The three Ethiopians - two pilots and an engineer - reportedly flew their Ethiopian military helicopter to neighbouring Djibouti around June 10. UNHCR learnt of the defection in the third week of June, and sent a note verbale to the Djibouti government on June 26 seeking access to the Ethiopians to determine if they wanted to seek asylum.
Receiving no reply, the director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau sent a follow-up letter on June 30 seeking "access to the three asylum seekers to verify whether they are entitled to international protection."
At the same time, the refugee agency has sought direct contacts with the authorities, including meetings on Thursday, but has so far been unable to get clarification on the men's fate. There are conflicting reports on what has happened to them, with some officials saying they were returned to Ethiopia and others saying at least two of them remained in Djibouti.
This week, Assistant High Commissioner Morjane sent a letter to Djibouti's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, expressing UNHCR's concerns over the fate of the three Ethiopians.
"I would like to reiterate UNHCR's deep preoccupation regarding the situation of the three Ethiopian pilots who may intend to seek asylum in Djibouti where they recently arrived," Morjane stated in his letter. "I am very concerned to see that UNHCR still has had no clear reply regarding these asylum seekers. I would highly appreciate your assistance in this issue because it will be essential so that UNHCR, in collaboration with the government of Djibouti, can find an appropriate solution in conformity with international refugee law."
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva on Friday, "Despite early indications from some government officials that we would be able to meet the Ethiopians, we still have not seen them and we are growing increasingly concerned that the pilots may have been returned to Ethiopia against their will."
The principle of non-refoulement is established in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Djibouti is a signatory. The Convention clearly prohibits expulsion or return of a refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion. The principle of non-refoulement applies by definition to any person requesting asylum, pending the full examination of their refugee claim.
"Given UNHCR's long and positive relationship with the government of Djibouti, we hope the government will respond immediately to Mr. Morjane's urgent request," said Redmond.
A separate group of eight Ethiopian air force personnel defected in Belarus in early June. They are now being processed under the Belarussian asylum system.