Missing athletes face difficult path to asylum in Australia

Athletes from Cameroon at Jezzine Barracks during an official welcome ceremony ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

The African athletes who have gone missing at the Commonwealth Games in Australia have not broken any laws and are still within their visa conditions, but face a difficult road if they are aiming to seek asylum.

On the Gold Coast this week, Cameroon athletes were the first to depart the Athletes' Village without explanation, with eight members of the African nation's delegation walking out in the middle of the night, two of whom were still due to compete.

They have reportedly since been joined by athletes from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda, with Commonwealth Games Federation president David Grevemberg revealing the athletes' whereabouts were unknown as of Thursday.

But he emphasized that the athletes had not broken any laws: "These athletes are guests here in Australia. They are still within their visas and they have the right to travel freely.

"Right now, we are worried about the safety and welfare of the athletes and we are taking this very seriously and monitoring the situation with team Cameroon."

Two Ugandan weightlifters have also gone missing, but the team's flag-bearer, netballer Peace Proscovia, told the media that they had already finished their events and could possibly have gone to visit family.

"Apparently it is too early for us to conclude anything because, basing on the fact that they had already finished their (sporting) activities, maybe the assumption is that they have just gone to visit a relative and (will) come back into the camp," she said.

The events of the past week are not without precedent in Australia, or indeed at most international multisport events, with the Melbourne Commonwealth Games experiencing a similar situation 12 years ago.

On that occasion, it was athletes from Sierra Leone who left without notice. And in what may have inspired the athletes from Cameroon and others to follow suit is the fact that all 14 athletes were later granted asylum.

Speaking on radio station Triple J's "Hack" program, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, explained why the athletes from Cameroon may have walked out.

"In the north of the country there is violence from Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group... and there are 210,000 people displaced in northern Cameroon as a result of that violence," Power told Hack.

On their chances of gaining political asylum, if they felt their lives were in danger back home, Power added: "Under normal circumstances they wouldn't be detained, they'd be given a form of bridging visa and then given the opportunity to put their claim for protection.

"But to be able to get refugee status, they would actually have to prove that if they returned to Cameroon they would face a well-founded fear of persecution because of their political opinion, religious belief or ethnicity."

Australia's immigration laws have tightened under various changes of government, but few have clamped down on illegal foreign arrivals like current Coalition Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who recently attracted critical attention in South Africa for seemingly offering asylum to white farmers.

Less than 12 months ago, Dutton said his department had close to 7,500 cases of people who'd arrived illegally in Australia, and issued an October 1 deadline for them to prove their status as refugees.

In response to news of the missing Cameroon athletes, Dutton said: "The compliance officers will be out there, I promise, tracking these people down and they'll be deported as quickly as possible.

"These people and others that might have a similar objective need to hear this message very clearly: They aren't going to game the system."

If the athletes do wish to gain asylum in Australia, their case would not appear to be as favourable as that of the Sierra Leone athletes from 2006, given the current government's stance on Immigration and the actions of Dutton.

Historically, though, Australia is obligated to follow United Nations statutes regarding asylum seekers, with Mary Anne Kenny, a professor at Murdoch University's School of Law, writing on The Conversation: "Australia has obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.

"The right to seek asylum is recognised as a fundamental human right. Remaining in Australia and applying for protection is not breaching Australian law."

Kenny also explained that athletes going missing at big sporting events was not confined to African athletes: "Since the second world war nearly every Olympic Games has had athletes seeking asylum in the host country.

"Cold War politics made it opportune for Western countries to welcome asylum seekers from Eastern Bloc countries.

"The Melbourne Olympics in 1956 saw one of the largest defections of athletes ever, with 61 individuals (mostly Hungarian) deciding not to return to their home countries."

What becomes of the missing athletes looks set to play out beyond the Closing Ceremony on the Gold Coast. But with their visas extending through until May 15, they have time to either leave Australia, or apply for asylum, without having broken any laws.

AP and AAP contributed to this story.