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Seven Cameroonians disappeared this week … but why? EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan

The case of the lost athletes – when Olympians seek asylum

Every four years, the Olympics brings us plenty of drama on and off the sports field. This year has been no different with seven athletes from Cameroon absconding from the Olympic village and more anticipated to overstay their visas or claim asylum in the UK.

Based on trends at previous events such as the 2006 Commonwealth Games and the 2008 Homeless World Cup, we know that people who lack the resources to travel to countries like the UK or Australia are able to get visas during international competitions that they would otherwise be denied.

As Sharon Pickering has explained on The Conversation, certain nationalities are deemed high-risk by immigration authorities and find it impossible to get visas outside of exceptional events such as the Olympics.

Australian passport holders rarely experience being denied a visa, and Australia’s reciprocal entry agreements means a traveller usually only needs a passport, a ticket and foreign currency before heading overseas. But for those athletes from war-torn parts of the world or countries in civil strife, the Olympics might be their one chance to leave safely and with a valid visa.

With the vast majority of athletes meeting their visa obligations, one can only imagine that the Cameroonians saw a chance to try to make a future in the UK.

Absconding from the Olympic village is the first part of that journey. Some athletes will simply over-stay their visas, while others will seek asylum.

Arriving on a valid time-bound visa means that a traveller, or in this case Olympic athlete, is obliged to leave the UK by a certain date. Staying beyond the duration of visa validity is called over-staying and in Australia the rate of visa over-stayers is less than a half a percent.

Some over-stayers will eventually leave a country. Others may continue to live without legal documents – a life of great hardship.

Seeking asylum is a different matter altogether, requiring a person to demonstrate a claim of persecution. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, such persecution must be well-founded because of a person’s “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”; that person must also be “unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution”. Claiming asylum is a high threshold to meet.

So why would someone be unwilling to return to Cameroon? The situation in Cameroon was recently declared an under-funded emergency by the United Nations, with the northern part of the country wracked by drought, food insecurity and malnutrition.

Making the decision to seek a safer future elsewhere, rather than return home, is not an easy one. It is impossible to know whether the athletes left Cameroon with plans to return.

Whether they make themselves known to the authorities and return home in due course, or whether they stay on and claim asylum, their disappearance will regardless have serious implications for the Cameroonian team. Ironically, it could make things harder in future for Cameroonians to obtain visas to travel to the UK.

The reason why we love the Olympics is that all teams compete together on an equal footing with the best person winning on the day.

We’ve shared the jubilation of Afghanistan’s second-ever medal in the Olympics, and as the medal tally shows, national wealth does not necessarily correlate with sporting prowess.

Athletes absconding or seeking asylum remind us that economic, social and political situations are not equal around the world. It shouldn’t cast a pall over the Olympics, or future events, nor should it result in visa restrictions increasing.

Instead, as the International Olympic Committee strives to support the development of sport for all and promote a positive legacy of each Olympic games, we should be reminded of the role Australia can play as a sporting nation with a strong commitment to human rights.

Sport will continue to bring people together and open doors to better possibilities. Let’s hope that for some people one of those doors this Olympics opens is the door to a safer future.

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