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To Escape Military Service, Thousands Of Young Eritreans Flee To Europe


In stories that we report about migrants who die at sea in the Mediterranean, some nationalities figure a lot more than others. Syrians fleeing the war or refugee camps are heavily represented and so are Eritreans, whose situation back in their home country is far less publicized here. Eritrea is a country of 6 million people. It's on the Horn of Africa. It fought to break away from Ethiopia for many years, and won its independence in 1993.

Why are so many Eritreans fleeing to Europe? Well, Dan Connell is a visiting scholar Boston University's African Studies Center. He has written extensively about the country. And, Mr. Connell, what drives so many people out of Eritrea?

DAN CONNELL: Well, the biggest driver is a program of national service in which young people are conscripted into the military for training and then assigned to a variety of jobs that are often at subsistence pay and can last for as long as a decade.

SIEGEL: You mean you're not drafted for two years or something like that. You don't know how long you're drafted for.

CONNELL: Well, the original program, set up in the mid-1990s, called for 18 months of conscription. But after they fell into a border war with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, the president extended it indefinitely. And at this point, they have no idea how long they'll serve.

SIEGEL: There was an International Crisis Group report on Eritrea last year which included this observation. I'm reading a quotation now. (Reading) Witnesses inside Eritrea say youths are extremely scarce not only in the capital, Asmara, but also in villages and towns, especially in the highlands as well as the borderlands next to Ethiopia and Sudan.

Is Eritrea losing a generation to emigration?

CONNELL: I think it is. You have thousands of people who are coming out every month from Eritrea. And when you go into the camps and you look at the population, more than half are between 16 and 24. So they are losing a generation. They're losing a workforce. They're losing the rank-and-file of their own military, and I think this is producing a crisis inside Eritrea as well.

SIEGEL: If I were an Eritrean and I wanted to somehow get on a boat from Tripoli to Lampedusa or Sicily in the Mediterranean, how do I do that? Do I go in to Ethiopia? How do I get out?

CONNELL: What happens is they leave either through Western Eritrea directly into Sudan or through southern Eritrea into Ethiopia. To continue on from there, they often arrange with smugglers to get from Ethiopia to Sudan. And then they arrange with smugglers in Sudan to go to Libya. Once they get into Libya, the situation becomes much more chaotic because, you know, there are militias, there are police, there are army units, others that they're at risk of being kidnapped by and held ransom by. So the insecure situation that they pass through keeps propelling them on.

SIEGEL: You're describing a journey which - I mean, one thing to infer from that is the decision to emigrate is not taken lightly.

CONNELL: No, it's not. But often, when I've talked to these kids, they don't really have a clear idea of where they're going. They just want to get out. Then they get out, and they find themselves at risk where they are, and so they continue on the next level. And sometimes they end up in places where they just go online, check on Facebook and try to figure out where to go from there based on the rumors and chats that they're getting into with other Eritrean refugees.

SIEGEL: Mr. Connell, thanks for talking with us.

CONNELL: You're quite welcome.

SIEGEL: Dan Connell is a visiting scholar Boston University's African Studies Center. We were talking about Eritrea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.