A year ago, 25-year-old Natnael Haile boarded a fishing boat docked in Tripoli, the war-torn capital of Libya. Nearly all of the 518 passengers on board were, like Haile, Eritreans who had fled a despotic homeland where their lives had grown increasingly hopeless.
A day and a half later, early on the morning of October 3, the vessel capsized along the shores of Lampedusa, an Italian island 185 miles north of Tripoli. Haile swam for four and a half hours, longer than he thought was possible, before reaching land. Of the survivors, all but the captain were Eritrean, and nearly all of them were men. Women and children were disproportionately among the 366 dead.
"I was one of the blessed ones," Haile told VICE News. "I had many friends with me that went through the same things with me, and I lost them."
Haile's journey began five years earlier, taking him through an almost unimaginable gauntlet. He was kidnapped twice, first in Sudan, then in Libya. Each time he was tortured while his relatives, plied for ransom, listened desperately on a telephone. After escaping from Bedouin traffickers in Egypt, he was jailed before Ethiopian officials provided him with false papers so that he could be repatriated there, instead of to Eritrea — anywhere but Eritrea, he said.
Since 2004, more than 200,000 Eritreans have left their isolated country of 6.3 million, located in northeast Africa along the Red Sea. The United Nations reports that almost 4,000 Eritreans are fleeing the country every month, double the flow of recent years. So far this year, almost 32,000 Eritreans — nearly a third of all arrivals — have landed in Italy by boat. Last year, only 9,800 completed the same journey.
More Eritreans arrive by sea than refugees from Syria, a country with three times the population that is enduring a vicious civil war. In April alone, over 3,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in EU countries, according to the UN.
Amnesty International estimates that at least 10,000 people in Eritrea are subject to unlawful and politically motivated detention, but activists put the number as high as 50,000.
For years, Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea last in its annual survey of press freedom, behind even North Korea. Few outsiders know of the plight of Eritrea's citizens — that is, until their bodies wash up on European shores.
Eritrea is ruled by Isaias Afwerki, a rebel leader who ascended to the presidency after the country's three-decade war of independence with Ethiopia ended in 1991. Two years later, voters overwhelmingly approved independence. There haven't been elections since.
A 1997 constitution establishing Eritrea as a democratic state has not been implemented, and Human Rights Watch notes that the country lacks a "functioning legislature, independent judiciary, elections, independent press, or non-governmental organizations."
Despite Eritrea being one of the least developed countries in the world (the UN considers only five others as worse off), its government pumps what little money it has into the military. Simmering border disputes offer Afwerki a rationale for militarization and for tightening his grip on civil society.
Refugees like Haile cite human rights abuses and Afwerki's soul-sucking and compulsory "national service" as the reason for flight. Though it is only meant to last 18 months, conscripts typically end up stuck in the military or civil service for years or decades.
"One of the biggest motivating factors in people fleeing is conscription," Claire Beston, an Amnesty International researcher focusing on Eritrea and Ethiopia, told VICE News. "In the majority of cases it is extended indefinitely — you have no say in where you are assigned, and you are paid a very minimal salary which is not enough to live on."
Beston says that Eritrea's system of national service falls under the international definition of forced labor. Some call it slavery.
"I was a student and was recruited to be in the army," said Haile. "I wanted to do something with my life, so I decided to leave everything."
The decision wasn't easy. Eritrea's military is under orders to shoot-to-kill when a citizen attempts to escape across its borders. Haile also knew that his family would be fined about $3,300 if he got away. His mother was eventually able to pay the fine with the help of relatives abroad. Had she been unable to do so, authorities would have thrown her in jail.
After fleeing Eritrea in 2008, Haile spent two and half years in Ethiopia before trying his luck northward. As soon as he arrived in Sudan, Haile was kidnapped and quickly sold to Bedouin traffickers in the Sinai. He was held along with 150 others for two months. In the sweltering confines of their prison, the migrants were routinely tortured to elicit ransom money from relatives.
"They would burn us with molten plastic dropped on our bodies and they would shock you with electricity to torture you, or they would starve you," said Haile. "They wouldn't give you anything to drink. It was unbearable. They asked for $25,000 in ransom, but my family didn't have that."
Sexual violence in the camp was endemic. On one occasion, when their captors opened the door to take a woman out to rape her, five prisoners — three women and two men — attempted to escape. As they ran into the desert, the traffickers mowed them down with gunfire.
In a 2013 study, two Dutch professors, Conny Rijken and Mirjam van Reisen, calculated along with Sweden-based Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos that between 25,000 to 30,000 people (the majority Eritrean) fell victim to traffickers in the Sinai between 2009 and 2013. Of those, they determined that as many as 10,000 perished due to torture, exposure, a lack of food and water, or some combination of these.
Survivors told the researchers that their torture involved daily beatings with heated iron bars and assaults that left their bones broken and shattered. Some were hung upside down from the ceiling for hours, others suffered or witnessed the cutting off of one or several limbs, often their hands. Human Rights Watch has alleged that officials in both Egypt and Sudan collude with these traffickers.
Rijken, van Reisen, and Estefanos estimate the average ransom paid to be around $20,000. In some cases it can be as high as $50,000 — an astronomical figure for refugees from a country where in 2010 the World Bank estimated annual per capita income at less than $500.
Though few families can pay the ransoms outright, Eritrean communities in Israel, Europe, and elsewhere can often gather enough money to wire the ransom. Even then, the migrants are often simply dumped at the border with Israel, only to be arrested by Egyptian authorities and deported, or in some cases handed back to their former traffickers.
Haile was lucky enough to escape when a group of prisoners overwhelmed a guard and ran away en masse. He turned himself in at a police station in nearby Arish. Haile remained in jail for five months before local Ethiopian consular officials arranged his relocation to Ethiopia. In 2013, Sheila B. Keetharuth, the UN's Special Rapporteur handling human rights in the country, reported that migrants who are repatriated to Eritrea after trying to seek asylum "usually disappear upon their return."
Amnesty estimates that at least 10,000 people in Eritrea are subject to unlawful and politically motivated detention, but activists put the number as high as 50,000. Some are detained for the Orwellian crime of being suspected of planning to escape. Extrajudicial killings and torture take place with total impunity.
Eleven members of Afwerki's People's Front for Democracy and Justice who urged democratic reforms have been held incommunicado since 2001, along with ten independent journalists. Relatives of these prisoners don't know if they are being deprived food, tortured, or are even still alive.
After the journalists' arrests, the only domestic news source available to Eritreans became the Ministry of Information's propaganda network. Most citizens were unaware of an attempted coup in Eritrea's capital, Asmara, in January 2013 — and fewer know what happened to those that took part. The government strictly monitors communications, requiring individual applications for cell phones. With the exception of North Korea, Eritrea has the lowest rate of internet use of any country.
In September, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a three-member Commission of Inquiry to investigate abuses in Eritrea.
"Human rights violations Eritreans are subjected to are driving them to cross borders, fleeing from breaches of their fundamental rights," Keetharuth, who is a member of the commission, told VICE news. "Violations happen across the board."
Eritrea, which is already under UN sanctions for its support of militants in the region such as al Shabaab, has not cooperated with Keetharuth in the past, nor has it indicated it will engage with the Commission of Inquiry. Government officials have long maintained that those leaving the country illegally do so for purely economic reasons.
After being deported to Ethiopia, Haile made his way back to Sudan in October 2011, where he stayed in a camp for nearly two years. In June of 2013 he began the trip that would take him to Libya, where he was again kidnapped.
"We were taken in the desert," said Haile. "When the torture became too much again, our family paid $3,500 and they released us into Tripoli."
Two months passed before his family wired him a further $1,800 for the doomed voyage to Lampedusa. After surviving the shipwreck, Haile paid another set of traffickers to get him to Sweden, where he now lives. The Swedish government approved his application for asylum last month, making him a permanent member of the diaspora.
The UN estimates that at least 3,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year — five times as many as during all off 2013 — including over 2,800 since the start of July. In September, smugglers reportedly sank a boat carrying some 500 migrants and refugees. Other ships simply disappear. If the number of Eritreans dying is proportional to those who make it to Europe, nearly a thousand Eritreans have likely perished in the Mediterranean this year.
"Unless there is a regime change, we will see many more," Estefanos told VICE News. "Every time we read about a boat sinking in the Mediterranean, we are convinced that at least half of the people are Eritreans. We take it for granted, we have gotten so used to it."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford