UN human rights investigators accused Eritrean leaders on Wednesday of crimes against humanity including torture, rape, murder and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people and called for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Europe announced this week that it was considering working with Eritrea and Sudan as part of a €62 billion development plan to encourage African countries to do more to reduce migration flows to the EU. The move risks a backlash from human rights groups, whose misgivings are likely to be deepened by the UN findings.
As well as widespread crimes against humanity, the report accuses Eritrea of adopting a “shoot on sight” policy along its borders as a response to international pressure to clamp down on the flood of migrants.
Eritrea’s government, which refused the three-man UN commission access to the country, rejected the report as “entirely one-sided”.
The UN singled out officials “at the highest levels of state” for their role in a vicious campaign against civilians that resulted in Eritreans being among the largest nationality groups fleeing north towards Europe.
The report’s publication came just days after a new European Union plan emerged that includes hinging aid payments and trade deals with African countries on how much they do to prevent migrants from travelling north.
The EU-Africa pacts mirror the €6 billion “dirty deal” with Turkey, in which Ankara was offered aid and visa-free travel to the Schengen zone in exchange for accepting deportations and controlling its borders.
"Those countries who work with us will get certain treatment," an EU official said. "Those who don't want to or are incapable will get different treatment and that will be translated via our development, trade policies."
Eritrean migrants represent by far the largest contingent of those entering Europe via Sudan and Libya, whose numbers have surged in recent years along with Syrian migrants from the Eastern Mediterranean.
More than a quarter of the 128,619 migrants who arrived in Italy between January and September 2015 were identified as Eritrean by the EU border agency, Frontex - more than double the second largest nationality group, Nigerians.
Mike Smith, the UN rights commission’s chair, suggested that between 300,000 and 400,000 people were kept in enslavement in Eritrea under the guise of military conscription.
He claimed the government of President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since 1991, has become increasingly repressive and now presided over a state with no functioning democratic institutions.
"This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity," told reporters in Geneva.
"The crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a widespread, systematic campaign against the civilian population since 1991."
Eritrean migrants interviewed in Italy, England and Africa for a recent African development organisation report on human trafficking and migrants in sub-Saharan Africa offered what it said was “convincing testimony” that backed up the commission’s findings.
“Most of those detained claimed to have been placed in prison for refusing to obey orders as national service conscripts, for attempting to escape national service, for their religious beliefs, or for vocalising criticism of the government,” the report by The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — a regional organisation comprised of eight east African nations – said.
Those who made it to Europe had already endured “serious risks” in Sudan and Libya, including the widespread rape of women, torture by local militias, beheading or forced conscription by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and being left to die in the desert or sold to ransom collectors if they could not meet trafficking payments.
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Matt Bryden, the Executive Chairman of Sahan, a Kenyan think tank which helped put together the IGAD report, said the Eritrean government had played a "critical role" in enabling human smuggling and trafficking to Europe.
"The Eritrean government seems to be doing nothing to stem the exodus by cooperating in international law enforcement efforts to investigate and prosecute prominent smugglers. Instead, its officials continue to insist that emigration is the result of a conspiracy by Western powers,” he said.