2 October 2019

Five Players of Eritrea’s National Under-20 (U-20) football team have disappeared from their hotel  in Jinja, Uganda ahead of the semi-finals of the on-going Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) U-20 Challenge Cup. CECAFA U-20 Challenge Cup is set to be played and hosted in Uganda from Saturday, 21st September 2019.

Why Are Eritrea’s Sporting Heroes So Reluctant to Return Home?

Imagine a Premier League football star who represents his country at international level being asked to hand over the deeds to all his property and pay a guarantee deposit of £5,600 to the state, to ensure that he returns to his country --or the property and deposit will be forfeit and will be confiscated by the government! That is what international footballers representing Eritrea in an away match have to do.

Payment of Financial Bonds and the relinquishing of property deeds have apparently become the norm in Eritrea for home-based football players selected to play in matches abroad.

After Eritrea’s World Cup qualifying game in Namibia in September 2019, for the first time there were no defections and no absentees failing to return to their home country. Although they lost the match and failed to qualify, this was for the governing regime a form of success.  Eritrea has struggled in the past to prevent its football stars from disappearing during and after away fixtures. In 2015, after the World Cup qualifying match in Botswana, ten players refused to return home. In 2012, fifteen squad members and doctors vanished at the time of their match in Uganda.  In 2011, thirteen members of an Eritrean club taking part in a regional championship in Tanzania disappeared after the side was knocked out of the tournament.

This pattern of behaviour is not confined to football players: It was reported that one third of Eritrea’s athletics team for the London Olympics in 2012 claimed asylum in Britain and did not return home.

Of course, this haemorrhaging of young people is not confined simply to sportsmen and athletes. In total, it is believed that 10% of the Eritrean population have fled their country during the last two decades. The great majority of those emigrating from their country are under 30 years of age.

Why the great exodus of young people, whom one might call them the future of Eritrea? This is the key question, that can only be answered by an Eritrean outside his or her country, where her/his answer will not be heard by informers and secret police, and will not result in immediate imprisonment for criticising the regime or perceived disloyalty and treason to the country.

The answer points directly to the regime in power in Eritrea: President Afwerki has been in power for 26 years; during this time there has never been an election, there is no parliament, no democratic constitution, and no legal system independent of the government. In a one-party highly militarised state, no independent thought, no democratic freedoms are allowed. Nor does anyone enjoy the right to leave their country without official permission (extremely rare) . The country is in effect one large prison.

But above all else, young Eritreans dread National Service, which is obligatory for all men and women aged 18 and over. It is virtually unpaid (only pocket money provided), involves both military service and slave labour in mines, factories and fields, and can last for the whole of one’s life. One man was still involved in National Service at the age of 68! What can justify Eritrea’s retaining such a huge standing army? Imaginary War? Continued Hostilities with Ethiopia were the original justification for Eritrea’s National Service. But all hostilities with Ethiopia are at an end; peace reigns between these states. Yet compulsory and unlimited-time National Military service continues. The regime cannot relinquish control of what is in effect an unending supply of slave labour.

Sportsmen and women dread their country’s indefinite National Service as much as any other young people: they see it as the very grave of their future hopes, and that is why these sporting stars (who might be idolised, lionised heroes in any other country) are so desperate to leave their native land, whatever the cost.

Human Rights Concern - Eritrea (HRCE)

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Related articles:

Eritrean Players Vanish Ahead of Cecafa U-20 Cup Semis https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Eritrean-Players-Vanish-Ahead-Of-Cecafa-U-20-Cup-Semis/688334-5295488-g72tyfz/index.html

Eritrea players missing in Uganda after regional championship.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/20580007

Fearing for their lives, six Eritrean athletes absconded while in Scotland - and found a new home with a Glasgow running club https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle-2-15039/fearing-for-their-lives-six-eritrean-athletes-absconded-while-in-scotland-and-found-a-new-home-with-a-glasgow-running-club-1-784191

Ten Eritrean Football Players Absconded In Botswana


Eritrea's flag-carrying runner seeks asylum in UK to flee repressive regime

Thirteen members of an Eritrean club taking part in a regional championship in Tanzania have disappeared after the side was knocked out of the tournament