There are an estimated 451,000 people living in modern slavery in Eritrea (GSI 2018). The small country has a unique system of compulsory, open-ended military service for citizens that makes it one of the most oppressive states in the world. The government has enforced its current policy of sending all secondary school students to serve for a minimum of twelve months since 2003. While Eritrean law puts the minimum conscription age at 18, many teenagers find themselves recruited during high school at age 16 or even younger. In rural areas, where formal education is rarer, the army will visit villages to round up young girls and boys who look roughly of age, to begin their program of combat training and forced labour.
Dawit was 15 years old when he was taken to Sawa for military training. After finishing training he was able to escape back home and live in hiding. However, in 2010 when he tried to flee the country, he was caught and imprisoned for over a year.
I was 15 years old when I was rounded up from the street in Asmara to do the military service. I was a 6th grade student. I did six months’ military training at Sawa military training camp. After I finished the training, I managed to escape and went to my family home. I lived in hiding until 2010, and then I tried to flee the country. I was caught and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but served 1 year and 7 months and was released in January 2013. Then in February, I tried to flee for the second time. This time I successfully crossed the border. With me in the military camp there were three other under-age children. When I escaped they were still in Sawa.
Narrative provided by Human Rights Concern Eritrea