Nairobi (AFP) - Eritrea's claims it has ended indefinite national service are untrue and refugees arriving in Europe should not be labelled economic migrants, Amnesty International said in a report Wednesday, warning of "persistent atrocities" in the Horn of Africa country.
Refugees from the repressive Red Sea state make up the third-largest number of people risking the dangerous journey to Europe after Syrians and Afghans, running a gauntlet of ruthless people smugglers to make the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
There was no immediate response from Asmara to Amnesty's report, but Eritrea has defended the conscriptions from which some 5,000 people flee each month, saying it has "no other choice" given the threat from long-standing enemy Ethiopia.
Amnesty dismissed Asmara's claims it had limited compulsory military service to 18 months, an announcement seized on by some in Europe to argue that Eritreans can now safely be sent home.
"Conscription continues to be indefinite for a high proportion of conscripts and sometimes lasts for decades," London-based Amnesty said in the report.
"The situation facing conscripts in Eritrea is desperate, and exposes the lie behind claims made by certain host countries that most Eritreans arriving at their borders are economic migrants," Michelle Kagari, Amnesty's deputy regional director for east Africa said.
"These people, many of them children, are refugees fleeing a system that amounts to forced labour on a national scale."
The report, titled "Just Deserters: Why indefinite national service in Eritrea has created a generation of refugees," describes the conditions that drive Eritreans to leave despite the fact the country is not at war.
Those interviewed recounted how the relatives of refugees who fled were sometimes arrested, to try force those who left to return and face punishment themselves.
- 'Lives of perpetual forced labour' -
During service, families are split, conscripts are "abysmally paid" and leave is often withheld for years, it added.
Rule breakers can be incarcerated in "underground cells or in shipping containers."
Those who escape describe crawling under razor wire, tiptoeing across minefields or sneaking past armed border guards in their bid for freedom.
In the past, entire Eritrean football teams have absconded while playing in tournaments abroad and fighter jet pilots have escaped in their aircraft.
"Eritrea is haemorrhaging its youth. Children are walking alone, often without telling their parents, to other countries, to avoid lives of perpetual forced labour on low pay with no education or work opportunities," Kagari said.
"That they choose to undertake such precarious and unsafe journeys to supposed safe havens reflects the gravity of the human rights violations they would face if they stayed at home."
- 'Defend its independence' -
Under Eritrean law, conscription is limited to 18 months, but Asmara says it has to rely on its people to defend it from Ethiopia, from whom it broke away from in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle. The two countries fought a war between 1998 and 2000.
Troops still eyeball each other along the frontier, with Ethiopian soldiers defying an international ruling that they should leave Eritrean land.
Eritrea was "left with no other choice but to rely on its population to defend its independence and sovereignty," the government said in June.
The Amnesty report, based on interviews with 72 Eritreans who fled the country since mid-2014, said Asmara's change of policy was just rhetoric.
"There have been no discernible changes... conscription into National Service continues to be extended indefinitely and conscripts continue to be deployed in a range of civilian as well as military roles," the report read. "The system therefore continues to amount to forced labour, in violation of international law."
Sending Eritreans back would see them locked up in dire conditions at home, Amnesty added.
"Those who try to escape are arbitrarily detained," the report read.
"The same fate would likely befall those forcibly returned from overseas upon the rejection of their asylum applications."