Eritrean footballers join row of asylum seekers

March 29th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

Afrol News | March 28, 2007 – Six players of Eritrea’s national football (soccer) team have sought refuge in Angola after their team’s 1-6 defeat in Luanda on Sunday. The football players join a long list of Eritreans fleeing their increasingly despotic government. Not all get a similar reception in their choice of refuge as the football stars got in Angola.

Only on Sunday, the six young sportsmen proudly represented their country in a football match against Angola, shown on both Angolan and Eritrean national broadcasters. Despite Eritrea’s humiliating 1-6 defeat, the entire team stood united in the colours of their fatherland.

Today, the Angola offices of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) informed that six of the Eritrean national players had requested that political asylum been given them in Angola. According to local UNCHR staff, the players refused to travel with their caravan back home on Monday, evoking reasons of instability and human right violations in their country.
UNHCR staff, who wanted to remain anonymous, also confirmed to local media that the footballers had first sought refuge in the UN agency’s offices, but had by now been handed over to Angolan authorities. Angolan officials have not wanted to comment on the issue, but the incident was reported by the press agency ANGOP, considered a government mouthpiece.

While this is the first case of Eritreans seeking political asylum in Angola, in other parts of the world a growing stream of Eritrean refugees is being observed. While many Eritreans flee from the harsh economic realities in the country – one of the world’s poorest – most cite political reasons.

Eritrea remains a highly militarised nation, still on war alert along the long Ethiopian border. In addition to spend record parts of the nation’s GDP on military expenses, military conscription conditions for Eritrean youths are especially long and harsh. Many try to escape what is seen as a very dangerous military service.

But an increasing number of Eritreans are also fleeing outright government repression. Religious minorities have been criminalised and forced to go underground, risking long and harsh prison conditions if the refuse to convert to one of the nation’s two official religions – Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

Anybody slightly suspected of nurturing opposition viewpoints or having contacts with foreigners faces detention without charges. The whole political opposition within the one-and-only ruling party and all independent media staff have already been thrown into prison. Local staff such as translators for UN agencies and embassies increasingly are jailed because their relations with foreigners is seen as “suspicious”. Even state media are being purged.

With no signs of possible improvement and with any kind of complaints disallowed, more and more Eritreans make a hazardous attempt to flee the country. Most go overland, crossing the Sudanese border, which is not as heavily guarded as the Ethiopian border. More than 120,000 Eritrean refugees live in Sudan.

But also in Khartoum, life is increasingly unsafe as Eritrean agents have infiltrated the refugee population. Many refugees are reported to have been “disappeared” Sudan, and locals claim proof of abductions committed by Eritrean agents. The “disappeared” are never heard of again.

Therefore, a steady stream of intimidated Eritreans continues their escape from Khartoum, heading for an even more hazardous trek through the Sahara desert into Libya – on a route that has no roads and that leaves many killed. Their hope is to seek refuge in Libya or, even better, in Europe, which is just across the Mediterranean Sea.

However, despite the despotic regime they try to escape, almost no Eritrean has been welcomed in their new host countries. From Libya, refugees have been forcedly returned to Eritrea by the thousands, most being sent directly to jail upon arrival.

Also those being able to get to Europe – typically to Malta or Italy – mostly are rejected as “groundless” asylum seekers or shipped directly back to Libya. Most European immigration agencies claim Eritreans only are trying to escape poverty. Knut Holm of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration told afrol News he flatly rejected every Eritrean claiming to have opposition views and seeking political asylum in Norway. He defined them as liars: “There is no opposition in Eritrea – it is forbidden,” he explained.

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