Fears grow for hidden Eritrean football defectors seeking asylum in Uganda

July 6 – Seven Eritrean international players who have been in hiding in Uganda for more than six months are still seeking asylum for fear of what might happen to them if they are sent home.

The players disappeared following the end of the Cecafa Cup, a regional tournament for East-African nations, in Uganda in December 2019.

It is not the first time that Eritrean players have gone missing. Two months earlier, five Eritrean players disappeared from their hotel during another the U-20 Cecafa Cup in Uganda as well. In 2012, 14 members of the Eritrea squad soccer defected during the senior tournament.

President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea since its independence with an iron first. Human rights groups described the regime as one of the most tightly controlled regimes in the world.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper, highlighting the plight of the current seven, say Ugandan authorities issued them with asylum registration cards in January before a proposed interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that has yet to materialise.

Since 2009, says the Guardian, it is estimated that more than 50 players have used their status as international footballers to escape the oppressive regime of Afwerki, with the current situation made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

George Ghebreslassie – a senior member of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, which has been helping the players in Uganda – has warned what could happen if the UNHCR does not intervene.

“As soon as I talked to them, I was terrified to hear they were in Uganda without any protection,” Ghebreslassie told the paper.

“Uganda is a hub for the supporters of the Eritrean regime and some people are looking for the players. If they catch them they will punish them so they can serve as an example of how the regime treats who they consider as traitors.”

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