How Azerbaijan harnesses sport as an integration catalyst for its refugees and internally displaced persons
United Nations World Refugee Day on 20 June has reminded us of the recent wave of immigration to Europe, caused by the wars that currently ravage Iraq and Syria. This has propelled the issue of how to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees without jeopardising security to the top of the political agenda. At this juncture it is worthwhile taking into account the example of how Azerbaijan uses sport as an integration catalyst for its refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Azerbaijan has been dealing with the impact of housing nearly one million refugees and IDPs resulting from the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh region for a quarter of a century, with camps spread throughout the country. Tragically, a whole new generation has now been born in considerably straitened circumstances. The case of the local football team FK Qarabag is often taken as an illustration of the tragic and lasting results of the conflict. Indeed, this club used to be based in Agdam, a city now under occupation, and has become the unique case of a refugee football club in the world. Despite great difficulties, the team has survived and now competes in the UEFA Champions and Europa leagues.
As Director of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), a pan-European foundation that aims to create bridges between Azerbaijan and European nations in the cultural economic and academic fields, I am delighted to report on the many efforts Azerbaijan is making to integrate its refugees and IDPs through sport, both as governmental and non-governmental initiatives.
The role of sport is taken very seriously in Azerbaijan, and was recognised very early with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, one of the first to be created after the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ministry was born as a result of the immediate need for development of Azerbaijani youth that suffered from several years of conflict. It was estimated that at least 30% of the Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs were young people under the age of 25. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has personally chaired the Azerbaijan National Olympic Committee since 1997, thereby demonstrating the importance that he apportions to sport. Due to his involvement, Azerbaijan hosted the First European Games in 2015 under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, and in 2016 the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan was hosted in Baku for the first time.
To illustrate the healing potential of sport, even as Armenians and Azerbaijanis were shooting at each other on the ‘contact line’, an Armenian team competed in the European Games in Baku in 2015 without any incidents or negative effects. Besides, in order to improve the living conditions of refugees and IDPs, 94 modern settlements were constructed between 2001–15, being equipped with the latest social and technical infrastructure. Along with schools and medical centres, two Olympic Complexes (Agdam–Guzanli and Fuzuli districts) and 14 sport centres have been built in these settlements.
On the side of civil society, many actions are being undertaken through sport to help Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs achieve a peaceful and safe return to their homes.
The TEAS Foundation has a very strong focus on cultural and sporting events known as powerful tools to strengthen social integration and peace building. In recent years, TEAS has organised numerous sporting events to draw attention to the plight of refugees and IDPs in Azerbaijan and around the world. For instance, it organised a football game in London where the World Refugee IDP XI were pitted against the Arsenal Legends team, attended by an estimated crowd of 3,600. The funds raised were donated to the Refugee Council, one of the leading charities in the UK empowering refugees. TEAS also organised a charity boxing night in East London between the world-renowned Repton Boxing Club and a team from Gabala in Azerbaijan.
TEAS has been fortunate to secure the support of such great sportsmen as former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Frank Bruno, retired England football captain Tony Adams, and athletics legend Mo Farah. Being himself a refugee from Somalia, Mo fully acknowledges the role of sport in turning his fortunes around.
TEAS’ awareness of the role of sport in peace building and integration is the reason why the TEAS Foundation decided to support the 9th edition of Peace and Sport international forum in 2016 by donating 20,000 Euros to the philanthropic campaign One Step for Peace.
Peace and Sport actions on the ground perfectly illustrate the role that NGOs can play in helping to facilitate the small incremental steps that ultimately lead to the achievement of long-term objectives. We were extremely honoured to participate in this scheme, which is run by Joel Bouzou, under the high patronage of HSH Prince Albert II.
Sadly, war has the capacity to swallow up and destroy the younger generations, who could otherwise be successful at sports. With the help of organisations such as Peace and Sport, that is less likely to happen.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in Peace and Sport Watch are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Peace and Sport.