After another defection of Eritrean football players during a tournament in Uganda, an official said that it has become expected that athletes from the Horn of Africa country will flee when traveling abroad.
"It's been kind of routine over the past several years whenever there is an event, sports event, where the Eritreans take part, it's almost a must that some of them won't return home," said Ismail Dhakaba, spokesperson for Uganda's National Council for Sports.
Seven Eritrean footballers defected during a regional tournament known as the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup. This followed the October defection of four players from Eritrea's under-20 team who were competing in Uganda.
Dhakaba said he has been told by an Eritrean footballer that team members are required to sign a letter promising to return home while playing in foreign tournaments. He also said the team travels with a group of bodyguards meant to prevent defections. However, athletes find ways to escape. Dhakaba said Uganda's relatively welcoming stance toward refugees and economic opportunities make it an attractive destination.
"It's a very easy country to live in. You'll always find a place to start and you don't need to have a lot of money to live in Uganda normally. You can go with a bare minimum, so they find life here much better than their country. And that's why most of them decide to stay," he said.
Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel has tweeted about the success of the team during the tournament. However, he has not commented on the players who defected. Government officials did not respond to a VOA request for comment on the matter. Additionally, Alemseged Efrem, the Eritrean football coach, was invited to appear on a sports show on state-owned media for a discussion about the tournament, but there was no mention of the players who did not return.
'Basic human rights'
Kimberley Motley, an American attorney representing the four football players who defected in October, said she has been told by her clients that life inside Eritrea is heavily restricted. Most people enter military service between the ages of 16 to 17, and can be forced to serve indefinitely. Arbitrary arrests are commonplace and footballers are hesitant to congregate while not on the pitch for fear of arousing suspicion. She said her clients fear for the safety of their families at home.
"They very much, unfortunately, are under the thumb of the government like everyone in Eritrea. And they're very, very concerned about their families," she told VOA.
Motley said her clients are fearful that they will be returned to Eritrea by Ugandan authorities or attacked by Eritrean agents in Uganda.
"These are good young men, most of them teenagers, who are simply fighting for their own freedom. And the freedom to live. The freedom to play sports. The freedom to just be who they want to be," she told VOA, speaking about the conditions of the football players. "They just want their basic human rights [to] be honored, which everyone on this planet should be entitled to."