Is the EU funding forced labour in Eritrea?

The EU has denied claims from Eritrean human rights activists that it is funding a scheme in Eritrea which uses forced labour.


It has pledged to spend £17m in Eritrea as part of its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a scheme which aims to curb “irregular migration” by supporting programmes creating jobs in various African countries. This £17m will be spent on improving Eritrea’s road network.


The problem with these road network improvements, though, is that National Service recruits will be used. At present there is an official requirement in Eritrea for people – once they reach the age of 18 and before they turn 40 – to carry out national service. This used to be for a period of 18 months per person, but since the end of the country’s civil war with Ethiopia in 2000 the period has been extended indefinitely.


According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of able-bodied adult Eritreans are currently partaking in “indefinite, compulsory” active national service. A fact-finding mission report published in 2008 by the European Parliament Committee on Development similarly indicated that military service “often extends over decades”. People have compared it to modern day slavery, reporting torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest, a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene provisions and forced labour on farms, in mines or on construction sites for less than US$60 a month.


Because of this, thousands of people – particularly those in their final year of high school – have fled Eritrea in the past few years to claim asylum elsewhere. According to Amnesty International, forced conscription has “robbed the country’s youth of their dreams, creating a generation of refugees… Eritrean youth have only two life options: undertake the compulsory, indefinite national service in conditions that amount to forced labour, or flee the country, risking their lives in search of a better life overseas.” 


Last year in the UK alone, 2,158 people from Eritrea submitted applications for asylum. In 2017, Eritrea was the top country of origin for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK. 


A spokesperson for the EU said in an email to the BBC that the EU does not support indefinite national service in Eritrea. If it goes ahead with plans to fund this road network improvement programme, though, it will be doing just that. As demonstrated, to support indefinite national service in Eritrea is to support forced labour in Eritrea.


FHRE is threatening to sue the EU, warning in a letter that it will take the organisation to court for violating its own Charter of Fundamental Rights if it does not withdraw from the road-building project.