…BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS, RELIEVING POVERTY AND PROMOTING INTEGRATION
The life of an asylum seeker can lack consistency, routine, socialisation and happiness. Amongst all the turmoil and trauma of pre and post migration experiences, football has the power to change it all. It is no secret that physical activity, particularly with the power of group participation, has the power to change lives.
Football is universal. According to World Atlas, football is the most popular sport in the world, with an estimated four billion fans and around half of the world’s population considering themselves followers of the sport. Football’s sphere of influence does not just exist within the boundaries of specific continents like baseball or golf either, instead it spreads the whole world over – a concept not many sports have the pleasure of boasting. For asylum seekers, the move from their home countries to the UK can prove a ‘culture shock’. In addition, they may be faced with linguistic and socio-economic barriers which can make them feel isolated and reluctant, or unable, to integrate into wider society. However, many asylum seekers are familiar with football. Many would have even played the sport back home and whether that be for a local team or amongst family and friends, the method of participation is irrelevant. What matters is the sense of familiarity that it instils in the participant, which, in the case of asylum seekers, is of undeniable importance.
For many years, Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) have been able to successfully help asylum seekers join local football teams throughout the country. These years of successful integration have now enabled them to study the data they have acquired and conduct a three-year research project to examine how successfully asylum seekers have been able to integrate into wider society. Their findings discovered that football helps to promote pivotal concepts such as empowerment, plurality, catharsis and routine, all of which are fundamental building blocks to our well-being and happiness. In addition to this, participants are welcomed with a safe space, helping them to feel secure in what can often feel like a hostile and unwelcoming world.
With an estimated 61% of asylum seekers experiencing some form of emotional distress, engaging in activities that promote an overall increase in physical and emotional well-being is crucial, and helps to facilitate successful integration. FURD’s research rightly describes a sense of belonging and a healthy mental state as coexistent or ‘mutually dependent’. Their studies discovered that this sense of belonging, which has been proven to be fostered by participation in group sports, was evidenced in their research. The regularity and routine nourished by regular attendance to their clubs helped asylum seekers to ‘build relationships with other participants’ and crucially, helped them to avoid the watering down of their identity to ‘ethnicity or political status’.
In recent years, the number of stories printed in the UK media about migrants and asylum seekers has surged, and the registers of language used to describe their movement often consists of inflammatory discourse and in some cases racial abuse. Since the 2016 referendum, hate crime has increased drastically and to aid this, there is a belief projected in media outlets and reiterated by vast swathes of the public, that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are unwelcome, taking over the country and sponging off the welfare system. All of these factors can contribute to the sense of isolation that asylum seekers can feel. This makes the availability of sports such as football crucial to ensuring that asylum seekers feel secure and at home in the UK.
Asylum seekers who are waiting for their claims to be processed are not permitted to work, leaving them reliant on Section 95 support. The rate of financial aid asylum seekers can access is often significantly lower than that received by UK citizens who are also unable to work. As a result, many find themselves plunged into poverty when entering the country- even after they apply for British Citizenship– a life which many attempted to leave behind them when fleeing their native countries. Due to their financial situations many are unable to afford fresh, high-quality food and turn to processed alternatives instead. Thousands also find themselves in substandard accommodation too, which statistics have indicated could be responsible for the onset of illnesses such as asthma and tuberculosis in children. Whilst already feeling unwelcome and fearful to integrate in society, asylum seekers are then forced into isolation and poverty in conditions which can jeopardize their physical and emotional wellbeing. Aside from promoting things such as a sense of belonging and routine, many football clubs such as those run by FURD provide participants with a free hot meal, showers, toiletries and clothes. Not only does football become a sociable pastime for asylum seekers but for many, a lifeline without which, thousands would struggle to make ends meet. To break down barriers between poverty and general well-being is vital in ensuring successful integration. It is something that clubs such as those operated by FURD have provided for vulnerable people where authorities have failed to do so.
At first glance, it may be easy to dismiss the importance of initiatives like those run by FURD. However, the qualities they promote and nourish, and the physical and emotional support they have provided for thousands of asylum seekers and refugees has been life-saving. Where they have been made unable to work and restricted financially, risking the well-being of themselves and their children, football clubs across the country have stepped up to provide invaluable support and a sense of community. By enforcing such initiatives, we are giving vulnerable people the best chance at success, health and happiness in an environment which can all too often feel unwelcoming and hostile.
Bethany Morris is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status.