KAMPALA, Uganda – Thousands of people each year flee Eritrea, a small Horn of Africa nation. Despite relative peace, many leave the repressive regime taking trips that can be as perilous as the recent boat disaster off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Here is a look at the isolated country:
Eritrea declared independence in 1993 following a United Nations-backed referendum in which Eritreans voted to break away from Ethiopia. Eritrea's pro-independence leaders fought a guerrilla war against Ethiopia that ended in 1991. Relations between landlocked Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has a Red Sea coastline, have since remained tense, with both countries' armies occasionally clashing over an undefined common border. From May 1998 to June 2000, the neighbors fought a costly and bloody war over a disputed border territory. Both countries continue to accuse each other of supporting armed groups across the border.
Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Eritrea has a population of at least 6 million people. About 69 percent of them are poor, the school enrollment rate stands at 47 percent and annual per capita income was $403 in 2010, according to the World Bank. The country has faced chronic drought over the years, fueled in part by the government's restrictive economic policies, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. Nine ethnic groups are recognized in the country, including the dominant Tigrinya.
Isaias Afworki, a former guerrilla fighter who became the leader of Eritrea's war of independence, has been president since 1993 after being the country's de facto leader since 1991. He is said to rule with a firm hand, brooking no opposition to his authority, according to rights groups that depict him as a tyrant. At least 10,000 political prisoners have been held by Afworki's administration over the last two decades, Amnesty International said in a report released earlier this year. "With no known exception, not a single political prisoner has ever been charged with a crime or tried, had access to a lawyer or been brought before a judge or a judicial officer to assess the legality and necessity of the detention," the rights group said in the May report.
In January more than 100 dissident soldiers were reported to storm the headquarters of the Ministry of Information in the capital, Asmara, where they read a statement on state TV urging constitutional rule and freedom for political prisoners. That incident was interpreted by some analysts as an attempted power grab that never succeeded, although details of it remain unclear. Elections have not been held in Eritrea since independence.
Rights groups, which often lack access to the country, have called Eritrea an oppressive state where the rights of civilians are frequently violated. Human Rights Watch, which once described Eritrea as "a giant prison," reports that "torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religious freedom remain routine" in the country. The group says in its global report for 2013 that "political parties are not allowed" in Eritrea and there are "no institutional constraints on" Afworki. "Eritreans are routinely subject to imprisonment without explanation, trial, or any form of due process. Incarceration often lasts indefinitely," the report says.
Amnesty International says it has "received many reports of deaths in detention" from torture, appalling conditions or suicide. Citing the accounts from those who have fled, the group reports that conditions in Eritrea's detention facilities are abysmal, with prisoners "held in underground cells and shipping containers, subject to boiling and freezing temperatures."
WHY MANY FLEE
More than 1,500 Eritreans, including unaccompanied minors, flee the country monthly despite shoot-to-kill orders to border guards and immense dangers along escape routes, according to Human Rights Watch.
Eritreans face compulsory national military service that "keeps most young Eritreans in perpetual bondage," the rights group says, accusing the government of prolonging military service indefinitely despite a decree limiting it to 18 months.
People are "desperate to escape" a military in which conditions are said to be "dreadful," making conscription into the armed forces one of the main reasons young Eritreans flee, said Andrew Weir, deputy editor of a Britain-based publication called Africa Confidential. Eritrea is austere and highly repressive, according to Weir. A well-known route for some migrants from Africa is via the Red Sea and Sinai, where people fall victim to human trafficking, he said.
More than 250 migrants were killed in the Lampedusa boat disaster and most victims are believed to be from Eritrea and Somalia, another troubled Horn of Africa nation, according to the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The large number of unaccompanied children among those fleeing Eritrea showed "the scale of despair they are facing" back home, said Sheila B. Keetharuth, the U.N. special rapporteur on Eritrea. "The alarming human rights situation in Eritrea is triggering a constant stream of refugees to neighboring countries and far beyond. People continue to flee despite the extreme dangers along escape routes," Keetharuth said in a statement released Monday.
Some Eritrean athletes have not returned home after competing in sports events abroad; some went missing at the London Olympics.
Many journalists have been imprisoned in Eritrea while others have fled the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which says Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia were Africa's "top jailers" of journalists in 2012. The watchdog group says since 2008 it has assisted 30 Eritrean journalists who now live in exile. Eritrean authorities have shut down all independent media outlets in a widespread government crackdown that started in Sept. 2001, it says.
ALLEGED TERROR LINKS
Eritrea has long been accused of fomenting violence in Somalia in part to keep its archrival Ethiopia, which shares a long border with Somalia, concerned about conditions there. Increasingly isolated, Eritrea is under sanctions imposed by the African Union and the U.N. In late 2011 the U.N. Security Council expanded an arms embargo against Afworki's regime. Earlier this year the Obama administration blacklisted Eritrea's intelligence chief and a senior military official for their alleged roles in providing financial and logistical support to the al-Qaida-linked Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. Eritrea's government denies the charges.