Tackling the Refugee Crisis


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Excerpt from ‘Home’, by Warsan Shire

Playing football has really helped me, now I feel like I belong somewhere
Ali, a Sudanese refugee who participates in Notts County’s Football in the Community programme

When faced with a crisis we have a choice: handle it well, or handle it badly. We, as a global society, are handling the refugee crisis badly. This is largely because policy-drivers are not doing enough to ensure that there are effective integration and resettlement programmes in place. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently 65.6 million people displaced. This is like picking up the UK, shaking it and scattering its entire population all over the world. If this happened we would be scrambling to get home and back to our lives. But what if home was war-ridden and we couldn’t return?

This is life for refugees. If we were in this position, we would hope that other nations would be sympathetic to a situation that is out of our control. Instead, refugees are being met with total apathy. Refugees want to go home, but until they can do so safely we need to get better at resettling them elsewhere. This resettlement isn’t just a case of finding a physical space for refugees, it’s about being compassionate and working together to resolve one of the greatest injustices of our time.

In a perfect world, resettlement programmes would allow refugees to find a home away from home. Home, in this sense, would mean being integrated with the people, the place and the culture. We know that this is important, as it prevents the main issue that we have with immigration from arising: the formation of isolated groups who cannot fully contribute to society.

Why, then, has there not been more of an attempt to make integration a priority? Simply put, it is easier to turn a blind eye than it is to address the issue. This is why we are building walls instead of knocking them down. £2.3m was spent constructing a wall in Calais, the aim of which was to stop refugees escaping on passing lorries. Ironically, the wall was completed two months after the camp itself was bulldozed.

Money being spent on fortifying borders could instead be spent on refugee resettlement programmes. Our automatic stance is “no, we cannot help refugees”, when it should be “yes, we will create a second home for refugees, even if doing so is a challenge”. We need to move away from this tendency to shut refugees out and instead seek to welcome them by whatever means possible.

In recent years, the football community has provided an ideal model for integration that society at large should replicate. Perhaps the best-known example is Football Welcomes, an Amnesty International initiative that launched last year and saw over 20 clubs engage with refugees; inviting them to participate in local tournaments, giving away free tickets, hosting opportunities to meet players and so on. The campaign commemorated the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, which resulted in thousands of child refugees arriving in the UK from Spain. Six of those children ended up becoming professional football players, playing for Southampton, Coventry City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brentford, Norwich City, Colchester United and Cambridge United. Football Welcomes honours the contribution that these refugees, amongst others, have made to the sport.

One of the clubs to get involved, Hull City, has since continued to do incredible work for the refugee community. The team are closely affiliated with Kicks International, a project that aims ‘to bring refugees and migrants together over a game of football, helping people make new friends and stay fit.’ Football is at the epicentre of the project, because it is something that refugees can rally around and be incredibly passionate about. This is, however, just the starting point. Once welcomed into the fold, players gain access to English language classes, schools, and other charities. What begins as a fun kick-about becomes a lifeline.

The openness towards refugees demonstrated in these initiatives is the first step towards an extensive re-haul of our current dispirited handling of the crisis. This commitment is displayed in three key ways:

1. Widespread Action

Perhaps thanks to the immense popularity of football, the actions taken on behalf of the football community are more wide-ranging than other sports. In fact, there is so much grassroots action that Football Against Racism Europe has compiled a database.

2. Educating the General Population 

According to James Lowbridge from Leicester City FC Community Trust, football is a ‘way of helping non-refugees to understand that refugees are not here to cause problems but because it’s a safe haven away from issues they face in their own countries.’ It is not just about teaching refugees, but about educating non-refugees too. Only once this happens can we facilitate integration.

3. A Gateway to Broader Integration

Football acts as a gateway through which refugees gain access to a whole host of other vital resources. The football community acts as a microcosm that gives refugees and non-refugees alike a window into how integration would work at a higher level.

There have, of course, been numerous successes outside the football community: a boxing club in Hamburg welcomes refugees and teaches them German, the 2016 Olympic Refugee Team drew global attention to the crisis, and Social Sport in Canada lets refugees play their preferred sport. There is also important work being done outside the realm of organised sport. The Bike Project, for example, refurbishes second-hand bikes and donates them to refugees and asylum seekers, offering freedom of movement and a chance at independence.

To maximise their impact, however, these initiatives should judge themselves against football’s three successes, mentioned above. They can do so by asking themselves the following questions. Firstly, how can we spread this initiative beyond its immediate location? How can we ensure that our work is teaching the general population about the refugee crisis? And finally, how can we guarantee that this project is the starting point for broader integration?

If a range of initiatives, projects and disciplines ask and answer these questions, the refugee crisis will be an issue that is on everyone’s lips. In this way, integration will rise on the agenda of policy-makers and change will happen at a governmental level. Until this point, individuals must continue to educate themselves on the subject, get involved with local initiatives and write to their MP urging change.

Integration is complex. If we break it down and allow refugees to “enter” society, as it were, through other sports or activities that they are passionate about, then we may be able to unravel the complexities and begin to integrate refugees. For all its scandals, football is a good place to start when considering how we may best do this. It’s time to knock down walls and address the situation at hand.