The cyclists risked their lives in a daring escape through Eritrea’s heavily militarized borders where the government has reportedly imposed a shot-to-kill policy to prevent citizens from fleeing the country.
Their defection comes only a few days after 10 members of the Eritrean national football team refused to go back home after a World Cup qualification match in Botswana. A hearing for the players’ appeal for asylum from the South African country has been scheduled for December.
Eritrean athletes are renowned for using international sporting competitions to flee their country’s repressive government. This trend has alarmed both regional and international sporting event organizers.
In a June report, the United Nations accused the Eritrean government of mass human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture. At age 17, it is allegedly compulsory for young people to be enlisted into the Eritrean army for training. Military service in the country is dreaded due to the prolonged tenure of service. Thousands have fled the country as a result. It is estimated that 4,000 people flee Eritrea monthly.
The seven cyclists, who are members of the 14 higher division Eritrean cycling team, reportedly had a quarrel with sporting authorities before escaping the country. The athletes say officials failed to provide them with new bicycles and other training supplies needed for their preparations. As a result, the cyclists pulled out from the team, which was scheduled to participate in a competition in a few days.
Their decision to quit the national team ahead of a major competition did not go down well with the government in the country where cycling is a quasi-religion.
According to the Sudan Tribune, authorities threatened to punish the cyclists by enlisting them into the military. The cyclists did not want to take any chances, so they fled.
Ethiopian officials at the Tigray region, which borders Eritrea to the north, reportedly welcomed the defecting cyclists. The athletes, whose identities have not been revealed, are currently being held in Enda Abba Guna, a temporary refugee center in the region.
Eritrea is not known for footballing or running exploits. However, cyclists from the country have dominated continental competitions. The men’s senior national cycling team has won the African Championships for four years in a row – including last year. The women’s team has been equally successful in recent years.
This year, Eritrean cyclists Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus made history by becoming the first “black Africans” to compete in the Tour de France.
Despite their success, earlier this year, Switzerland denied the visa applications of three young Eritrean cyclists over concerns that they are likely to defect and seek asylum. The three had been invited for training at the International Cycling Union in Aigle.
Eritrea is the tenth-largest source of refugees globally. Eritrea is also the third biggest country – after Syria and Afghanistan – whose citizens cross the Mediterranean to Europe.