Six African teenagers who competed in the international robotics competition in Washington, D.C. this week have vanished, and two of the teens were seen crossing into Canada, D.C. police say.
The members of the robotics team from the eastern African country of Burundi, who are 16, 17 and 18, disappeared Tuesday after they took part in the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition.
The Metropolitan Police Department has received reports that Audrey Mwamikazi, 17, and Don Ingabire, 16, were seen crossing into Canada, spokeswoman Aquita Brown said Thursday morning.
Police say they have no indication of foul play in their disappearance. Organizers of the contest say it appears they chose to leave.
Four boys and two girls are missing. Police identified them as: Audrey Mwamikazi, 17; Aristide Irambona, 18; Kevin Sabumukiza, 17; Don Ingabire, 16; Nice Munezero, 17; and Richard Irakoze, 18.
The teens all are being sought by D.C. police as missing people. Anyone who sees them is asked to call 202-727-9011 or send a text message to 50411.
No additional details were released immediately.
There was no official indication Thursday that any of the teens were trying to avoid returning to their homes in Africa, but a leader in the Burundian community in the U.S. suggested that they may be intending to seek asylum. Immigration attorneys said an asylum application could take years to sort out.
The robotics competition, designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science, attracted teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations. A team of girls from Afghanistan drew international attention after they were twice rejected for U.S. visas and President Donald Trump intervened.
The Burundi team's mentor could not find the students after the closing ceremony of the competition Tuesday night, competition organizers said in a statement.
He initially thought the students had taken another shuttle bus back to the dormitories, organizers say he told them.
Then, they found "there were indications that the students’ absence may have been self-initiated." The students left their keys in their mentor's bag and took all their clothes from their rooms.
FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, a former Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania, made the initial call to police, according to the statement.
"Security of the students is of paramount importance to FIRST Global," the statement says. "FIRST Global ensures that all students get to their dormitories after the daily competition by providing safe transportation to the students staying at Trinity Washington University who are always to be under close supervision of their adult mentor and are advised not to leave the premises unaccompanied by the mentor."
The team's mentor said they disappeared after the competition. He said he did not know where they went. The mentor told police the teens have one-year visas to stay in the U.S.
The team's coach, Canesius Bindaba, told The Washington Post that he had heard rumors the teens might be planning to stay in the United States. Speaking over WhatsApp from Kenya, a stop on his trip home, Bindaba said he hoped the rumors weren't true.
"I just tried to build some kind of trust, hoping they were just rumors,'' he said. "I feel cheated and disappointed by those who planned this behind my back."
Security is high on Trinity Washington's campus, a spokeswoman said.
"We have a single entrance to campus and that is always guarded. We have 24/7 security on our campus and a fairly stringent check-in process," university spokeswoman Ann Pauley said.
A representative of the Embassy of Burundi in Washington, D.C. said Thursday morning that the embassy did not know the students were in the U.S. until they were reported missing. They said they had no obligation to check in with them.
Embassy counselor Benjamin Manirakiza said Thursday afternoon that the embassy was concerned about the teens.
"If the teens are found and request a help from the embassy for going back to Burundi, the embassy will do its best to help them," he said.
The U.S. State Department, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services all said they had no comment on the teens' disappearance.
Canadian immigration authorities said they do not comment on whether individuals are known to have entered the country.
Police reports say investigators tried to contact the uncle of one missing teen but got no response. The reports say police canvassed DAR Constitution Hall, where the competition was held.
The investigation is ongoing.
The competition's webpage about Team Burundi shows the six team members posing with the country's flag and says the youth are the top-achieving students in the capital city, Bujumbura.
The team's slogan in Kirundi -- the country's official language, along with French -- is "Ugushaka Nugushobora,'' meaning "where there is willing, [there] is also the ability."
A robotics team called the Tuxedo Pandas posted several photos this week of the Burundian teens at the competition. The Tuxedo Pandas advised Team Burundi via video chat, the Blacksburg, Virginia, team said on Twitter. The Tuxedo Pandas did not respond to inquiries.
This month marked the first time in Burundi's history that a youth robotics team competed on the world stage, the team's coach told Xinhua, the official news agency of China.
Burundi, a nation of about 10 million people, is plagued by violence, the U.S. State Department warned last month.
"The political situation in Burundi is tenuous, and there is sporadic violence throughout the country, including frequent gunfire and grenade attacks by armed groups," a travel warning for Americans says. "Rebel forces, ex-combatants, and youth gangs have crossed into Burundi from the Democratic Republic of Congo and attacked and kidnapped civilians."
Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer in northern Virginia not involved in the situation, said that if the teens make an asylum application, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement could seek to detain the teens pending removal proceedings. The teens would be eligible to seek bond and stay in the country while they await their hearing. It can take years to have a court hearing scheduled. And even if ICE declines to seek detention, it can take several years for applicants to have their formal interview to determine whether they are eligible for asylum.
Burnundi residents face widespread human rights abuses, including murder, rape and torture by political groups, according to Human Rights Watch.
More than 400,000 people have fled the country into volatile neighboring countries, human rights groups estimate, according to Reuters.
Oscar Niyiragira, chairman of the United Burundian-American Community Association Inc., said he was not surprised to hear that some of the teens were heading to Canada. He had no direct knowledge of their situation, but assumed they were seeking asylum. Many in the community feel the odds are better in Canada, especially now that the Trump administration has taken a harsh stance on immigration.
He called the teens' departure disappointing. He said that economic impoverishment, rather than political persecution, is the driving force in most people's decision to seek asylum from Burundi, and he said it unfairly tarnishes Burundi's reputation when people flee and exaggerate the fears of political violence.
"Now, I'm not saying the government does not commit some crimes. They do,'' said Niyiragira, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. But the situation in Burundi is not nearly as bad as it was in waves of violence in the 1970s and the 1990s, he said.
Burundi's government often dismisses allegations of abuses by security forces, saying they are based on false information supplied by the regime's opponents.