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Africa

Eritrea celebrates 25 years of independence despite human rights concerns

media Eritrea's capital, Asmara Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Festivities were held across Eritrea on Tuesday 24 May to honour the country's 25 years of independence, yet rights campaigners question the cause for celebration saying the country is ruled by a repressive regime, with thousands of citizens trying to escape the country every year.

In the runup to Tuesday’s celebrations, an Independence Torch was carried across the country, and block parties were held with music, dancing and firework displays. Yet some Eritreans said they would not be joining in the festivities.

It’s hard for me to think that just because the land was liberated, but the people are not liberated,” Meron Estefenos, the director of the nonprofit Eritrean Initiative on Human Rights (EIRR), told RFI.

“I will celebrate the day that the people are liberated, the day that we have a democratic Eritrea, the day that we have a constitution, the day that we have election--then we have something to celebrate.”

Estefenos's nonprofit, which is based in Sweden, advocates for the thousands of Eritrean refugees across the world. An estimated quarter of Eritreans live outside the country, most of them in unstable refugee situations.

With the exception of the elderly and children, there is no legal way for citizens to leave the country, which means most use the services of people smugglers.

Around 40,000 Eritreans currently live in Israel, which they reach via the Horn of Africa. Israel has been criticised, however, for its treatment of Eritreans, typically classifying them as economic migrants as opposed to refugees.

“We’re not talking about genuine refugees or people running for their lives but mainly people who are coming to make money,” Yonatan Jakubowicz, a researcher at the Israeli Immigration Policy Centre told RFI.

It’s also important to understand that the Eritrean regime, even though it’s a dictatorship, profits from this migration because over a third of Eritrea’s GDP comes from money sent back from Eritreans."

In 2009 the UN imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea and enforced a travel ban on a number of its leaders.

Angela Kane, the former Under-Secretary-General for management in the UN, told RFI that on a larger scale, there needs to be more international engagement with the Eritrean government in order to bring about change.

“Eritrea is a very isolated state but that also means the government is very isolated and that should be remedied," she said. "There should be more engagement with the state."

There is some possibility of change.

Over the past few years, the Eritrean government announced it would reduce the lengthy military service requirements, increase wages for conscripts and draft a new constitution.

Yet the majority of these promises remain to be implemented.

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