As the global refugee crisis (finally) reaches the shores of Europe’s agenda, sport explores its contributions
Beyond the recent tragic news, what I struggle with most is the fact that we have known the reality of a growing refugee crisis for years and that Europe could have been better prepared for it. The biggest tragedy I have found, however, is the attitude of disconnectedness towards another’s suffering and not understanding the interconnectedness of our lives and actions. In contrast, I have also found reassurance in the mass citizen and sport club reactions which have given me hope that a global conscience exists and that change may come. It is clear that we are not doing enough: we need to act and we also need to consider how to act.
The refugee crisis is nothing new. Migration flows have been part of human evolution and are part of our everyday life, not just our history. For some, traveling from one country to another is mere business or leisure, for others it is a question of life and death. Every day, all around the world, people have to take the most difficult decision of their lives; to leave their homes in search of a better life.
Let me start by reviewing the definitions of the terms in order to paint a full picture we can build upon when we look at the needs and potential contribution of sport. Amnesty International  defines a migrant as an individual who moves around within their own country or from one country to another, usually to find work, although there may be other reasons such as to join family. Some move voluntarily, while others are forced to leave because of economic hardship or other problems. People can migrate ‘regularly’, with legal permission to work and live in a country, or ‘irregularly’, without permission from the country they wish to live and work in. A refugee on the other hand, is considered a person who has fled their own country because they have suffered human rights abuses or because of who they are or what they believe in. Their own government cannot or will not protect them so they are forced to seek international protection. A refugee often cannot return due to fear of persecution, and has been given refugee status. Refugee status is given to applicants by the United Nations or by a third party country. In January to April 2015 alone, an estimated 1,700 refugees and migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean. More specifically, the term asylum-seeker is often used to describe an individual who has fled their country due to fear of persecution and has applied for legal and physical protection in another country but is yet to be recognized as a refugee. Regardless of how they arrive in a country and for what purpose, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers have rights as a human being and are technically protected under international law:
- – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.
- – The 1951 UN Refugee Convention protects refugees from being returned to countries where they risk persecution.
Under this law, refugees have the right to enter the territory of other countries without passports with the understanding that states have a duty to provide protection for them when they do. However, between the international law that protects them and the law of the nation state they are trying to reach, or in which they find themselves, the everyday reality is quite different: risky border crossings, detention centers, death, suffering, exploitation, and the list goes on.
Recently, media has brought this reality to the door step of Europe and reactions have been extremely diverse, ranging from persecution, discrimination, rejection to mass support messages and donation initiatives. Germany expects a record 800,000 asylum applications, more than any other EU country this year. In Germany, German police have recorded over 125,000 illegal entries, more than double last year’s total of about 57,000, with many coming from war-torn Syria, followed by Eritrea, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Serbia.
Understanding this reality makes the crisis both urgent and complex. There is work to do to ensure stability in the areas that people are fleeing, and much to be done in the nations refugees are entering to ensure they are treated with dignity, respect and most importantly humanely.
As Germany has opened its borders to people fleeing conflict in the Middle East, German football has responded in the same way. Leading from the front, Bayern Munich pledged €1m to projects supporting the refugees entering Germany. Hamburg second division club St. Pauli invited 1,000 refugees to watch their home friendly and other clubs are following suit with similar initiatives. More globally, I am pleased to note that the sport world has been reactive through a series of donations and projects led by top clubs around the world following the leadership of Germany, Real Madrid, Roma and Paris Saint-Germain.
Of course, one can argue that clubs still aren’t doing enough, particularly considering that Germany’s football clubs, for example, spent €397m on players during this summer’s transfer window. Bayern Munich spent over €80m of this which is considerably more than its donation to refugees. Meanwhile Real Madrid are donating 1 million euros to help support projects for refugees in Spain and announced the club’s turnover reached a record 660.6 million euros last season. Although these are necessary steps to changing the situation, one needs to consider the impact of their action in the long term. The IOC for example has pledged to donate two million dollars in emergency funds, and has sent out a call to all National Olympic Committees to submit ideas for projects that may help migrants and refugees, to be funded by the Olympic movement. This is an interesting approach that could see promising, sustainable programs arise.
As I have mentioned in a previous opinion, I believe there is much sport can offer as a tool, but sport also needs to clean up its own backyard:
- We need to work within sport to include migrants, to treat them as human beings and offer equal opportunities. We need to fight child trafficking and tackle mega event human rights issues; for example the estimated 1,000 workers who travel every day from India to Saudi Arabia in the hope of a better life, of whom many end up facing the harsh conditions of Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup preparations.
- We also need to work through sport:
- – In Europe to stand up, raise awareness, reach a wide population, create dialogue and work towards integration, as examples of good practice in Germany are doing. The need and potential for such programs and education to deconstruct misconceptions, stereotypes and build a necessary collective dialogue to unite communities should not be underestimated.
- – In countries that are being fled, to build a safe space that is needed to live, build on current survival and aid programs to enhance the livelihood in these regions. Through experience I know sport can contribute to building locally.
I will illustrate the above through a concrete example. With adapted sport programs, we have learnt that we must go beyond providing equipment; we must train people and develop their competencies while adapting the activity to their local environment so they can be autonomous and transmit their knowledge to others in their community. And most importantly, we must bring sport to communities in an accessible way, with limited need for resources and the use of local, freely available resources. This approach would not only give the young people ownership of different sports but most importantly build their creativity so that they would start to see differently, as a resource to start building. And this is what we must invest in: ensuring they keep believing and hoping, so that they can develop their competencies to develop themselves wherever they are.
The international sport community – from the major stakeholders to supporters – has started reacting and rallying support, and I am proud to see this mass mobilization. But more can and should be done. It is time for concerted collective action to devise long-term, plural and global solutions.
 Amnesty: People on the move: https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/people-on-the-move/