By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Eritreans risk being shot to death by their own troops as they flee their homeland to start a treacherous journey seeking European asylum that killed hundreds of desperate refugees this month when their boats sank, a U.N. envoy said on Thursday.
Sheila Keetharuth, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, said Eritreans are subject to some of the most serious rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest, torture, inhumane prison conditions and indefinite national service.
"Although there is a shoot-to-kill policy targeting those attempting to flee, many thousands of Eritrean citizens have fled over the past decade," Keetharuth told the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee, which deals with human rights.
"The current numbers are between 2,000 and 3,000 Eritreans fleeing the country every month," said Keetharuth, who was not allowed to visit Eritrea as part of her investigation. Instead, she interviews Eritreans who fled and visits refugees camps in Ethiopia and Djibouti.
She said almost the same number of Eritrean and Syrians, fleeing their civil war, arrived in Italy by sea in the first nine months of this year - about 7,500 from each country. About 3,000 Somalis arrived in the same period.
Hundreds of Eritreans and Somalis drowned when a boat sank earlier this month near Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia which has become the main entry point into Europe for migrant boats. Another boat sank off Sicily just over a week later, killing dozens more people.
"It demonstrates the desperation of those who decide to flee, despite the extreme dangers along escape routes and an unknown future," Keetharuth said. "Only when the human rights situation on the ground improves will people stop putting their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys."
NO 'SHOOT-TO-KILL' POLICY
Eritrean U.N. Ambassador Araya Desta told the Third Committee that his country does not have a "shoot-to-kill policy" for people crossing the border illegally, detainees are not tortured and there are no extrajudicial killings.
Desta had Keetharuth had "disrespectfully misinterpreted and attempted to politicize" the Mediterranean boat tragedies.
"We are cognizant of the fact that there are challenges and gaps in addressing human rights issues like in many other countries," said Desta, but he added that the human rights situation in Eritrea did not warrant the attention of the U.N. Human Rights Council or the Third Committee.
U.N. sanctions were imposed on Eritrea in 2009 for supporting Islamist al Shabaab militants fighting to overthrow the Somali government. The Eritrean government says it has no links to al Shabaab and wants the sanctions lifted.
Eritrea also has a tense relationship with neighboring Ethiopia - the two countries were at war from 1998-2000.
Keetharuth raised concerns about unlimited national service for Eritreans aged 18 to 50. She said the "excessive militarization" of Eritrea was affecting the very fabric of its society and its core unit, the family.
When she visited refugee camps in Ethiopia, Keetharuth said she met more than 1,000 unaccompanied children, some as young as 7 or 8. Many left home without the knowledge of their families, fearing forced conscription or in a bid to access education.
"They are very vulnerable and run the risk of exposure to abuse and violence, including trafficking," she said. "But the fact that they have crossed borders is indicative of the scale of despair these children are facing at home."