Eritrea's government is responsible for systematic and widespread human rights abuses on an almost unprecedented scale, driving some 5,000 Eritreans to flee every month, a U.N. investigation said Monday.
Wrapping up a year-long investigation, a U.N. commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Eritrea described a nightmare-like society in the authoritarian Horn of Africa state.
Its nearly 500-page report details how the country, under Isaias Afwerki's iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested at whim, detained, tortured, killed or go missing.
A system of indefinite conscription of all Eritreans also forces many to toil in slave-like conditions in the military and other state jobs, sometimes for decades.
"The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the government," the report said, adding that some of the abuses "may constitute crimes against humanity".
The three-member commission, which includes the U.N.'s top expert on the rights situation in Eritrea Sheila Keetharuth, said in a statement the violations in the country were occurring on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere".
The situation has sparked a massive exodus from Eritrea, which after Syria is the second largest source of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
"Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country," the report said, adding that about 5,000 people were flooding out of the country each month.
In mid-2014, the U.N. refugee agency counted nearly 360,000 refugees worldwide from Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle.
"In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety," the report said, adding that fleeing Eritreans "risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers".
The investigators urged the international community to welcome fleeing Eritreans, offer them protection and make their migration routes safer and, above all, not send them "back to danger".
They described an Orwellian mass-surveillance society, where neighbours and family members are drafted to inform on each other, and where people can be held for years in horrific conditions without ever knowing what crime they committed.
The probe was ordered by the U.N. Human Rights Council a year ago, and the investigators will present their findings to the body on June 23.
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