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Eritrea — nicknamed the "North Korea of Africa" — is currently experiencing an exodus of children.
After Syrians, its citizens were the second most common nationality attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe this summer. That voyage is only one hurdle on the long and treacherous journey out of the tiny Horn of Africa nation, which is estimated to have lost nearly 10 percent of its population — 400,000 people — in recent years, as they risk death to escape its repressive dictatorship.
A large proportion of these people are minors, often unaccompanied, who are fleeing compulsory and indefinite military service.
What happens to those who don't make it across the Sahara, to Libya, and on into Europe? VICE News has discovered that between June and August this year at least four unaccompanied Eritrean minors in refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia attempted to kill themselves, while a fifth succeeded.
Job Onyango, a counselor for the Center for Victims of Torture — who work in several camps in northern Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border — told VICE News the spike in suicide attempts came during the summer when the seas were calm and migration to Europe reached a peak. "Most of these young people had expectations of migrating [further on]," he said. "And so they are not being able to go, and that's one of the reasons that is causing them to feel desperate and take these measures."
It is common for families to save up and pay for one child to make the journey to Europe, Onyango said. Those left behind can feel devastated and become desperate.
Eritrean refugees are currently arriving into the camps in northern Ethiopia at an average of 200 each day, according to Onyango. "Almost half of them are minors," he said. "The majority are under 35 — minors and young men and women, and even the adults coming in are coming with two or three children."
Medhanye Alem, an Ethiopian counselor and focal person for child protection issues in the Mai Aini refugee camp, south of Shire, a town in northern Ethiopia, told VICE News that challenges for Eritrean minors include not getting enough food or other basics like soap. "The ones who stay in the camp for three or four years get depressed and attempt suicide," he said. "And there is also peer pressure, especially the ones who are living under group care." In Alem's experience, many young Eritreans discriminate among each other based on ethnicity. Eritreans from the south are particularly vulnerable, according to Alem, because they're believed to be "evil-eyed."
"Those children usually attempt suicide," he said.
Eritrea has compulsory military service, meaning many young people flee the country before they have to enlist. Those who stay are paid low wages and often enlisted indefinitely. Some are thought to be sent to conflicts abroad — Eritrean troops are believed to be currently fighting with UAE troops in Yemen.
Refugees who survive the border-crossing — where a "shoot-to-kill policy is enforced — arrive in Ethiopia owing money to smugglers or saddled with the knowledge that their escape has put their families' lives at risk and swaddled them in debt. "In most cases the ones who are close to Ethiopia, they cross by their own but the ones who are far they pay the smugglers 5000 nakfa ($298) per child. Most of them cannot afford that," Alem said.
Alem has worked with young people who were caught the first time they tried to escape Eritrea and sent to prison, or have been victims of rape and other attacks along the border.
"Among the recent group of young people we had were those who had been captured at the border and were taken into prison and tortured in prison and these are minors under the age of 18," Onyango said. Their condition was "very symptomatic with trauma and similar to other marks that we have seen in other escapees."
Onyango agreed young people — including those in refugee camps — tend to be very concerned about their future. "The Ethiopian government gives them access to education to the highest level — primary, secondary, and university," he said, though admitted that life was still a struggle.
"Our main role is just to teach them to cope with life in the camp. Control emotions, deal with conflicts, and have realistic goals for the future."
Onyango said the camp's services had responded quickly to the crisis by offering emergency help and training for those working directly with children.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd
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