SPECIAL REPORT-We were forced to work for Western-run mine, say migrants who fled Eritrea
By Allison Martell and Edmund Blair
TORONTO/ASMARA, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Bemnet Negash never got to say a proper goodbye to his family. In February 2006, government officials arrived at his school in the highlands of Eritrea and put him and his classmates on a bus to a military training camp. He was 20 years old, and still at school because a childhood illness had interrupted his education.
Bemnet's father heard what was happening and rushed to the school. "He tried to pass to me my medication and some money through a window of the bus on which I was being taken away, but it was not possible," said Bemnet in an affidavit filed with a Canadian court last year.
For much of the next five years, Bemnet toiled for the Eritrean national service, a massive conscription program instituted by the country's autocratic ruler in the mid-1990s. The conscripts become not just soldiers, but an army of cheap labor, forced to work for years for little pay, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has said the program is "similar to slavery in its effects" - a claim the Eritrean government rejects.
Bemnet, who slipped out of Eritrea in 2011, did not work just for the government when he was a conscript: In his legal filing he says he helped build a mine for Nevsun Resources, a Canadian company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
His story illustrates the challenges for foreign investors operating in this overlooked part of Africa. The Eritrean government says national service is necessary to protect and build the impoverished country. The risk for foreign companies is that while they may bring jobs and infrastructure, they could become entangled with a state where conscript labor is pervasive.
Nevsun says its investment in Eritrea brings social and economic benefits that mitigate the pressure for emigration. Even so, the number of Eritreans seeking refuge in Europe has increased about five-fold since 2008, according to Eurostat. In 2015, more than 45,000 Eritreans applied for asylum there.
Bemnet's affidavit is part of a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a team of Canadian lawyers on behalf of Eritreans who allege that between 2008 and 2012 they were forced to work at Bisha, a mine operated and majority-owned by Nevsun. Lodged with five similar accounts from other workers, the affidavit says Bemnet was forced to work for about a dollar a day in harsh conditions.
Bemnet and other workers want to claim compensation from Nevsun for "severe physical and mental pain and suffering." In the next few months the Supreme Court of British Columbia is expected to decide whether the legal case can continue. Continued...