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


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.

He was questioned for 11 hours by immigration officials and is now in detention with the hope of his claim being fast-tracked. Khasai, who sought asylum in the UK after escaping from Eritrea nearly 10 years ago, said that in his experience, the Home Office tends to look fairly sympathetically upon asylum claims from Eritrea. Indeed, defections from Eritrea – a country that is difficult to leave under normal circumstances – are so common that athletes are now asked to pay a bond before they leave the country. In 2009, the entire national football team absconded during a match in Kenya. According to immigration professionals, the Home Office is also more likely to be sympathetic to claims from Eritrea as opposed to larger countries that also have documented human rights abuses because Eritrea is a small nation and is therefore unlikely to have a flood of refugees.

The UN Refugee Convention, written in 1951, defines a refugee as someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", with no protection from their own state. They must be able to prove that they personally are at risk; generalized human rights issues are not always sufficient. In a situation like that in Eritrea, where the policy of conscription is well-known, it might be relatively simple for an individual to show that they are in danger if they return.

But that is certainly not always the case, with a culture of denial at the Home Office meaning a very stringent interpretation of the Refugee Convention. In Britain’s right-wing press, headlines about “bogus” asylum seekers proliferate – yet it is far from being an easy option. Many people face arbitrary refusal, with a large number of cases won on appeal (a policy that is inhumane for the claimant, who must go through the process two or three times, and costly for the government). Frequently, amidst negative media coverage, economic migrants – those who want to relocate for financial gain – are conflated with asylum seekers, who are fleeing persecution.

Certainly, the case of some of the other athletes is less clear-cut. Apart from Ghebrisilasie, the Cameroonian athletes are the only ones to have spoken to the press. The boxer Thomas Essomba told the BBC: “We are not staying here because we don't like our country, but want to practice the sports we love. We want to become professional. We cannot return to Cameroon. If we return, we will not practice anymore."

He outlined a financial dispute with Cameroonian Olympic officials, saying that they had threatened to take away his colleague’s passport after he was defeated and that their bonuses had been halved. The authorities have strenuously denied that the athletes are in any danger, saying that they are simply seeking to become economic migrants. Indeed, Essomba said in the interview that the boxers were looking for a sponsor to take them on and to help them obtain long-term residency, so it may be that they are not planning to seek asylum at all – not that any mainstream media outlets have made that distinction. Essomba has been keen to leave Cameroon for some time: he was the only athlete who attempted to defect at the Beijing Olympics, although he changed his mind and went home with the team. When AlterNet spoke with Joseph Mbang of the UK-based Cameroonian Asylum Support Association, he was dubious about the Cameroonian athletes’ chances of staying in the UK. A financial dispute does not meet the criteria for asylum, and according to Mbang, it is very difficult to switch from a visitor’s visa to a long-term work permit.

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.


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