February 21, 2013 (JUBA) - The Ugandan government has granted refugee status to 15 former members of Eritrea’s national football team who disappeared in the country last year while taking part in a regional tournament.
Last December, 17 Eritrean players - including the team’s doctor - disappeared in the Ugandan capital, Kampala shortly after the team was eliminated from the East and Central Africa Football Association’s (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup and applied for asylum. Only three players returned home.
According to reports, the country’s refugee eligibility committee has found the players claims valid and granted them asylum.
Ugandan commissioner for refugees Apollo David Kazungu said two of the players who applied for asylum had subsequently returned home for reasons which remain unclear. However, the rest of the squad declined to return to Eritrea, insisting their asylum claims were genuine.
Kazungu explained the players feared they would be conscripted into their country’s mandatory military service.
All Eritrean citizens aged between 18 and 40 years must serve in their country’s military service for a period not less than 18 months.
Although in many cases, conscripts are forced to serve indefinitely in training camps and at state-owned construction sites.
The Uganda Football Association has commended the relevant authorities for resolving the issue of the Eritrean asylum seekers, but said “next time teams should come and play football and return to their countries”.
The incident in Kampala was the third time the Eritrean football team had disappeared in an African state to claim asylum.
In July 2011, 13 Eritrean football players sought asylum in Tanzania after a similar tournament, while 12 members of the national squad disappeared in Kenya and sought asylum there during a 2009 regional championship tournament.
Four Eritrean athletes similarly sought political asylum in Britain after taking part in the London Olympics last year.
Led by reclusive president Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive and politically repressive nations and is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa.
The Red Sea nation, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is often accused by international right groups of summary executions, torture and mass detentions against citizens considered dissenters.
The government in Asmara jails anyone seen to be challenging the regime.
According to human rights groups, thousands of political prisoners currently remain in detention without trial, held in secret underground jails in the harshest of conditions.
Tens of thousands of Eritreans have fled their homeland to neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan to escape political oppression in their country.