ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on Tuesday for greater respect for human rights in Eritrea, a major source country of refugees who risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says 5,000 people flee the impoverished Red Sea state each month, with those who make it to Europe often saying they fled indefinite military conscription and other human rights abuses.
Officials in Asmara deny the charges, saying human traffickers, not rights abuses, are to blame for the large exodus of people from the Horn of African country.
“In Eritrea there is a relevant need for important reforms inside the country, to improve on the one side the human rights record and on the other the living conditions of the population,” Brussels’ top diplomat told reporters during a visit to Addis Ababa, capital of neighbouring Ethiopia.
Faced with the biggest inflow of migrants since World War Two, the 28-nation EU has been discussing for months how to reduce numbers arriving from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, often via dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.
EU officials announced in September that the bloc aimed to agree on 200 million euros ($226.72 million) in development aid for Eritrea by year-end to help stem the exodus of people.
Eritrea received EU funds until 2011 when Asmara decided to stop the foreign aid programme.
Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after three decades of war, has often accused the West and Ethiopia of conspiring against the government of Isaias Aferwerki, a former rebel who has been president since the secession.
Eritrean government officials say they have maintained a lengthy military service programme owing to the unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia - a legacy of their 1998-2000 war that killed more than 70,000.
“An Eritrea that is reformed from within would be very beneficial not only when it comes to the issues related to migration flows but also to the overall stability and security of the region,” Mogherini said.
Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Gareth Jones