An Ethiopian officer stands guard on the outskirts of Badme. Picture: REUTERS
An Ethiopian officer stands guard on the outskirts of Badme. Picture: REUTERS

Addis Ababa — Eritrea says it will cut the size of its army as part of changes to a system of mandatory national service the UN blames for propelling tens of thousands of people to flee to Europe and neighbouring countries.

The end to a two-decade war with neighbouring Ethiopia means the country that sits on a key shipping route to the Suez Canal may be able to place some working-age people in industries such as infrastructure and agribusiness, and spur self-employment, according to government officials.

Rights groups and the UN said the conscription policy fuelled a wave of migration. At its peak in 2015, Eritreans were the fourth-largest group illicitly crossing the Mediterranean, adding to Europe’s refugee crisis. Eritrea describes them as economic migrants.

"Definitely, a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned," minister for labour Luul Gebreab said in the capital, Asmara.

Eritrea’s military is the Horn of Africa nation’s oldest institution, with roots in the rebel movement that won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of struggle.

A 1998-2000 conflict between the two destroyed their relations and Eritrea, citing the threat of Ethiopian aggression, quashed dissent and indefinitely prolonged national service, which includes public servants who can be deployed to the front-line. Officials would not disclose the army’s size, citing national security.

Eritrea’s population is an estimated 3.2 million, according to a labour force survey for 2015-2016 by the labour ministry. A public report by Eritrea’s foreign ministry in 2017 cited a 2015 estimate of 3.65 million — a discrepancy of 450,000 people in two official documents.