Refugees Welcome: How football can help support refugees in Europe
Posted: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 09:52
For over a year, there have been countless images of people enduring hardship and tragedy in Syria. Like those fleeing similar situations in places like Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, sport may be the farthest thing from refugees mind, but it still has an important role to play.
This aspect was explored at '"Refugees Welcome": Football fans and community in Europe', an event hosted by the University of Brighton in November 2015. Funded by a British Academy Rising Stars Engagement Award, the event worked in partnership with European fan network Football Supporters Europe to explore ways that football can help the 'refugee crisis'.
Speakers included Patrick Gasser from UEFA, Kevin Coleman from the FA, and Jez Weeks representing the Premier League. Representatives from the Council of Europe, European Football Development Network and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Terre Des Hommes.
The keynote speaker, Eric Murangwa of Football for Hope, Peace and Unity (http://www.fhpuenterprise.org) reiterated the importance of football, as it literally saved his life. As a professional footballer in Rwanda, he avoided death because he was recognised as a player of Rayon Sports FC and spared. His teammates then protected Eric to enable him to escape to safety.
The variety of speakers reiterated the importance of networks and partnerships when supporting refugees across Europe. As Sugden (2010) highlights, these partnerships should be both community and institutional.
FAs, professional clubs, and football in the community schemes are all important to ensure that initiatives are supported financially and politically. When refugee teams face conflict, then the federations' disciplinary and inclusion strategies should be invoked.
Clubs have an important role to play in supporting refugees. Football provides a powerful vehicle for individual and group identity and consequently enables the formation of in-groups and out-groups. When fans are ordered to change their behaviour from outside of their group, this often leads to resistance.
Many fans are more likely to listen to fellow fans, than the police, FAs or professional leagues. When something is seen as 'political', such as anti-racism or helping refugees, then clubs help to de-politicise it and demonstrate that these actions are about human rights, rather than politics with a capital 'P'.
Clubs can support refugees by supporting fan initiatives, provide free or discounted tickets, as well as utilising anti-discrimination policies to protect refugees from any anti-social behaviours. Borussia Dortmund is an excellent example of a club that challenges discrimination and supports refugees, working in partnership with fans (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/11834636/German-football-fans-welcome-refugees-and-invite-hundreds-to-watch-match.html).
Whilst football is not a complete solution, especially as it can create divisions around ethnicity, sexuality, gender, dis/ability and faith, it can provide a space where these differences can be addressed. This requires careful management to overcome issues surrounding differences, including use of existing anti-discrimination policies; education programmes for host communities and refugees about working together; and specific education about working with people who have undergone the traumatic lives of refugees.
Volunteers, coaches and players need to be taught about boundaries so that they can direct refugees to the correct support. It can be traumatic hearing of the life journeys of refugees and care needs to be taken to provide the appropriate support.
Ultimately, football provides considerable advantages for community building and supporting refugees:
- As the world's most popular sport, it provides a common language that links many people together, regardless of social, cultural and linguistic boundaries.
- Differences can be challenged through football. The sport can be used to educate about tackling discrimination and intolerance.
- Football provides physical activity which is beneficial for the physical and mental health and wellbeing of participants.
- Football is a shared social space which encourages social interaction
- Playing and watching football can provide a cathartic space where players and fans can switch off from their everyday life.
- Additional educational programmes can be associated with sport, such as inter-cultural learning, personal development, and language skills.
- Football also provides an opportunity for refugees to volunteer and 'give back' to the community. This can be useful for building social networks as well as providing a sense of self worth.
Whilst there are many policy initiatives showcasing the positive benefits of football for tackling a wide range of social issues, these can provide many similar benefits to refugees, whilst targeted support can address specific aspects related to the traumatic back-stories of the refugee participants.
Dr Mark Doidge is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Brighton.
The event 'Refugees Welcome: How Football Can Support Refugees Globally' was funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award. Further details of the event can be found here: https://www.brighton.ac.uk/cstl/events/refugees-welcome-how-football-can-support-refugees-globally.aspx.
 Stone, C. 2013. Football: A Shared Sense of Belonging. http://www.furd.org/resources/Final%20Research%20Report-%20low%20res.pdf