(Credit: Tine Poppe)

When I spoke to Yemane Teferi from Norway last fall, he had already begun to lose hope of ever being a free man.

A refugee from East Africa, he had been stuck in asylum limbo for nearly 25 years -- many of them in a lonely asylum reception center in a small Norwegian town.

"I have spent so many years being not allowed to do anything: no work, no family, no privacy," he said at the time. "What have I done to be treated like this?"

Last week, Teferi died of unknown causes. According to Norway's VG newspaper, Teferi had previously complained about chest pain. Residents of the asylum center he lived in called an ambulance, but he could not be rescued.

His tragic case illustrates the complicated world of asylum and the plight of refugees like him who believe they have nowhere to go.

Norwegian authorities say Teferi used a false identity when he applied for asylum. He was supposed to be deported, but because Norway lacks an extradition agreement with his home country, Eritrea, his case was effectively put on hold.

There was never a real chance for the situation to be resolved, given Eritrea's human rights record. In Norway, even the most violent offenders are rarely sentenced to more than 21 years in jail and often spend their time on islands described by visiting journalists as "vacation spots." Teferi's supporters do not dispute that he was wrong to give authorities a fake identity. But they say it was wrong to effectively sentence him to life for his mistake.

“On the very day Yemane died, I twice heard [the minister in charge of immigration] speak about the 'tyranny of goodness' in Norwegian asylum politics. Whatever tyranny Yemane suffered under, it had nothing to do with goodness,” said Rune Berglund Steen, the director of Norway's anti-racism center, who had advocated on Teferi's behalf.

He described Teferi as a “mild and gentle man, someone with a sense of fairness towards others – the fairness that he himself was denied.”

Teferi's death comes amid a rapidly evolving debate about refugees in Europe. Last year, more than a million refugees arrived on the continent, many from Syria, but others from Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. At first, many countries seemed to warmly welcome the new arrivals, but as the numbers swelled, attitudes shifted.

On New Year's Eve, an unknown number of men – some of them allegedly asylum seekers – assaulted and robbed dozens of women at the main train station in Cologne, Germany. Meanwhile, reports of similar, if smaller, assaults have emerged from other cities across Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who was named Person of the Year 2015 by Time Magazine – is now under pressure for her decision to adopt one of the most open policies on the continent.

But even in less chaotic times, a case like Teferi's can test a nation's priorities.

“I have seen no reactions from the [Norwegian] authorities at all," Berglund Steen said of Teferi's death. “But on social media, there is sadness and shame.”

“As long as no one would show him mercy, his death was predictable. In short, he suffered an injustice that can no longer be rectified,” said Berglund Steen.

Teferi was provided with a small government stipend. But because of his status, he was not allowed to have a job or full access to health-care services. An autopsy will be performed to determine his cause of death, said Berglund Steen.

The Norwegian Appeals Board, which considered the matter closed,  declined to comment on the case Monday. However, last summer, Ellen Kveine Evensen, who is on the board, explained to me in an email: "The central issue in Teferi’s case is that he originally gave different asylum explanations to authorities in Sweden and Norway. He also operated under two different identities.”

“Despite numerous requests for reconsideration of his case, the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board still believes he doesn’t qualify for protection."

The refugee's lawyer and his supporters were recently in the process of preparing a new court case to review earlier decisions.

The events of Teferi's life cannot be independently verified. But last summer, he told me that he had fled Eritrea at the age of 17 and had been involved with a guerrilla group that is now a rival of the current government. Human rights campaigners said his affiliation with the group could have endangered his life if he returned to Eritrea; according to the Norwegian anti-racism center, the country's Immigration Appeals Board disagreed.

"If [Teferi] dies like this, he will finally -- for the first time -- have a plot of ground in Norway where he can stay legally," Berglund Steen said last fall.

A date for Yemane Teferi's funeral has not yet been announced.

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