By Barney Jopson
Friday, December 18, 2009; A14
KAMPALA, UGANDA -- Eritrea's entire national soccer team is seeking asylum in Kenya, joining tens of thousands of compatriots who have fled one of Africa's most repressive governments.
The team absconded after traveling to Nairobi for a regional tournament. Eritrea, with only about 4 million people, was the second-biggest source of asylum seekers in the world last year, and the missing players are probably the highest-profile defectors since the country won independence in 1993.
The 11 players and one substitute were reported missing over the weekend when the team plane returned to Eritrea without them after a match against Tanzania.
After going into hiding, the players contacted the U.N. refugee agency in Nairobi, which directed them to file asylum applications at Kenya's Immigration Ministry.
Nicholas Musonye, a Kenyan soccer official who first alerted the authorities to the missing players, said: "I have been informed by the tour guide who was with them that they are in Nairobi and have been seeking political asylum."
The number of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide last year was second only to the total from Zimbabwe, according to the United Nations.
People are fleeing a combination of political repression, food shortages, open-ended military service and a moribund economy.
More than half of them, about 34,000, fled overland to Sudan, braving harsh terrain and army shoot-to-kill orders. But many more are likely to have escaped without registering with the U.N. refugee agency.
Musonye, the general secretary of the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations, said he had spoken to officials at the Eritrean National Football Federation, who were "a bit upset."
"The federation has a responsibility to bring the players home, so they have a lot to explain," he said.
Individual players have gone missing from the Eritrean national team before. Musonye said six absconded three years ago after a match in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Ali Abdu, Eritrea's information minister, told the BBC that the players would get a "good welcome" if they returned home in spite of "betraying" their country.
Human rights groups say failed defectors and critics of President Isaias Afwerki's government are often tortured and confined to shipping-container prisons in the desert.
The government denies the allegation.
-- Financial Times