Israel will begin deporting Eritreans back to their homeland the moment it ends mandatory military conscription of indefinite duration, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday.
Reuters had reported earlier Tuesday that the latest batch of recruits drafted into the Eritrean army had informed relatives they were told their service would end in 18 months.
Speaking at a gathering of her Habayit Hayehudi party in Tel Aviv, Shaked said the government was closely monitoring the implementation of the peace agreement signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia earlier this month, which has raised hopes that Eritrea will end mandatory conscription of indefinite duration.
“If, following this agreement, the conscription requirement is canceled, Israel could return the infiltrators to Eritrea – and that’s great news for residents of south Tel Aviv,” Shaked said, referring to the area in Israel with the highest concentration of African asylum seekers.
But sources involved in the issue said that even if the Eritrean army announces an end to indefinite army conscription, this is still just an initial promise – which is a far cry from the actual end of forced conscription in Eritrea.
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They said it’s likely to be another two years before Eritrea is sufficiently at peace to enable Eritreans who fled the country to be sent back there.
In 1995, two years after declaring independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea instituted mandatory 18-month military service for everyone between the ages of 18 and 50, with the goal of furthering state-building after its 30-year war for independence. This service was supposed to consist of six months of military training, followed by a year of working on development projects.
But the Eritrean government has maintained unlimited military service ever since a two-year border war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998. The dispute dragged on despite the signing of a cease-fire agreement in 2000.
Rights group and Western governments say it amounts to indefinite military conscription, which forces Eritreans to flee the country, often driving them to make the perilous trip across the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Tens of thousands have ended up in Europe, making Eritreans one of the main constituencies among refugees and migrants on the Continent.
Relatives of the new recruits said they were informed of the new 18-month limit at a graduation ceremony for conscripts on July 13.
The peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea has led to warming ties, which have included reciprocal visits by the countries’ leaders, the opening of embassies in each other’s capitals and the restoration of telephone service between the countries.
“Last week, they were told they won’t serve beyond 18 months because the dynamics have changed,” one family member of a conscript who had just been recruited told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another person confirmed the announcement at the ceremony, which was attended by President Isaias Afwerki.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel did not deny the reports but said there had been no formal announcement, noting it was “early days” in the rapprochement with Ethiopia. “Policy announcements of this significance are invariably made through our official outlets, and that has not been done so far,” he told Reuters.
Earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean leader signed a historic deal in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, declaring an end to their “state of war,” which was one of the longest military stalemates in Africa.
The neighbors agreed to open embassies, develop ports and resume flights – concrete measures that have swept away two decades of hostility in a matter of weeks.
The Asmara government has long insisted that conscription is vital for national security, saying it fears attack by Ethiopia.
The president said at the ceremony earlier this month it had “special significance” because it was occurring after Eritrea and Ethiopia had made peace.
In Asmara, some people told Reuters they were awaiting official announcements declaring an end to their duty.
“I have been in service for the last 20 years and am proud of the role I played,” one resident said. “But hopefully we will now be friends with our Ethiopian brothers, rather than enemies, and I hope to move on with my life.”