aware of this situation for the last four years. In 2016 the German magazine, Der Siegel, uncovered the EU’s sensitivities about revealing details of some of its projects, with documents instructing civil servants “under no circumstances” to make public what was under discussion.
European officials and politicians are clearly concerned that their funding of aid projects that use what amounts to slave labour would be considered reprehensible by the public. Its Africa Trust Fund is established under the European Development Fund and is therefore bound by the legal framework of the Cotonou agreement and the Lisbon Treaty. Both include clauses protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
It’s no wonder the EU is concerned about the discrepancies between its public commitments and its aid programmes.
European spokespersons have attempted to distance the EU from criticism. They point out that the EU project only covers the procurement of material and equipment to support the rehabilitation of roads and not the labour.
A legal challenge
The EU now faces a legal challenge in the Netherlands for its role.
The action by Human Rights for Eritreans calls for an immediate cessation of the programme. It cited EU Parliamentary resolutions which declared that Eritrea’s system of forced labour was a ‘form of slavery.’
More recently, the issue is being raised in the British Parliament by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea. The group is considering sending a delegation to Eritrea to monitor what is taking place. Recent newspaper coverage has ensured that the issue is getting the international attention it needs.