Rights group Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2013 that "ongoing serious human rights abuses, forced labor and indefinite military service prompt thousands of Eritreans to flee the country every year."
No election has been held since it gained independence in 1993, the rights group said. Meanwhile, torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on people's freedoms "remain routine in Eritrea."
Just under 115 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia, Lampedusa has been the first point of entry to Europe for more than 200,000 refugees and irregular migrants who have passed through the island since 1999.
But boats carrying migrants often are in peril at sea.
In recent years, the Italian coast guard says, it has been involved in the rescue of more than 30,000 refugees around the island.
Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for the European Union's border agency, Frontex, said migrants are often sent to sea in overcrowded vessels without the engine power to make such a long and dangerous journey.
Since the start of the year, Frontex -- which supports the efforts of individual EU member states -- has helped save more than 16,000 lives in search-and-rescue operations, she said.
"Italy is currently facing the biggest migratory pressure of all European countries," she said, adding that more than 31,500 have reached its shores since the beginning of the year.
The migrants mainly set off from Libya, but others also leave from Egypt, she said. "We see an increasing amount of Eritreans, Somalis, to a lesser extent sub-Saharan Africans, and an increasing number of Syrian nationals."
While Italy is the current focus of efforts by migrants and asylum-seekers hoping to enter the European Union, Cooper said, that has not always been the case.
"Seven years ago, it was the Canary Islands, then the pressure moved to the central Mediterranean, then it moved to Greece, then with the Arab Spring, it moved back to Italy," she said.
"There are definitely too many lives lost and definitely too many tragedies in the Mediterranean."
Dead or missing at sea
Rights group Amnesty International called for both Italy and the European Union to do more to safeguard the thousands who risk their lives each year in the hope of protection or a better life, rather than focusing on closing off the borders.
According to a briefing published by the U.N. refugee agency in July, the peak crossing period for migrants and asylum-seekers runs from May to September.
The U.N. refugee agency recorded 40 deaths in the first six months of 2013, a figure based on interviews with survivors of the crossing.
For 2012 as a whole, 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers reached Italy and Malta, and almost 500 people were reported dead or missing at sea, it said.
The U.N. agency credits the efforts of the Italian coast guard and Maltese armed forces for a reduction in migrant deaths in the first half of 2013 compared with the previous year.