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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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Several days before the Olympics' opening ceremony, three Sudanese athletes walked into a police station in London and asked for political asylum. According to Khartoum, these athletes were actually representing the country in a world championship in Barcelona, rather than in London 2012 – although they had trained with the Olympic team. Their specific reasons for claiming asylum are unclear, though Sudan, which recently split into two countries, has been beset by years of political instability, violence and civil war.

These three athletes were not the only ones to use the international sports event as a chance to make a bid for freedom. Before the games were over, seven Cameroonian athletes – including five from the boxing team – absconded. The Guinean sports minister recently confirmed that three athletes have not returned home, while the head of the Ivory Coast’s Olympic delegation said that two swimmers and a wrestling coach were missing. Four athletes from the Congo also disappeared, and after the closing ceremony, four Eritreans escaped to claim asylum.

Reports vary, but it looks as if somewhere between 12 and 21 athletes and delegates from African countries are still in the UK. The only statement on the matter by Locog, the organizers of London 2012, has been to say that athletes’ visas cover them until the end of October, so the “disappeared” athletes are not yet breaching any immigration laws. The Home Office, which handles immigration, was expecting some defections. While declining to comment on individual cases, it has made it clear that if the athletes overstay, they will face exactly the same treatment as anyone else would. That could mean detention or deportation if they fail to claim asylum or if those claims are unsuccessful.

As the majority of the defectors have not made public statements about their intent, it is difficult to say what they plan to do. Some may seek asylum in the UK, some may overstay their visas and remain here illegally, and some may return home. There is no evidence that any Olympic athletes who have defected in the past have ever been sent home (although some simply disappeared so it is difficult to verify this fact).

With this year’s defectors coming from varying circumstances at home, it is difficult to generalize about the kind of welcome they will receive in the UK. It all depends on whether they have a case for asylum -- which, whatever the right-wing press would have you believe, is anything but easy.

The only athlete to have spoken explicitly about his plans to seek refugee status and stay in the UK is the Eritrean steeplechaser runner, Weyney Ghebresilasie. The 18-year-old was his country’s flag bearer and has already filed for asylum. He told the Guardian newspaper that he was defecting because of the repressive regime’s policy of indefinite conscription to national service. "I still very much love my country and it's the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum,” he said.

A 2009 investigation by Human Rights Watch and the UN said these conscripts suffer years of torture and illegal forced labor. Despite having a population of only 5 million, Eritrea has one of the largest armies in Africa, maintained because of President Isaisas Afewerki’s paranoia about an invasion from Ethiopia. Wikileaks cables showed the US ambassador describing Aferwerki as “unhinged.” The other Eritrean athletes, including the team’s only female member, Rehaset Mehari, have not come forward because of fear of retribution against their families.

Ghebresilasie is being helped in his claim by Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, a diaspora opposition group. Bereket Khasai, the UK representative of this group, told AlterNet that Ghebrisilasie is physically and psychologically exhausted.

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