By Spy Uganda
Kampala: Seven Eritrian footballers, who have been in hiding in Uganda for over six months are having sleepless nights for fear being netted and sent home “as traitors” if they are not granted asylum.
In December 2019 they were part of the Eritrea team that reached the final of the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup – an annual tournament for teams from East Africa.
They were due to return home on a flight with the rest of the squad after a 3-0 defeat by the hosts Uganda but Abiel Oqbay, Isaias Abraham, Ismail Sultan, Eyob Girmay, Robel Kidane, Yosief Mebrahtu and Filimon Semere escaped and have since been in hiding with in Uganda.
The Ugandan authorities, having initially co-operated with the Eritrean embassy in Kampala in search for the players, issued them with asylum registration cards in January.
The players say currently they are running out of resources opting to eat once a day accompanied with fear for Eritrean agents with in Uganda searching for their residence.
“In January we were told to be patient because if the police opened the procedure our cases will move on smoothly,” said Oqbay. “Then in May they called us back and said they can’t help us at the moment. We don’t know what to do, because we don’t have resources to move forward … we have been eating only once a day.” they said.
Since 2009 it is estimated that more than 50 players have used their status as international footballers to allegedly escape the oppressive regime of the Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, which imposes lifetime military service on many subjects and ban groups of more than two people congregating in public places.
A recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council outlined concerns that asylum seekers in Uganda often face long delays in their applications given the fact that more than 1.7 million refugees were expected in the country this year.
The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation even more desperate, and George Ghebreslassie – a senior member of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, which has been helping the players in Uganda – has warned that the players are still at risk of being captured if the UNHCR does not intervene.
“As soon as I talked to them, I was terrified to hear they were in Uganda without any protection,” Ghebreslassie said.
“Something within UNHCR doesn’t work; it seems they don’t realize the seriousness of the situation. I talked to a woman there, but she didn’t follow up the case. The players need to be moved to a safer place under UN protection as happened to their youngest colleagues some months earlier.”he added.