Eritrean migrants may be fleeing crimes against humanity, UN says

The tens of thousands of refugees who have been trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe need international protection, the United Nations said Monday.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Migrants from Eritrea sit near tents as they live in a make-shift camp under a metro bridge in Paris in May. These refugees are fleeing a "seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change," said a UN report Monday.

Eritrea's government is responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations and keeps its people in a state of fear through a "pervasive control system," a United Nations commission of inquiry said Monday.

The authoritarian northeast African country is one of the major origins of refugees who have been trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The three-member commission of inquiry on its human rights record was set up by the UN Human Rights Council a year ago.

Its report, released in Geneva, said that "information gathered through the pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety."

It highlighted the plight of people fleeing a "seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change" and said that Eritrean refugees need international protection.

The enjoyment of rights and freedoms is "severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law," the commission said. It said it "also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service, and forced labor may constitute crimes against humanity."

Eritrean authorities ignored repeated requests for access to the country and for information, the UN panel said, and fear of reprisals even among witnesses elsewhere was "a major challenge." It traveled to eight other countries and conducted around 550 interviews with witnesses who had fled Eritrea, and also received about 160 written submissions.

Telephones at the Eritrean mission to the UN in Geneva rang unanswered Monday and there was no immediate reply to an email seeking comment.

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