Brutal government repression in Eritrea, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, is leaving its citizens with no option but to flee, a UN expert said Wednesday.
"The human rights situation in Eritrea is dire," Sheila Keetharuth told reporters in Geneva, where the UN's top human rights body was debating the situation, noting that thousands have fled despite a shoot-to-kill policy for those trying to cross into neighbouring Ethiopia or Sudan.
Keetharuth, the UN's first special rapporteur on the rights situation in the autocratic Horn of Africa country, called on the international community to engage directly with Eritrean authorities and urged African nations especially to explore how they might be able to help improve the situation.
But her report was swiftly denounced as unfair by the Eritrean ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.
Keetharuth said the world should pursue efforts to receive news of the numerous people being detained incommunicado, including Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, who was arrested along with nine other journalists and 11 opposition politicians in September 2001.
In a report to the rights council, Keetharuth said rampant violations of citizens' rights in Eritrea were "triggering a constant stream of refugees."
Decades long conscription and "excessive militarisation" are leaving Eritreans with little option but to risk leaving, with more than 4,000 fleeing every month, she said.
The UN refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans refugees in neighbouring countries, she added.
"Even children as young as seven or eight years of age are crossing borders unaccompanied, citing dysfunctional family circumstances caused by the absence of one parent or even both as a result of conscription, detention or exile or forced military training as the reasons for flight," her report read.
"Severe curtailment of freedom of movement, opinion, expression, assembly, association and the right to freedom of religion" were among the reasons people chose to leave the country, as was forced conscription and into an indefinite national military service, she said.
But Eritrean ambassador Tesfamichael Gerahtu blasted the report.
"We see that Eritrea is yet faced with another unfair report which has less to do with the essence of the matter in the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, but more so a tool for political pressure for extraneous objectives," he said.
Eritrea has also released a weighty report to counter the UN accusations, which it called "disinformation manufactured and circulated over the last decade by the sworn historical enemies of the Eritrean people."
Keetharuth was not been permitted to enter the country to investigate the situation, instead relying mainly on interviews with "survivors of human rights violations."