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Eritrea Won't Play in a Regional Soccer Match After Most of Its Team Sought Asylum Abroad

Fifty Eritrean players have defected from the team since 2009, preferring to live as refugees abroad rather than return home to the East African nation that is currently under investigation by the United Nations for human rights abuses.

by Reuters and VICE News
Nov 5 2015, 6:45pm

Imagen por Franck Robichon/EPA

Eritrea's national soccer team will not be on the field during an upcoming annual regional tournament in Ethiopia, with the absence coming just weeks after 10 members of the squad sought asylum after playing a match in Botswana. 

An official for the Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) said 11 teams were expected to participate in the Senior Challenge Cup tournament on November 21, which is all of the association's members with the exception of Eritrea, according to Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

It's unclear if the team was barred from playing in Ethiopia due to the repeated defections of players to match-hosting countries over the past few years, or if Eritrea simply doesn't have enough players to field a team. Repeated attempts to contact CECAFA officials for comment were not returned.  

The Eritrean players declined to return home to the East African nation that is currently under investigation by the United Nations for possibly committing crimes against humanity, a level of offense that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

The UN has previously found that slavery-like practices are routine and torture widespread in Eritrea, and that the country subjected its citizens to indefinite national service and killed people who try to flee. The Eritrean foreign ministry dismissed the report without addressing specific allegations.

The players' attorney, Dick Bayford says there are worries that the players, who are said to be part of the Eritrean army, are likely to be charged with desertion if they are sent back to Eritrea, which is punishable by death.

The players remained in a holding center for more than two weeks before Botswana granted asylum to all 10.

Botswana's government, however, is said to be seeking to relocate the refugees to another country, reportedly due to logistical complications. Augustine Makgonatsotlhe, the country's deputy defense secretary, told Reuters that Botswana was not revoking their asylum, but seeking help from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in resettling them.

Related: Eritrea's Soccer Team Defects En Masse Again, This Time to Botswana

According to Makgonatsotlhe, refugees must reside in the country for 10 years before they can be integrated into society, meaning they would have to live in refugee camps in the meantime.

"We are not saying we don't want them here," he said. "The only option is for the UNHCR to seek an alternative host country."

The players are currently being held in Duwaki refugee camp, located more than 300 miles outside of the capital Gaborone. Makgonatsotlhe said the players could apply to get out of the camp as long as they could sustain themselves, but ordinarily most refugees who have no hope of securing employment are not allowed to leave the camps.

Angolan refugees who fled a civil war that ended in 2003 have been stuck at the camps for years, the official said.

UNHCR spokeswoman Tina Ghelli told Reuters there were three options for the players, including voluntary repatriation to their home country, receiving alternative status like citizenship or permanent residence, or resettlement to a third country. Ghelli said the decision to refer these refugees to a resettlement country would be based on individual assessments of the player's cases and whether they meet specific criteria.

A total of 50 players have fled Eritrea since 2009, when the country's team refused to come back after a 2009 tournament in Kenya. One of the more recent high-profile cases occurred in 2012 when the whole squad turned up at the United Nations' refugee office in Kampala after playing in Uganda. They were ultimately granted asylum in the Netherlands.

Twelve players also went missing during a 2013 trip to Kenya, and 12 refused to return home from a 2009 tournament in Tanzania, as did 13 other squad members who did the same in Tanzania in 2011. There was no tournament in 2014 after Ethiopia backed out as the host nation. The country stepped back in this year to host the competition after Rwanda cancelled.

Related: Thousands of Eritreans Face Torture and Death as They Flee Despotic Rule

While CECAFA's Secretary General Nicholas Musonye did not confirm to KBC whether or not Eritrea's absence was the result of a ban discussed after the 2013 mass defection, the lack of participation comes after 10 players refused to board a plane following a World Cup qualifying match in Botswana on October 13.

Other sports in Eritrea are not immune to seeing their athletes defect. Runner Weynay Ghebresilasie sought asylum in the United Kingdom just after competing in the men's marathon during the 2012 Olympic Games, where he carried the flag during the opening ceremony.

In addition to athletes, thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in recent years, with the number of people escaping on the rise. In 2014 more than 35,000 people fled to Europe, up from 13,000 the year before.