Four members of an Ethiopian track team were reported missing Saturday morning in Eugene where they competed in the IAAF World Junior Championships.
“The individuals left campus ahead of the rest of the team,” said Julie Brown, University of Oregon spokeswoman.
The Ethiopian region is under intense political upheaval, and athletes seeking asylum from unstable areas have historically used athletic tournaments to leave their country. Asked whether that was the case for the Ethiopians, Brown said she did not know why they left and could not confirm they were seeking asylum.
Brown said detectives are looking for the four but are not concerned for their safety. Rather, they want to make direct contact to confirm they are OK.
“At this point we don’t have reason to believe that these individuals are in harm’s way,” she said.
The University of Oregon Police Department is leading a missing persons investigation with assistance from the Eugene Police Department, and Brown said law enforcement agencies statewide have been notified.
Portland FBI Spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said the agency was aware of the situation and was acting in a supporting role, without clarifying.
It is the first time the University of Oregon has hosted the IAAF World Junior Championships, which includes with athletes from 170 countries, Brown said.
The missing runners include a 17-year-old boy and three women believed to be between ages 18 to 20.
Ethiopians at the track meet declined, throughout the team doctor, to speak to a reporter from The Oregonian.
If the four are seeking asylum, the process is a long one that starts with an application available online, said attorney Anna Ciesielski of the Oregon Immigration Group.
“They’re likely to be here lawfully depending on their visa (for the track competition),” Ciesielski said.
After they apply for asylum, they will continue to be in the United States legally until their case is resolved.
“It’s definitely months in the making,” Cielsielski said.
Those seeking asylum must be fingerprinted and go through a criminal background check before the Office of Asylum in San Francisco sends a representative to Portland to interview them, she said.
If a person is denied, they can present their case in federal immigration court for a second assessment.
Asylum seekers are more common on the East Coast than in Oregon, Cielsielski said.
“It’s really hard to get to the U.S., and you can’t file for asylum outside the country,” she said.
As for their chances to be granted asylum, Cielsielski said it’s difficult for people from many countries, but Ethiopians and Somalis “have a pretty decent chance.”
— Wendy Owen