For Hanibal Tekle, the news that Robel Teklemichael had become only the second Eritrean footballer to cross the border and sign a professional deal with a club in Ethiopia since war broke out between the countries in 1998 provoked mixed emotions. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tekle reflects.
But when Teklemichael – the 21-year-old defender who captained Eritrea to second place in the 2019 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup, a tournament for teams from East Africa – followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Samyoma Alexander by joining the Addis Ababa side Ethiopia Bunna in April, Tekle was left to wonder what might have been in terms of his own career. He was one of four players who fled after Eritrea’s 5-0 win over Zanzibar in the quarter-finals of the Under-20 Cecafa Cup in Uganda nearly two years ago and remain in hiding as they await the result of their asylum application. Tekle knows he could easily have been playing as a professional alongside Teklemichael.
“After Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the peace agreement in 2018, I received many offers from Ethiopian clubs but the government rejected them all,” he says. “When you get offers from abroad, you need to talk to your club officials, but even if they accept, the government will [usually] refuse. And when you ask for the reason, they hide it or simply say: ‘You can’t go.’ All the clubs in Eritrea are under the government’s control, so club officials are constantly in touch with the government – or sometimes they are state officials themselves.”
It was a similar story for Sami Tesfagabr, a promising talent scouted by the Israeli club Hapoel Petah Tikva in 2008. The Eritrean government blocked the transfer without explanation and the defender and his international teammates fled during the following year’s Cecafa Cup in Kenya. They spent eight months at a refugee camp before they were granted refugee status by Australia, with Tesfagabr granted full citizenship in 2016.
Teklemichael faced no such obstacles. He was allowed to join Bunna – who are also known as Ethiopian Coffee and finished second in the Ethiopian Premier League last season – having excelled for his hometown club Red Sea FC in Asmara.
Since 2009 it is estimated that more than 50 players have used their status as international footballers to escape the oppressive regime of the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, which imposes lifetime military service on many subjects and bans groups of more than two people congregating in public places. Seven – Abel Okbay Kilo, Eyoba Girmay, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Serere, Robel Kidane, Abraham and Ismail Jahar – went missing after helping Eritrea reach the Cecafa Cup final for the first time in December 2019 and remain in hiding. Tekle and his teammates Mewael Yosief, Simon Asmelash and Hermon Yohannes have recently been moved to a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) camp after being evicted from a safe house provided for them to avoid capture by Eritrean agents searching for them in Uganda.
“UNHCR told us it was the time to live together with the rest of the local population as normal people,” he says. “We were supposed to stay in that house for three to six months only, but we refused to go, given our case. We told them that it’s too risky for us to go out, that we don’t know what can happen to us outside. So we stayed until December, although they warned us every week. In December they said they were going to renovate the house, so we had to go out. That is when we lived in fear.”
He adds: “Since Covid-19 broke out, nobody has asked about us. We asked UNHCR to resettle us, but we are still waiting for their answer. There are some Eritreans who help us sometimes. The footballers who escaped in 2012 and are now in the Netherlands also helped us once. They collected some money and sent it to us for food and rent. It meant a lot to us.”
Their American lawyer, Kimberley Motley, who was introduced to the players by the Stockholm–based campaigner Vanessa Tsehaye, says they face an anxious wait for their case to be resolved. “Covid issues completely messed things up for everybody, especially in regards to refugee cases,” she says.
“We are just hoping that file gets approved for them to go to a safe place. That is out of Uganda, which isn’t a safe place for them given their status with the Eritrean government and their profile. Hopefully, UNHCR steps up and another country steps up and accepts the footballers, but unfortunately at this point in time that did not happen.”
The Guardian has sought comment from UNHCR.