How football can transform the lives of asylum seekers
Published 01 November 2019 By: Cameron Boyle
Football is a universal language. It transcends even the most deep-rooted of differences, allowing all who speak its tongue to find common ground and a shared identity. Such qualities are of huge relevance to asylum seekers; atomised, marginalised and alone in an unfamiliar country. Football is a way of remedying this. It is an outlet, a means of connection to others, and a way for meaning to be found in an often-distressing existence.
After making the arduous journey to the UK, asylum seekers then have to psychologically process the pain and trauma of pre-migration experiences. Such experiences include the death of loved ones, the constant threat of persecution and the shattering of any sense of purpose or direction. Despite having endured such horrors, life upon arrival is also hugely troublesome. Post-migration issues must be negotiated, such as separation from family, insufficient housing and being denied the ability to work. The coalescence of these factors mean that asylum seekers are left with nothing. Any semblance of normality has been destroyed, and mental health suffers drastically as a result. Asylum seekers are five times more likely1 to have mental health needs than the general population, and research suggests that more than 61% will experience severe mental distress. Football can play a hugely important role in counteracting this condition. It creates a sense of familiarity and provides an opportunity to let off steam in a life ravaged by stress and chaos.
United Glasgow FC2 are a team formed of refugees and asylum seekers from more than 20 different countries. Their founder refers to the way that football enables trauma and worries to be temporarily cast aside, stating that players are able to ‘forget the stresses of organising their asylum cases’ and the fear of deportation. These words encapsulate how football transcends sport and becomes a vehicle through which feelings of positivity and self-worth can be obtained. It is an idea reflected in the words of a Congolese asylum seeker,3 who states that sporting activity breaks up ‘the misery that you go through at that particular time’.
Being given an outlet and a means of self-expression- particularly at a time when feelings of powerlessness and futility are high- is immensely important. For those seeking asylum, day-to-day existence is often empty and defined by insecurity. Working is prohibited, so therefore not only is money scarce, but a large amount of time is spent alone with little to do. With this in mind, the opportunity to play football and be part of a team is a vital source of empowerment. Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD)4 run open training sessions for asylum seekers in which organisational support is provided. The sessions are informal and democratic in nature, and players of all abilities can participate. Such inclusivity means that all participants feel the validation that comes with contributing to the teams’ success. This gives influence to lives that otherwise feel ‘socio-politically powerless’. In the words of a Somali asylum seeker, ‘it is the only way I can win because outside, that’s a different story’.
Football benefits the lives of asylum seekers by providing structure. When one’s sense of normality is altered so dramatically, going to play football each week creates a routine and a sense of familiarity. It also creates a recurring means of reflection and anticipation- this is of huge importance in a life that is unstructured and unpredictable in many ways. Going to the same place and seeing the same people each week can provide the building blocks for a more organised existence. Not only this, but it helps to generate a sense of identity within the host society and a connection to one’s local area. Taking this into account, the work of grassroots football initiatives is vital, as they provide the funding and support necessary for asylum seekers to forge a new existence in spite of all obstacles faced. FURD’s open training sessions are a prime example of this. Not only are toiletries and footwear made available, but participants are given a cup of tea and a hot meal after the matches. There is an emphasis on both football and having fun; this gives the players something to look forward to in the midst of everything else they are dealing with. As described by a Sudanese asylum seeker,5 ‘It keep your spirit level up, fitness level and you meet new people’.
Regrettably, poverty is a hugely significant issue for those seeking asylum due to the lack of subsistence provided by the government. The current asylum support rate is £37.75 per week,6 simply not enough to establish a decent standard of living. The majority of the asylum seekers spoken to by Refugee Action ‘struggled to feed themselves and their children’7, and could not afford essential items such as medicine. It is for this reason that FURD’s provision of a hot meal makes a hugely positive difference. With destitution unfortunately a central narrative in the lives of asylum seekers, such assistance plays a key role in reducing financial strain.
Football is an outlet that helps counteract much of the turbulence in the lives of asylum seekers. Most notably, it cultivates a sense of belonging. The social integration of this community is often overlooked by governments, as attention is directed towards structural factors such as education and employment. However, social integration is one of ‘the keys to newcomers’ satisfaction with their new lives’, and grassroots organisations such as FURD fill the vacuum created by those in power. The catharsis of football scythes through cultural and linguistic differences and allows common ground and connections to be forged between players. This is reflected in Sheffield’s ‘Football for Friendship’ tournament,8 in which university students and newly-arrived groups are arranged into randomly-selected teams at the start of the day. Initially, proceedings are defined somewhat by the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, as the matches become more competitive, football emerges as a lingua franca and any perceived differences fade into obsolescence. Football is an alternative form of communication that avoids the reduction of identity to ‘ethnicity or political status’. It provides a means of social integration, which in turn fosters a sense of belonging, something hugely valuable in the absence of British citizenship9.
This sense of belonging is crucial to asylum seekers’ general wellbeing. Feeling a part of society- and the connections that can be made as a result- can be pivotal in providing security to one’s life. The value of football should never be overlooked; its unique universality has the power to facilitate hugely positive change.
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Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors thathelp undocumented migrants in the UK to regulate their status.