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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 January, 2004, 12:29 GMT
Eritrea rapped for 'military' schooling
By Jonah Fisher
BBC correspondent in Asmara

The United Nations children's agency, Unicef, says the north-east African country of Eritrea is breaking human rights regulations by making children complete the final year of their secondary education at the site of a military training camp.

Eritrean students
The Eritrean Government says a low budget means tough choices
Eritrea's recent history has been dominated by conflict with Ethiopia and 10% of the population is thought to be in the army.

Sawa - in the far west of the country near the Sudan border - has always occupied a special place in Eritrean society.

It is the site of a massive military training camp where every Eritrean aged between 18-40 must go as part of their compulsory military service.

Sawa is also home to 8,500 students aged 17 and 18.

They are here as part of an expansion in the Eritrean education system. Until recently the school system ended at grade 11.

Now to matriculate you must leave home and complete Grade 12 in Sawa - a move the government say was taken because they do not have the money to expand secondary schools around the country.

Rights breach

Eritrea is a full signatory to human rights legislation relating to children but in forcing these children to leave their parents Christian Balslev Olesen of Unicef says they are breaching the rights of the child.

"There is a concern that children are separated from their parents and taken away to finalise their education," he said.

"I think this is a basic human right and it is within the convention on the rights of the child."

Eritrean soldier
The bitter border conflict with Ethiopia has left thousands dead
The Eritreans reject that point of view - they see this as a necessary compromise brought on by their lack of resources.

Petros Hailemariam from the ministry of education says this is not in any way related to children's rights.

"Eritrea is party to the convention on the rights of the child and we respect it as far as opportunities here permit it," he said.

"This is nothing special, children are sent into boarding schools everywhere around the world. Why shouldn't they be sent here in Eritrea?"


Unicef is particularly concerned by the proximity of the school to the military camp.

Eritrea has a good record of not using child soldiers and in promoting education, but Sawa's military role means access is strictly controlled.

Christian Balslev Olesen of Unicef says respecting the primary interests of the child is key.

"That is to not to bring the children into an environment of the military - we do not know what is going on there," he said.

Those who attend grade 12 in Sawa and matriculate will have the chance to pursue further educational opportunities.

For those who choose not to go - their national service begins when they turn 18 and that usually starts with training in Sawa's military camp.

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