Ten members of Eritrea's national soccer team are reported to be seeking asylum in Botswana, where the team had traveled this week to play a World Cup qualifying game. According to Reuters, the players had refused to board their flight home Wednesday and have now been detained by police.
This isn't the first time that Eritrean soccer players have used a trip abroad as a means to abscond — in fact, it's something of a tradition. Six players from the national team defected in Angola in 2007. Two years later, 12 defected in Kenya. Seventeen, along with the team doctor, escaped in Uganda in 2012. All in all, at least 45 members of the national team have defected in recent years — and note, that figure doesn't include players for local clubs like Red Sea FC, at least 17 of whom have absconded, or athletes who compete in other sports.
The decision to escape is understandable. Earlier this year, the United Nations released a scathing report that accused the Eritrean government of "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations" and said that its year-long investigation may have uncovered evidence of crimes against humanity. Huge numbers of Eritreans have risked their lives to flee the country in recent years, becoming refugees in a bid to escape indefinite national service, arbitrary arrests and detention.
Sports is a rare path to foreign travel in a country where few are allowed to journey abroad. According to local newspaper The Voice, the Eritrean players in Botswana have said that they are refusing to return home, as they fear they will be made to join the army upon their return.
The Eritrean government won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year civil war. It relies on a fervent, sometimes paranoid, nationalism for support in place of democratic legitimacy and presidential elections. Repeatedly dismissing international criticism, it labeled the U.N. report a "cynical political travesty" and an attack "not so much on the government, but on a civilized people and society who cherish human values and dignity."
In particular, the government likes to point to improvements in the country's living standards over the past two decades as evidence that criticism is unfounded – for example, Eritrea appears to have been the only country to achieve all of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to health.
Eritrea's sporting success is perhaps a more visceral sign that some things are going right in the country: This summer, Eritrean cyclists Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot made history by becoming the first black Africans to compete in the Tour de France, a remarkable achievement. The high-profile defections of athletes remain an embarrassing problem for the country, however. While Kudus and Teklehaimanot told reporters they were proud of their country, fears that three other young Eritrean cyclists might defect may have led the Swiss government to reject their visa applications last year.
In the past, the Eritrean government has sought a "deposit" from athletes traveling abroad in a bid to ensure their return. If an absconding athlete has family remaining in Eritrea, these relatives may well face government retaliation too. “They punish the families by pushing them to pay around 5,000 euros [almost $6,000] and for those that have 65-year-old mothers with no money, those mothers are jailed for three or four months,” Berketeab Tesfai, an Eritrean now living in the Netherlands and working with former Eritrean national soccer players, told the New York Times in 2014.
Dick Bayford, a lawyer representing the Pretoria-based Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), told Reuters that because some of the players were army soldiers, they risked being charged with desertion if they were returned to Eritrea — a crime that could be punishable by death.
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