Eritrea said yesterday that thousands of people who leave the Red Sea state every year were not responding to any political persecution, but seeking economic opportunities overseas.
Eritrea, with its population of 5 million creates one of the highest numbers of refugees of any country in the world not at war, according to the United Nations.
Unemployment is high and poverty rife. Mandatory service in the armed forces is a source of great discontent among young people wary of continuing border clashes with Ethiopia.
Eritrea is also the subject of United Nations sanctions imposed over allegations Asmara has supported Islamist rebel groups in Somalia. Asmara denies the accusation.
“Ninety-five percent of the population do national service very willingly, with pride,” Yemane Ghebremeskel, director of the Eritrean president’s office, told Reuters.
“National service has been extended because of the situation of the war (with Ethiopia) and there are some young people who feel they cannot serve longer. That happens (but) we are talking about a very small minority of people,” Yemane said.
Passports are not commonly issued to young Eritreans. The United Nations say tens of thousands flee Eritrea in secret every year, often crossing the porous border with Sudan and attempting the dangerous trek towards southern Europe.
But Eritrea, which has traditionally shunned external aid and been suspicious of organizations wanting to operate there, disputes aid agency statistics on refugee levels, saying they are exaggerations designed to tarnish the nation’s image.
“People move for economic reasons and that is a global phenomenon. People are not leaving because the political reality here is not conducive for them to lead their normal lives,” Yemane said.
“Remember many people have come back to Eritrea too. From Ethiopia and Sudan alone in the last 20 years repatriation exceeds 200 000 people. It is not a one-way street.”
But some of Eritrea’s star athletes have recently used the opportunity of international competition to flee the country.
In December, 12 footballers playing for the national side disappeared in Kenya after competing in a regional tournament. They later presented themselves at the Nairobi offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
In 2008 six Eritrean athletes competing in the World Cross Country Championships in Scotland walked into a local police station and asked for asylum, saying they feared being forced back into national service when they returned home.
“These are isolated cases. They happen in many countries. But the larger pictures shows the more people are returning,” Yemane said.
“Every citizen has a right to come back but it is an offence to leave a country without permission there would be a proportionate penalty. You are not going to exempt them because he or she is a football player,” he said.
In a Reuters interview in October, President Isaias Afwerki said that most fleeing the country were “going for a picnic” and they will be welcomed back home when they come.
Pic: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki