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Olympic Athletes Fleeing Repression Face More Hurdles in Britain: Hostile Courts and Right-Wing Media

At least a dozen athletes and delegates from African countries are still in the UK, with some seeking asylum or planning to stay in the country illegally.

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The case of the Eritrean athletes has been taken up by a diaspora community keen to highlight the struggles faced at home. But according to Mbang, feelings are not the same among the Cameroonian community in the UK. He said that many people, legally settled in the UK, are jumpy about the negative publicity. “Several people have called me up and said their colleagues have made jokes, like ‘you’re Cameroonian, are you hiding the athletes?’ It is a joke but it creates anxiety.” It is an indication of how vilified refugees are in the press that even those with the legal right to be here feel they might be damned by association. If Mbang is right and the athletes are forced to return to Cameroon, he suspects that their employment prospects may be bleak if they are seen to have shamed the nation.

The defection of Olympic athletes is by no means a new phenomenon. Many repressive regimes make it difficult for athletes to leave the country at all, either because of travel restrictions or prohibitive costs. This means that travel to international sporting events is a golden opportunity. In the Cold War era, absconders hailed mainly from the Soviet Union, with the first recorded incident in London in 1948, when Czechoslovakian gymnast Marie Provaznikova defected to the US. At the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, which coincided with the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, more than half of the 83-member Hungarian team sought asylum in the US. The 1972 Olympics in Munich saw the most defections of any Olympic Games, with 117 athletes defecting to the West, while at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Iraqi weightlifter Raed Ahmed fled from Saddam Hussein’s rule. As a rule, Games held in Western nations see more defections, as they tend to have more liberal policies on refugees.

But despite the obligation, under international law, to provide refuge for those who need it, the British immigration system is far from having a light touch. Many people face arbitrary refusal of their cases, problems with interpreters, detention (highly traumatic for people who have fled conflict or torture), destitution, and deportation. Until more details emerge, it is impossible to know what awaits the Olympic athletes and whether they will face as rough a ride as many thousands of nameless asylum seekers do. What is certain is that for these individuals, the stakes are high.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist based in London who tweets at @samirashackle.
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