December 17, 2009 / 9:54 AM / in 9 years

Eritrean footballers request refugee status in Kenya

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Twelve Eritreans who disappeared in Kenya last weekend after taking part in a regional soccer tournament are in the process of being granted refugee status, authorities in Nairobi said on Thursday.

“The process (to grant them refugee status) was started last night and the 12 are in safe custody in Nairobi,” a police source, who cannot be quoted for security reasons, told Reuters.

Despite its population of just 5 million, Eritrea manages to create one of the highest numbers of refugees of any country in the world not at war. Analysts say a culture of mandatory national service has disaffected many young people.

A man-hunt was launched after the squad members did not travel back to Asmara as expected last Saturday.

But on Wednesday they arrived at the Nairobi offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who directed them to the Ministry of Immigration, local press reported.

The police source said the Eritreans went to the ministry on Wednesday evening and were taken into safe custody.

“The documents are being studied on whether they qualify for refugee status, and officials say they cannot confirm immediately whether this will happen. But they have a strong case,” the source said.

Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of regional soccer body CECAFA, said Eritreans often vanish at regional tournaments.

In a Reuters interview in October, President Isaias Afwerki said the thousands fleeing the country were simply “going for a picnic”.

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