VoA: COVID-19 Supplies From Alibaba Never Reached Eritrea

Published by Voice of America

ADDIS ABABA – Much publicized COVID-19 supplies donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group never made it to Eritrea, despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s saying the supplies had been delivered to the entire continent.

The reasons why the goods did not reach Eritrea are unclear, but rights activists accuse the government of ignoring the needs of its people.

Two officials at the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helped organize delivery of the coronavirus masks and test kits to various African countries, confirmed to VOA that no supplies reached Eritrea.

A senior Africa CDC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the plane carrying the supplies was supposed to fly from Sudan’s capital to Asmara on March 23, but Eritrean officials never authorized the plane to land.   

Forced to bypass Eritrea, the pilots instead flew to Djibouti and Kenya before returning to their starting point, Addis Ababa, he said.

James Ayodele, a spokesperson for the Africa CDC, said “the issue is still being discussed at a diplomatic level.”

Dr. Ahmed Ogwell, deputy director of the Africa CDC, told VOA that his organization is not privy to how flight paths and landing rights are secured and and that its role in the aid distribution is only technical.

“Africa CDC has been providing technical assistance in the distribution of the donations from the Prime Minister Abiy-Jack Ma Foundation Initiative to reverse COVID-19 from Africa and to date 50 countries in Africa had received their consignments. The Ethiopian Airlines continues to plan for distribution of the remaining countries despite the lockdowns instituted by governments in Africa to combat COVID-19,” he said.

Threat to health

Whatever the reason for Eritrea’s failure to accept the medical supplies, Meron Estefanos, executive director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, said the government is severely jeopardizing the health of its own citizens.

“I don’t believe that it was incompetence. I believe it’s just that they don’t care. If it was just because of bureaucracy, they would have just fixed the airline and they would have had it the next day. This is a country that can do lots of things. Importing something from Ethiopia to Asmara is a one-hour flight. They could even allow them to land right now, you get the point, just for medical purposes,” Meron said.

Health experts and human rights activists are gravely concerned that Eritrea is severely underequipped in the event of a severe coronavirus outbreak. The government has confirmed 18 COVID-19 cases to date.  

Meron said that rather than accepting goods from abroad, the government is asking its diaspora across the globe to give money to the government.

”Eritrea is not ready for anything. First of all, just eight months ago they shut down 29 Catholic clinics. These were the best clinics in the country, giving free service to the public. But because of the Catholics’ call for peace [and the] release of political prisoners, they shut down the clinics. But who is getting hurt?  It’s the people,” Meron said.

Talks continuing

Asked to comment on the matter, Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for Ahmed, said only that talks were ongoing to resolve the issue. The Alibaba Foundation declined to comment.

Daniela Kravetz, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, said she did not want to specifically address the matter of Jack Ma’s supplies as she did not have firsthand information.

She did underline the dire need for medical supplies in Eritrea and the need to open the door to humanitarian aid.

“I am concerned about the fact that, if this continues to escalate, the reality is that many Eritreans will not be able to seek or obtain medical help. There is a lack of functioning intensive care units with adequate ventilators, shortage of water, shortage of medical staff, shortage of labs to carry out tests. I don’t really think the country has the medical capacity to deal with a pandemic like this one,” Kravets said.

She also called on Eritrea to release political prisoners and low-risk offenders because of the risk of COVID-19 spreading inside the country’s overcrowded prison system. 

Amnesty: Eritrea, Show humanity and release prisoners of conscience amid COVID-19

Published By Amnesty International

Eritrean-American Ciham Ali Ahmed turns 23 today – and once again she is spending her birthday behind bars. This year she faces the additional and potentially deadly risk of contracting COVID-19 in some prison in Eritrea. She is a prisoner of conscience, jailed simply for trying to exercise her human rights to leave the country.

As of 2 April, Eritrea, a country notorious for arbitrarily arresting and detaining or forcibly disappearing people simply for speaking their minds, had at least 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to its Ministry of Health.

“We join Eritrean families and activists who are extremely worried about their loved ones in calling on the Eritrean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Ciham Ali and all others jailed simply for exercising their rights,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

 “The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in Eritrea’s prisons increase chances of transmission of COVID-19, putting Ciham’s and other prisoners’ health and lives at risk. President Isaias Afewerki must urgently take measures to reduce the number of people in prison – including pre-trial detainees, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.”

The Eritrean authorities must further ensure that prisoners enjoy the same standards of health care as are available to everyone in the community, including access to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Ciham Ali was arrested when she was just 15 years old, shortly after her father, then a minister in President Aferwerki’s government defected and fled to exile. She has neither been charged with any crime nor allowed access to her lawyers or family since her arrest. Her family does not even know where she is being held or her state of health. 

“Ciham Ali, like other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, has lost many years and has seen her life aspirations dashed as days in prison have turned into months and years. She must be released and allowed to pursue her dreams,” said Deprose Muchena.

Eritrea is known for jailing thousands of people for their political views, their work as journalists or even for practising their religions.  Many are arrested and detained without charge or trial. Once in detention, many are denied access to lawyers or family members.

Amnesty International has documented poor prison conditions in Eritrea, in some cases amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Prisons in Eritrea are generally overcrowded, with inadequate water and sanitation facilities and providing poor-quality food and drinking water.

VoA: Ethiopia Ends Blanket Protection for Eritrean Refugees

Published by Voice of America

ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopia has stopped granting automatic asylum to Eritreans entering the country.  The United Nations and aid groups say the previously unannounced policy change, which went into place about three months ago, put Eritreans trying to flee the country at the mercy of unscrupulous human smugglers.

For years, Ethiopia had an “open-door” policy towards refugees from countries such as South Sudan and Eritrea, earning it widespread acclaim among international donors.

But according to the United Nations and humanitarian aid groups, Ethiopia changed its policy in late January without making an official announcement.  The government no longer offers automatic asylum for Eritreans trying to flee their home country.

The Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs told donors and aid groups earlier this month that the previous approach resulted in a “high influx of unaccompanied minors, illegal migrants and others who do not fulfill the criteria laid [out] for refugee status determination under the international instruments,” according to a letter seen by VOA dated April 9.

Activists and aid groups say the new policy limits options for Eritreans trying to avoid forced conscription into Eritrea’s national service program.

Ann Encontre, country representative for the U.N. Refugee Agency in Ethiopia, said that in some cases, Eritreans could be forced into trafficking networks that smuggle Eritreans north through Libya towards Europe.

“The concern is really underage children, minors, who don’t have documentation. Those are the ones who are at risk because they get caught up in trafficking, in smuggling, in these illegal movements towards Europe and elsewhere. All persons who come and who can be heard and their status is determined, and they have legal documentation while they are here, then that really mitigates the risk for them to be caught up in these nefarious activities,” she spoke to VOA via a messaging app. 

Officials at both the Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs and the Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki struck a deal in 2018 to end the decades-long conflict between the two nations. Since that accord, the two leaders have met on a regular basis to discuss enhancing their bilateral ties.

For Bereket Zemuy, a refugee from Eritrea and spokesperson for the Eritrean Refugees University Graduates and Students Association, anyone who is willing to flee their home in Eritrea is doing so because they feel their lives are at risk.

“Every single Eritrean family is being affected by the dictator system of the country. So whoever is trying to escape and flee their own home country, they are just coming in fear of their own lives, even those unaccompanied minors, even those families, whoever. Those unaccompanied minors, once they get back home they will be considered as traitors.”

Beyond its new refugee policy, Ethiopia also has a plan to shut down the Hitsats Refugee Camp in the Tigray region, which is home to 10,000 Eritrean refugees.

Encontre said closing the Hitsats cap during the coronavirus pandemic was not advisable, saying its residents could inadvertently spread the virus.

Despite Ethiopia having locked down all land borders to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the U.N. has seen around 2,000 asylum seekers enter Ethiopia from South Sudan in recent weeks.

Devex: EU foreign chief defends aid for Eritrea amid human rights concerns

Published by Devex

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top foreign representative last week defended its aid spending in Eritrea, in the face of opposition from human rights groups and some European lawmakers.

Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, said the bloc should be optimistic that its combination of development aid and diplomacy would lead to change in the country.

The EU reengaged with Eritrea after a 2018 peace accord with neighboring Ethiopia raised hopes it would reform its mandatory national service, which can last for decades; end arbitrary and indefinite detention; and allow for freedom of religion.

As part of its support, the EU is spending €80 million ($90 million) to finance road works which would allow landlocked Ethiopia to access Eritrea’s ports. Members of the European Parliament and human rights groups have criticized the project for using forced conscripts, however, with little scrutiny from the EU.

As Michèle Rivasi, a French Greens MEP, put it recently: “How can we convince people that the European Union is not helping, aiding and abetting the dictatorship?”

Asked by Devex last week whether the European Union has a Plan B if its strategy for reform doesn’t work, Borrell said that “in Eritrea, things have got better but not as much as they should have.” Nonetheless, he said, the EU should “keep going” with its dual-track development and diplomacy strategy, “to change structures and change the way in which the political system works.”

“I don’t think we can always be playing the Good Samaritan and handing out donations but not getting into the political evolution of a country,” Borrell said. “Eritrea is one of the main sources of migrants to Europe after all, so we are going to continue this work and expect success, although we know that this won’t necessarily happen tomorrow.”

But Daniela Kravetz, the United Nations special rapporteur on Eritrea, told Devex last week that she had “no idea” what Borrell was referring to when he spoke of progress in the country. She said she had observed no changes in the five benchmarks she identified in a May 2019 report, including promoting the rule of law and reforming the national service.

“The main issue driving Eritreans out of the country is not so much the lack of job opportunities or the poor condition of the roads,” Kravetz said. “It’s more the lack of choice regarding their future, and no prospects; just a sense of hopelessness regarding their future.”

Kravetz welcomed the EU’s development engagement with the Eritrean government, but said projects should address the cause of the hopelessness driving people to flee. “Construction of a road or even other infrastructure programs will not necessarily address that root cause,” she said.

Asked what progress Borrell was referring to, an EU spokesperson told Devex that since the bloc adopted its dual-track approach in late 2018, “there are more dialogue opportunities and more engagement on cooperation.” The spokesperson added, “it is clear that more progress is needed.”

Laetitia Bader, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that “engagement should not be an end in itself.”

“The key question is why has the EU chosen to accept the risk of indirectly supporting forced labor by engaging in a construction project — one of the most abusive sectors — and accepting that not even the most basic checks and balances are in place,” she added.

A representative from the commission’s development department told MEPs last month that the EU-funded equipment is “reducing labor intensity” on the road project and giving it “access to information and ability to assess the work and the labor conditions.”

MEPs from the development and budgetary control committees are pushing for a fact-finding visit to Eritrea in the second half of 2020, though they are yet to receive authorization from the Eritrean government.

VA: UN Reacts To Eritrea’s Widespread Abuse, Calls For Reforms

Published by Venture Africa

A United Nations investigator has reacted to the current crackdown in Eritrea, a problem that has resulted in human rights abuses, infringement of basic and spiritual freedom, according to a new report.

The country, led by President Isaias Afwerki, is not operating a functional constitution and has never held a national election. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, and citizens are required to perform national service, often for their entire working lives. 

Eritrean secondary education also serves as a conscription machine that subjects students to forced labour and physical abuse as they are groomed for indefinite government service. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 93 out of every 1,000 citizens are living in a form of modern slavery in the country, which ranked second-worst in the world.

In 2018, there were hopes that after a historic peace settlement with Ethiopia, it would institute reforms. That is yet to be materialized, however, with a UN report on its human rights conditions discovering widespread human rights violations, together with arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and torture.

An investigation on the state of affairs of human rights in the eastern country by Daniela Kravetz condemned the federal government’s repression of spiritual freedom. According to her, Christians worshipping without authorities’ approval are arrested while Muslims are also arrested and jailed.

Recently, the government closed down Catholic-run schools and hospitals, saying it was imposing old regulations that stipulate that religious bodies cannot run such institutions. In this regard, the government, with no respect to the human right, had given a directive to bar the Ethiopian Catholic priest, Berhaneyesus Demerew from entering the country.

The cleric was due to attend an event marking the 50th anniversary of the construction of Kidane Mehret Cathedral in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. He had arrived at Asmara airport but was obliged to return to Ethiopia the next afternoon after fruitless attempts to reach the crowd gathered to welcome him.

Kravetz sees no justification for the country’s failure to reform its obligatory nationwide service. Also, the government’s failure cannot be justified on the grounds of the financial challenges in the country, where there are no job creation or wage hikes for conscription, she added. 

“There are, nonetheless, speedy measures that the authorities might take that don’t rely upon financial reforms, resembling stopping the continuing roundups of youth for compelled conscription, separating secondary training from navy conscription and putting in mechanisms to watch and stop abuses towards conscripts, specifically towards feminine conscripts,” she stated.

Kravetz further called for the release of all political detainees and other prisoners that were locked up of conscience. “People are arbitrarily arrested because of their opposition to the government or their beliefs as conscientist objectors,” she said, also noting that many of the prisoners have been jailed for decades without any recourse to justice or relief.

Meanwhile, Eritrean Ambassador to the UN, Tesfamicael Gerahtu, calls the report “politically-motivated and ill-intentioned,”  adding that it portrayed his country in a negative light and does not reflect any of its positive achievements. 

Defending the African government, Gerahtu noted the fact that the eastern country is at peace after two decades of conflict but in the process of resolving the social and economic problems that have arisen in the past.

Guardian: Canada mining firm accused of slavery abroad can be sued at home, supreme court rules

Published by the Guardian

A Vancouver-based mining company can be sued in Canada for alleged human rights abuses overseas including allegations of modern slavery, Canada’s supreme court has ruled.

The decision means three Eritreans who filed a civil suit against Nevsun Resources in British Columbia can continue their case in a lower court.

It also creates new legal risks for Canadian firms operating abroad – notably in the resources and clothing sectors – as companies previously could only be held liable in foreign jurisdictions in which alleged abuses occurred.

The plaintiffs claimed they and more than 1,000 others had been conscripted through Eritrea’s military service into forced labour to construct Nevsun’s Bisha gold, copper and zinc mine in the east African nation between 2008 and 2012, and subjected to violent, cruel and inhuman treatment.

In court documents they alleged being forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, being beaten with sticks, and being bound and left to bake under the hot sun.

The trio later escaped Eritrea and became refugees.

Nevsun argued that the case should be thrown out on the basis of the act of state doctrine, which precludes domestic courts from assessing acts of foreign governments. But that was rejected by a majority of the justices on the top bench.

The supreme court also held that international human rights law – notably fundamental tenets called “peremptory norms” that are so important they are considered universal – may be applied to this case.

“Violations of peremptory norms are serious violations of rights that are important to everyone, everywhere. They need to be strongly discouraged,” the court said in a statement.

In 2017, the supreme court declined to hear a similar case involving a group of Guatemalans suing Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources for alleged abuses at the company’s mine in Guatemala.

The men sought redress for what they say were injuries suffered during the violent suppression of their protest against the company’s Escobal silver and gold mine south-east of Guatemala City.

They argued in court filings – and a lower court agreed – that they were unlikely to obtain justice in Guatemala, and therefore brought the civil case to Canada, where Tahoe has its headquarters.

The company apologized in July 2019 for the rights violations as part an out-of-court settlement with demonstrators who had been shot and wounded while protesting.

HRW: Statement to the European Parliament’s Committee on Development on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea

Published by the Human Rights Watch

Thank you very much to the Committee on Development (DEVE) for inviting me to testify today about the human rights situation in Eritrea. This discussion is timely, as the European Commission is moving forward with a significant new development project focused largely on the construction sector which could put the European Commission in the position of facilitating an abusive system of forced labor.

I will start by offering an insight, based on over a decade of research, into the country’s uniquely abusive program of indefinite forced labor and then talk about other severe restrictions on Eritrean’s basic rights.   

As the European Parliament clearly spelled out in its 2016 and 2017 resolutions, the rights situation in Eritrea is one of extreme repression.  In July 2018, when a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed, many hoped that this would usher in human rights reforms in one of the world’s most repressive countries. But, eighteen months after the peace deal, these hopes have been dashed.

What is clear is that any engagement with Eritrea risks bringing the European Commission into a minefield of human rights issues – in some sectors more than others.

The country’s national service system remains intact.

By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits: most Eritreans, women included, aged 18 to 50, some younger or older, are forced into working for the government for years, even decades.

While some “fortunate” conscripts are assigned to civil service jobs such as teachers, many fill the military’s rank and file, and are assigned in state-owned construction companies that have a complete monopoly in the field.

None have a choice about their assignments, the locations or the length of their service. But, it is not just the length of service but also what happens to conscripts during their years of service which is devastating.

We have found that conditions are particularly abusive in the construction sector, sector that the EU is now supporting.  

In 2013, we looked into the treatment of construction laborers working in government-owned firms in the mining sector. The workers – by and large national service conscripts- faced terrible conditions, from inadequate food supplies to unsafe housing. Workers we interviewed said that national service conscripts and other Eritrean workers lived in fear and were ordered not to complain about their plight. One conscript told us he was imprisoned after leaving his post without permission in order to attend a relatives’ funeral.  

In 2019, we investigated the impact of national service on secondary education in Eritrea.

Why? Because secondary school is the main channel used by the government to force its population into indefinite national service. Since 2003, each year thousands of Eritrean students, some under 18, are separated from their families and forced to spend the last year of secondary school in a military camp known as Sawa.

Throughout the final year at Sawa, students are under military command and face abusive punishments. As one young student told me, “they are making us into slaves, not educating us.” All military officials are men, and so female students risk sexual harassment and exploitation. 

After this terrible year, when students graduate, the government either forces them directly into indefinite military service or on to vocational training or college, from which they are channeled into government-owned companies or government jobs.

Many children told us they had observed what had happened to their fathers, older siblings, or other close relatives who had been conscripted and didn’t want to suffer the same fate. But, students who try to evade Sawa– which often means deciding to drop out of school – risk being rounded-up and sent directly into military service.

Since the July 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia, two “rounds” of students – which represents between 16,000 and 24,000 students in total – have been sent to Sawa and placed on the conveyor belt into national service.

While the government has started to pay some conscripts since late 2015/ 2016, conscripted teachers told us they still struggle to meet their basic financial needs, especially if they have a family. And the government introduced currency controls that limited the amount of cash they could withdraw from banks and continued to make significant deductions on national service wages, including for housing and food.

Conscripts who try to leave their posts, even temporarily, face reprisals and, especially if caught fleeing, imprisonment in dire conditions, as well as ill-treatment and torture.

For almost two decades the government justified indefinite national service on the basis that it was on a ‘war’ footing. More recently, it has started to justify it on the basis that the economic conditions are not ripe for ending the service.

But national service is not only used as a form of ‘employment’ in an, unquestionably, dire economic context, but as the main instrument of repression that the government uses to control almost every single aspect of its citizens’ lives.

So far, the government has shown no interest in creating a civilian service system outside of the national service system.

The government uses many other tools to repress its’ citizens basic rights.

Citizens cannot express their views or question government policies affecting them.  There is no independent civil society in the country. Independent media outlets inside Eritrea have been shut down since 2001.

The president still refuses to hold elections and to implement the country’s draft constitution. The interim legislature has not met since early 2002. The judiciary is tightly controlled by the government.

Unlike Ethiopia, which released tens of thousands of political detainees two years ago, in Eritrea, thousands of prisoners are detained arbitrarily in dire conditions in the country’s web of detention facilities. Torture and ill-treatment are common.

The government has neither released nor improved the conditions of its most prominent prisoners – including 11 high-level government officials and 10 journalists, including the Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak – detained incommunicado since 2001. It has held Ciham Ali Abdu, daughter of a former information minister, in incommunicado detention for almost 7 years. She was arrested aged 15.

The EU’s dual track approach places human rights on its political agenda, but these trends are showing no sign of abetting, in some instances things are getting worse.

Two months after the peace agreement, the government arrested Abrehe Kidane Berhane, a former finance minister, after he called for political reforms. He has not been heard from since. 

Since the peace agreement, the space for independent actors appears to have shrunk further, and as the EU is aware, at least one of its own partners is having to withdraw from the country.

Similarly, in 2019, after Eritrean Catholic bishops called for justice and reform from the government, the government took over important religion-affiliated schools and confiscated all Catholic health facilities, leaving people in parts of the country without access to healthcare.

Thousands of Eritreans, many of them children, flee the country each month directly as a result of the abuses they face at home. This exodus has not reduced since the peace agreement. UNHCR statistics suggest that about 10% of the Eritrean population is currently in exile.

Young Eritreans have repeatedly told us about how much they agonized about the decision but that the lack of freedom and control over their future forced them to take the incredibly difficult and perilous decision to leave their families behind and flee. “It’s a life in prison, in our own country,” a 19-year-old Eritrean told me.

Despite this reality, it appears that the EU has chosen to accept the risk of indirectly supporting forced labor by engaging in a construction project – one of the most abusive sectors – and accepting that not even the most basic checks and balances are in place.

The EU should do better. Measures should be put in place to ensure that EU funding and other activities do not contribute to the abusive system of forced labor in Eritrea.

At the same time, the EU should not rely on the Eritrean government to monitor its projects or take the any government commitments at face value; independent safeguards are needed. 

Reform is a process, but some reforms are purely a question of the Eritrean government’s political will.

Eritrea has a constitution that it could implement and a parliament it could convene. The government could release political prisoners or at minimum let their relatives have information on their fate. The EU should be using its leverage, notably during the ongoing political dialogue, to insist that these types of reforms be implemented before moving forward with new development projects.

And the EU should push for concrete evidence that the government is truly working towards ending the repressive use of national service, including by creating jobs outside of national service, by separating schooling from conscription, and by immediately demobilizing individuals who have spent more than five years in service.

Eritreans deserve to be free and to have their basic rights respected, including to have an adequate standard of living and a family life, and the right to not be arbitrarily detained. At a time where Eritrean leaders have gained international recognition without having improved the plight of their citizens, the EU needs to make clear through its support that ordinary Eritreans are not forgotten.

New York Times: How Forced Labor in Eritrea Is Linked to E.U.-Funded Projects

Published by the New York Times

The European Union spent 20 million euros last year in Eritrea, hoping to help stem an exodus from the repressive African country, which is consistently one of its biggest sources of asylum seekers.

The money, about $22 million, bought equipment and materials to build a road, a seemingly uncontroversial task. The catch? Many workers on the construction site are forced conscripts, and the European Union has no real means of monitoring the project.

The decision caused outrage in human-rights circles. But that did not stop the bloc in December from deciding to give Eritrea tens of millions more, funding a system of forced conscription that the United Nations has described as “tantamount to enslavement.”

The additional aid, of €95 million, has not been previously reported, and is a jarring example of the quandary facing the European Union as it scrambles to drastically curb migration.

When it comes to Eritrea, a closed nation of about five million people in the Horn of Africa, the bloc has little real oversight of the projects it is funding, and it has decided not to make its aid conditional on guarantees of democratic reforms.

The money is part of a €4.6 billion European Union Trust Fund for Africa, a special fund created at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 to “address the root causes of migration.”

While that plan is supported by a broad consensus, its execution has tarnished what many see as a worthy goal, even raising questions of whether it has become counterproductive.

The flow of asylum seekers out of Eritrea remains consistently high. At least 5,000 Eritreans have sought asylum in Europe every year in the past decade. In 2015 and 2016, the number peaked at over 30,000, and last year it was more than 10,000.

At least 80 percent of the requests were successful, according to Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency, meaning that European countries overwhelmingly consider Eritreans legitimate refugees.

European officials and migration experts believe that Eritreans will continue to arrive in the thousands, even as overall numbers of new migrants drop from mid-decade highs.

That drop is more to do with a crackdown at Europe’s Mediterranean borders, through agreements with Turkey and Libya, than with funding to Africa or the Middle East.

The European Union trust fund is a long-term approach, even as it has become an immediate part of the bloc’s thickening forward defense against migration as it tries to address it at its source in Africa.

Its endowment is being spent across the continent, with special focus on the countries that send the highest numbers of asylum seekers to Europe.

Since the trust was declared “emergency” funding, it is not subject to the stringent procurement and oversight demands that normally accompany European Union spending.

When it comes to Eritrea, European officials have switched to what they call “a dual-track approach” — talking with the government while also giving it money, irrespective of outcomes.

In all, €200 million from the fund is earmarked for Eritrea. The hope is that the money will help lift the local economy, create jobs, keep Eritreans at home and cement the peace agreement with its erstwhile enemy Ethiopia that was reached in mid-2018.

Overlooked or ignored in the calculation, the European Union’s critics say, is the appalling record of an Eritrean government that is considered one of the world’s worst human-rights abusers.

After a 30-year guerrilla war, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The two sides went to war again over their border, from 1998 to 2000, after Ethiopia refused to abide by an international ruling. Eritrea’s rebel-leader-turned-president, Isaias Afwerki, has maintained a state of emergency ever since.

As part of that state of emergency, a National Service program of mandatory, universal and indefinite conscription has remained in place, even after the 2018 peace agreement, a breakthrough that won Ethiopia’s leader the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Despite the peace agreement with Ethiopia, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire,” said Laetitia Bader, who covers the country and broader region for Human Rights Watch. “The government continues to conscript much of its population into indefinite national service and hold scores of political detainees in inhumane conditions.”

Eritreans are trapped within this system, and the country, since an exit visa is required to leave. Many remain conscripted into their 40s, doing civilian or military jobs for little pay.

Human-rights groups and the United Nations say that conscript work in Eritrea, which keeps the country running, amounts to forced labor. The United States has long suspended aid and development funding to the country.

The European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, said that it had “been informed” by the government that conscripts would be used for its road project.

The details of how this project is set up show that it has been carefully designed to ensure that the European Union is not seen to be directly paying for conscripts to work on the construction site.

“The E.U. does not pay for labor under this project,” the European Commission said in written replies to questions from The New York Times. “The project only covers the procurement of material and equipment to support the rehabilitation of roads.”

The Commission, which has contracted the United Nations Office for Project Services to manage the project on its behalf, said that both it and the United Nations agency paid “particular attention to ensuring that minimum standards for health and safety of the workers involved in the road rehabilitation sites are ensured.”

But the agency does not have an office in Eritrea and says it is checking on the project through visits organized by the Eritrean government.

In response to questions, it said that it was not monitoring the work either, but rather that the Eritrean government was monitoring itself. The agency “is not monitoring the implementation of the project,” a spokesperson said. “The project is carried out by the government and progress is monitored by the Ministry of Public Works.”

Asked how many conscripts worked on the project and what their salaries were, the agency said it did “not have access to this information” — contradicting what the Commission has said about the level of detail provided to the agency.

Asked whether it saw a problem with facilitating a project that engages conscript labor in Eritrea, a practice denounced by other United Nations branches, the agency said that it “respects core U.N. principles, including the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor,” but decided to proceed anyway.

The European Union’s change in approach to Eritrea is part of a broader coming in from the cold for the country, as world powers take an interest in the geopolitically crucial Horn of Africa and Eritrea’s long coastline along the Red Sea.

The United Arab Emirates in recent years set up a huge base on the Eritrean coast to support its war effort in Yemen directly across the water. The Red Sea is also a critical passage for ships carrying goods and oil to Europe through the Suez Canal.

Officials involved in shaping Europe’s Eritrea policy said that the bloc did not want to be left out of that unfolding “game,” which has become more active since the peace with Ethiopia and the subsequent lifting of longstanding United Nations sanctions against Eritrea over its links to regional armed groups.

“The rapprochement with Ethiopia and removal of U.N. sanctions allow the E.U. to try to foster development of Eritrea’s moribund economy and coax the government away from its repressive ways through engagement and patience,” said William Davison of the International Crisis Group, a research organization.

Mr. Afwerki has been remarkably successful in keeping control of the country without compromising or heeding calls to change.

Recently, however, the government has indicated that the National Service could be incrementally reduced once enough jobs open up to absorb the conscripts.

The European Union said it disapproved of Eritrea’s national service policy, despite the conscripts’ use of European-funded tools.

“The E.U. does not support indefinite national service in Eritrea and continues to push for reform to the national service through its reinforced political dialogue with the government,” the European Commission said.

“Human rights,” it added, “are at the core of all of the E.U.’s external actions.”