Defectors use soccer to escape persecution in this East African country

On October 13, Eritrea lost 3-1 to Botswana, an aggregate 5-1 loss over two legs that knocked the team out of World Cup qualifying in the very first round. That’s not a surprise for the Red Sea Boys, a team that’s never made it to either the World Cup or the Africa Cup of Nations, and is currently ranked 204th in the world. In fact, it probably didn’t even register with many that Africa had even begun its World Cup qualifiers.

What’s caught a few eyes, however, is that once again Eritrean players are defecting in large numbers. The squad that traveled to Botswana only had a handful of caps among them, which isn’t surprising as the nation’s player pool had already been depleted by defections. This time, 10 of the team’s 24 players sought asylum in Francistown, Botswana, where the qualifier was played.

As far back as 2007, six players sought asylum after a World Cup qualifier in Angola. Up to 12 players defected after the 2009 CECAFA Cup in Tanzania. Thirteen team members failed to return after the same tournament in 2011. Seventeen players, plus the team doctor, went missing in Uganda in 2012, and were eventually granted asylum in the Netherlands. And just this past September, Eritrea scrapped its national team because it couldn’t stop players from defecting when traveling abroad, choosing instead to regroup and anchor the team around dual nationals, who conveniently wouldn’t have to run from Eritrea because they, at least under law, have protections from another nation.

“Football,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter famously said, “should never be used for political messages.” Yet despite Blatter’s constant assertion that soccer and politics do not mix, soccer stadiums are often the only places in which activists can attract the world’s attention. Sometimes their voices can be a force for good, such as the recent “Refugees Welcome” movement seen in the stands in many European countries. And sometimes their actions cause chaos, like when a drone flying the flag of “Greater Albania” prompted a pitch invasion and fisticuffs during Albania’s Euro 2016 qualifier in Serbia. But it’s clear from these cases and others—whether looking back to East Germany’s Stasi-controlled Dynamo Berlin, or at today’s uber-rich Kazakhstan government-backed FC Astana—that politics has a long history of mixing with soccer.

The Eritrean players defecting in Botswana is just one of the latest cases. But while the group was more likely seeking a better life, free of persecution, than looking to make a political statement, their actions no doubt brought politics into the soccer arena.

Eritrea has had a long, troubled history. The East African nation fought a 30-year war of independence with Ethiopia, ultimately ending in U.S.-assisted peace talks in 1991, and recognition from the United Nations in 1993. Western nations supported Eritrea’s independence, and foreign policy experts believed the new state would be a model for the continent. It may not have been a democracy, but at least Eritrea was stable and efficient, with what appeared to be a well-functioning civil society. Many corners of Africa, they believed, could learn from such a country.

Unfortunately, these so-called experts were wrong on most accounts.

People don’t often risk their lives to leave a stable state. The defecting Eritrean soccer players are but a scant fraction of those who have fled Eritrea over the years. An estimated 5,000 people flee the country each month, and 9 percent of the population has reportedly fled in recent years. They’re escaping an authoritarian regime—led by Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since 1993— that hasn’t held elections since the initial post-independence vote back in 1991.

The situation today is dire. Locals are subject to constant surveillance, their movements restricted, and civil liberties severely curtailed. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has found that “systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations persist,” a situation Eritrea justifies by claiming it needs to focus on national security.

Eritrea’s perceived need to protect itself, primarily from Ethiopia, has resulted in enforced conscription: the law requires every citizen to serve in the military for 18 months, but in practice, the service has no end. Such forced labor, according to the UNHRC, is one of the primary reasons so many are leaving to seek asylum—and should they be denied asylum, the returnees face persecution in a country in which torture, “enforced disappearances,” and extrajudicial killings are part of government policy.

The players who sought asylum in Botswana are relatively lucky in that they have been permitted to stay on until their case can be heard in December. Others aren’t nearly as fortunate. The Wall Street Journal reports that the majority of the 3,000 people who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year have been from Eritrea. And for those fortunate enough to reach their destination, countries are starting to clamp down on the number of Eritrean asylum seekers they allow to enter. For instance, the United Kingdom, who admitted 77 percent of applicants in the first quarter of 2015, slashed that number to just 29 percent in the second quarter.

Migrants play soccer inside a temporary camp, in Lampedusa, Italy, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. Authorities say divers have recovered new bodies from a fiery shipwreck of a fishing boat packed with 500 migrants from Eritrea. Financial police Maj. Leonardo Ricci said divers have recovered about 10 bodies since resuming the search Sunday morning. He said the search and recovery would continue "as long as the sea is calm and there is light." The search had been suspended for the last two days due to rough seas. As many as 250 people remain missing from Thursday's shipwreck. There are 155 survivors and 111 bodies recovered.Luca Bruno/AP

Migrants play soccer inside a temporary camp, in Lampedusa, Italy, in October 2013. Authorities say divers have recovered new bodies from a fiery shipwreck of a fishing boat packed with 500 migrants from Eritrea. As many as 250 people remain missing from Thursday's shipwreck. There are 155 survivors and 111 bodies recovered.

Yet despite Eritrea’s obvious struggles, the world doesn’t see the devastation. Not like the way it sees Syria’s ills and population exodus. And it makes sense that Syrian asylum seekers attract attention—after all, the media doesn’t often shy away from showing the catastrophic images of a war-torn country, carnage inflicted from airstrikes, and the resulting chaos as a country burns.

Part of the reason Eritrea faces severe visibility issues (if you want to put aside the idea that the world frequently ignores Africa’s struggles) is because the East African nation is one of the world’s most secretive states. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Eritrea as the world’s most censored nation—behind North Korea, Syria, and Iran—noting that “no foreign reporters are granted access to Eritrea, and all domestic media are controlled by the government.” Without visibility, Eritreans are left to suffer in silence, or flee.

While the Eritrean players didn’t necessarily defect to publicize the atrocities committed by their state, they certainly can help raise awareness of it, especially given Eritrea’s relative invisibility on the world stage. The obscene number of Eritreans dying as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, sadly, may not attract sufficient media attention, but maybe a national team that’s unable to field a squad will raise some eyebrows. Admitting that may not sit well with our moral certitudes or Blatter’s “sports and politics don’t mix” mantra, but acknowledging it may change the way we view the game.

In our ever-connected world, we avidly lap up managers’ words, dissect potential transfers, and argue about the viability of statistical models. Surely there is room to throw light on events such as this one, in which players’ actions clue us into the realities of a harrowing world that has existed, and will continue to exist, beyond that narrow pitch.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated “an estimated 15,000” instead of “an estimated 5,000” people flee Eritrea each month.