Athletes Use Olympics to Claim Asylum in London

Olympic Visa Overstayers

By David Seminara,
Center for Immigration Studies
August 10, 2012

While many Olympic athletes are apparently busy picking up on members of the opposite sex, others are busy finding ways to overstay their visas.

Foreign Policy and various other news outlets report that at least eight Olympic athletes, all from developing countries, have gone AWOL in London. Seven of the missing athletes are from Cameroon, five of them boxers, and the eighth was the 15-year-old torchbearer for Ethiopia who was there as part of the International Olympic Committee’s International Inspiration program, which is supposed to enrich the lives of young people through sport or, in this case, provide them with a nicer country to live in.

This news should come as a surprise to no one. Athletes and other entertainers from developing countries frequently use events and competitions as a pretext to trade up to more prosperous countries. According to Foreign Policy, “26 athletes sought asylum during the 2006 Commonwealth games in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2011, 15 Ethiopian athletes disappeared from the All African Games in Mozambique, a regional hub for illegal immigration.”

U.K. authorities haven’t confirmed whether the missing athletes have filed asylum claims yet, but one can only assume the sportsmen are busy working on their applications while their teammates are competing. Without knowing any of these athletes, it’s impossible to say if one or two of them might have a bona fide fear of persecution in their home countries, but chances are they’re just economic migrants like most other asylum applicants.

Really, how likely is it that five members of a boxing team are all in some sort of danger at home? Not very. When I was a consular officer at the State Department serving overseas, we frequently had to adjudicate the visa applications of athletes applying to participate in various competitions in the United States, and if we ever refused anyone the organizers of that competition would raise holy hell and sometimes invoked the assistance of the media to drum up pressure to issue the visas.

Last year, the international press went ballistic when members of a little league baseball team were denied visas to participate in the Little League World Series. This year, they got their visas. The concern there was over bogus identity documents rather than overstays, but the case is emblematic of the way these little dramas play out: Western countries basically cannot deny athletes visas for high profile sporting events without enduring intense criticism.

If any of the eight missing Olympians had been denied visas by the Brits, their delegations would have no doubt thrown hissy fits, but where are they now, when it’s time to account for their athletes and get them on the plane home?

You can bet that the next time a group of athletes from Cameroon and Ethiopia apply for British visas, they’ll receive additional scrutiny. But if Great Britain, the United States, and other Western countries really wanted to get serious about clamping down on athletes and entertainers who abuse visas, they’d hold team or federation officials responsible.

I don’t believe in collective punishment, so I wouldn’t propose banning an entire delegation of athletes from a competition based on overstayers from previous years, but I would ask each federation to have one official who agrees to take responsibility for getting everyone back on the return flight.

The next three Olympics will be held in Russia, Brazil, and South Korea ­ countries that attract migrants from their respective regions, but not as many from further afield. If the IOC wants to crack down on illegal immigration among athletes, and there is no reason to believe they do, perhaps they should consider places like Mogadishu or Pyongyang for the Games in 2020.


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