CAIRO – An Eritrean national who was denied asylum in the United States and was being sent back to his homeland died in an apparent suicide in a holding area at Cairo International Airport, airport officials have said.
Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion was a detainee of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was being held by Egyptian authorities at the airport, awaiting his return to Asmara, Eritrea, ICE said.
Testfatsion, 34, was found dead last Wednesday in a shower area and his remains were taken to a hospital, ICE said.
Airport officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said Saturday that he had been found hanging.
His remains will be transported to Eritrea, ICE said in a statement, adding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility were notified.
Homeland Security and the Eritrean embassies in the U.S. and Egypt did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
Testfatsion, whose last name is spelled Tesfatsion in court records, had been in ICE custody since February 2017 following his arrest at the Hidalgo, Texas, Port of Entry after he tried to unlawfully enter the United States, ICE said.
Court records show Testfatsion went to the U.S. seeking asylum “for fear of returning to his country.”
Testfatsion was ordered deported in October 2017, and after he wasn’t deported within 90 days he petitioned to be released, arguing he should not be forced to stay in detention indefinitely because the Eritrean Consulate hadn’t taken action in his case.
His petition, dated Jan. 30, says ICE was working on travel documents but had not been able to remove him because the Eritrean government views those who leave the country as traitors, making it virtually impossible for him to get necessary travel documents.
The East African country has a history of being recalcitrant in accepting its deported citizens back from the U.S. In September, the U.S. announced that it would stop issuing certain visas to nationals from Eritrea and three other countries because of their reluctance to accept deportees.
Eritrea is a major source of migrants who say they are fleeing a system of forced military conscription that repeatedly has been criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups. It’s unknown why Testfatsion was seeking asylum. A message left with Customs and Border Protection was not immediately returned.
Testfatsion’s cousin Georgis Gebrendras said she was saddened to learn of his death and the family wants answers. She said family members in Eritrea were at the airport waiting for his arrival when they learned of his suicide.
“The whole family was waiting for him to come home,” said Gebrendras, who lives in Orlando, Florida. “I don’t know what’s going on or why he’s dying. Why? Why? What happened?”
During Testfatsion’s 16-month detention in the United States, he spent time at centers in Pampano Beach, Florida, and Youngstown, Ohio, court records show. Gebrendras said she doesn’t understand how he could take his life while heading home and how officials could let that happen.
“They needed somebody to (be) taking care of him,” she said.