BRUSSELS — The European Union spent 20 million euros last year in Eritrea, hoping to help stem an exodus from the repressive African country, which is consistently one of its biggest sources of asylum seekers.
The money, about $22 million, bought equipment and materials to build a road, a seemingly uncontroversial task. The catch? Many workers on the construction site are forced conscripts, and the European Union has no real means of monitoring the project.
The decision caused outrage in human-rights circles. But that did not stop the bloc in December from deciding to give Eritrea tens of millions more, funding a system of forced conscription that the United Nations has described as “tantamount to enslavement.”
The additional aid, of €95 million, has not been previously reported, and is a jarring example of the quandary facing the European Union as it scrambles to drastically curb migration.
When it comes to Eritrea, a closed nation of about five million people in the Horn of Africa, the bloc has little real oversight of the projects it is funding, and it has decided not to make its aid conditional on guarantees of democratic reforms.
The money is part of a €4.6 billion European Union Trust Fund for Africa, a special fund created at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 to “address the root causes of migration.”
While that plan is supported by a broad consensus, its execution has tarnished what many see as a worthy goal, even raising questions of whether it has become counterproductive.
The flow of asylum seekers out of Eritrea remains consistently high. At least 5,000 Eritreans have sought asylum in Europe every year in the past decade. In 2015 and 2016, the number peaked at over 30,000, and last year it was more than 10,000.