By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
January 9, 2012 (ADDIS ABABA) - Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has said that he will guarantee the safety of tens of thousands of young people who fled the country to avoid forced conscription in the military, should they chose to return to the East African nation.
In an interview with state TV, the President said any citizen willing to return home is highly welcomed. He further assured that no Eritrean upon return home will be subjected to any harm.
Political repression and military conscription have pushed thousands of young Eritreans to flee their country. Eritrean national service is mandatory for all citizens both male and female aged between 18 and 48 years.
Every month thousands of young Eritreans risk their lives attempting to sneak across the country’s heavily militarised border into neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan. With many more arriving on daily basis, currently Ethiopia hosts over 60,000 Eritreans in four camps.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated in 2011 that there are over 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan, with around 1,600 crossing the border every month.
Eritrean conscripts are mainly forced to man the countries long border with Ethiopia. The two nations have never fully resolved a border dispute that erupted into conflict in 1998 killing 80,000. The border has remained tense ever since with Ethiopia refusing to accept an international ruling on border dispute.
Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of civil war. Both nations now accuse the other of backing rebels in each others territory.
In the past, the Eritrean President has dismissed concerns that his country is seeing large number of youth fleeing the country, labeling them as “a bunch of traitors”.
Reliable sources indicate that a large number of Eritreans currently face detention incommunicado without charge or trial for evading military conscription, in suspicion of opposition to government or for attempting to escape the country or upon return from exile.
According to UN the reclusive nation has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
Human rights groups accuse the government in Asmara of turning the country into a “giant prison’’. Eritrea is also continent’s foremost jailer of journalists.
In the latest interview President Isaias, who is the first and only head of state Eritrea has had since independence in 1993, rejected calls to conduct national elections.
He stressed his country won’t hold elections just to please the West, indicating that there were no plans to hold national elections under his rule.
The former Ethiopian province not had any electoral democracy since it gained independence from Ethiopia. The Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which led the revolution has since become the only legal political party.
The Eritrean government uses harsh measures against dissident and uses arrests and threats as a weapon to retain control over the public. The country’s only higher institution, Asmara University, was shut down in 2006 and replaced by military-run colleges.