ADDIS ABABA – Hundreds of Eritrean refugees demonstrated Friday in front of the African Union headquarters demanding the regional organization push for democratic reforms in their home country. President Isaias Afewerki has been in power for 22 years, Eritrea’s only president since independence, and has been accused of suppressing dissent in the one-party state.
More than 400 protesters shouted and held banners accusing long-time Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki of being a dictator.
Tedros, a 36-year-old refugee, fled Eritrea with his family 6 months ago. He paid $10,000 to cross the border illegally. He is one of the organizers of the protest.
”We demonstrate today to support the report of the UN-mandated commission on human rights in Eritrea. We support the report,” he said. ”We can’t speak. We can’t write. We can’t believe whatever we want in religion.”
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report Wednesday on Eritrea’s human rights situation. Despite U.N. investigators being denied entry to the country, the 500-page report warned that the Eritrean situation can no longer be ignored.
The report highlights widespread and systematic human rights violations under Afewerki, who has been in power since 1993 when Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia.
The refugees here want the African Union to take action.
Henok, 31, has been in Ethiopia for four years. He hopes that one day he can go back to the family he left behind. But he said life is too difficult for him in Eritrea right now.
”Especially guys like me, people like me from 18 years old, we are soldiers, unlimited time. We can do nothing, even if we are a married man,” he noted.
There are more than a 100,000 Eritreans in Ethiopia. It is estimated that 200 people cross the Ethiopian-Eritrean border every single day.
Luam, 24, was caught the first time she tried to leave, and for that she had to spend three years in jail. Undeterred, she tried and succeeded a second time.
Luam said she wants to pursue her singing career. She felt repressed at home so she wanted to leave Eritrea to sing and live her dreams.
About 5,000 Eritreans flee the small country in the Horn of Africa every month trying their luck in neighboring countries such as Ethiopia. But many also try the often deadly crossing of the Mediterranean Sea by boat to make it to Europe.
Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe are the second-largest group after those coming from war-torn Syria.