On 22nd December 2019, it was reported in the Ugandan digital media Ducor Sports that seven Eritrean football players had not returned home from Uganda after the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations’ (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup game finished. They were supposed to take the flight back to Eritrea two days later. On 20th December 2019, the Ugandan authorities were informed that seven players from the Eritrean national team, which had reached second place in the tournament, had disappeared.
The names of the seven players are, Robel Kidane, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Semere, Abiel Uqbay, Ismael Sultan, Isaias Abraham and Eyob Girmay. The seven players who were in hiding have now sought asylum in Uganda.
In fact, their refusal to return is not an unprecedented act in the history of Eritrean national football teams travelling abroad. In October 2019, their junior counterparts who participated in the U-20 tournament also stayed back and sought asylum in Uganda. Counting the football players who stayed back in 2015, 2012 and 2009 alone, this thus marks the 5th time top Eritrean footballers have used the opportunity to seek refuge in another country rather than returning to their country under Isaias Afwerki’s PFDJ regime.
Although the repeated incidents of football players absconding grab the most headlines, and perhaps even have come to be expected, Eritrean athletes have used various sporting occasions outside their country to stay back and not board the flight home. Most remarkable was perhaps the 2012 London Olympics incident, when 12 athletes, including the flag bearer, remained in the UK and sought asylum. Similarly, there have been athletes who stayed back in the Sydney and Athens Olympics.
The refusal to return to Eritrea, the repeated escapes, are a consequence of the country’s repressive regime. The fact that any Eritrean, given the chance and circumstances, will try to escape has become widely known and acknowledged, a fact understood even by the Eritrean regime which made the Eritrean national team players pay bonds of £5,600 for them to leave the country and play in the World Cup qualifiers in Namibia in September 2019. It has also been known for official ‘minders’ to travel with athletic teams to keep an eye on anyone trying to escape or stay back.
The reason refusals to return by Eritreans are considered “absconding” is the forced indefinite military conscription still in place in Eritrea. It has been reported that six of the seven players who most recently refused to return to Eritrea had been underage when they were forcibly conscripted into the military. Despite the practice being condemned internationally and in direct opposition to declared national law, Isaias Afewerki’s regime continues to conscript underage students and citizens into the military.
Teenagers may end up in Sawa or other military training camps either because they are still under the age of 18 when they finish their 11th grade and are taken to complete their high-school education in a military camp, or because they drop out of school and are rounded up from their homes or the streets.
Over the last year the Eritrean regime has been trying to offer a façade of progress in human rights, pretending to be a player for peace in the region; however, the situation within Eritrea remains as abysmal as ever to the citizens. The briefly ‘opened’ borders remain closed and Eritreans find themselves yet again forced to secretly escape through heavily guarded areas. Our findings that the human rights situation within the country has not changed is echoed by reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It is little surprise therefore that Eritreans, international athletes included, still find themselves forced to flee and hide for their safety.
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)