Expert Opinion

Football Welcomes Refugees

This weekend the broadcast and print media gave coverage to the Football Welcomes campaign. Amnesty International won the support of over 20 professional football clubs to mark the 80th anniversary of the Guernica bombing. Importantly though, the campaign extends to grassroots football and the press release from Amnesty featured the work of Yorkshire St Pauli in Leeds.

The significance of Guernica is that it was the Nazi bombing of the town that prompted the British government to change its position and agree to accept refugees fleeing the civil war in Spain, as the body of the three-year-old, Alan Kurdî, on a Turkish beach briefly promised to do in connection with the Syrian conflict in 2015. In the current context the significance of those refugees from the earlier generation was that several of them went on to make a career in football.

Football Welcomes is intended to draw attention to the contribution that refugees make to Britain and some clubs have been involved in this kind of initiative for a while. The actions of the football clubs are not extravagant (kick-abouts, coaching, matches, tournaments, tickets for professional games, stadium tours or player visits), but they can have a substantial impact by helping people to cope and adapt, improve their English and gain a sense of belonging.

As part of our continuing research programme, The Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure is currently advertising a PhD bursary to examine the role of grassroots football clubs, projects and communities in instigating positive social change for refugees and asylum seekers.

Many in sport, and particularly football, often feel that they are being unfairly highlighted when other institutions are similarly falling short in their civic duty to encourage equity and inclusion. As someone who has frequently called sport to account for its half-hearted commitment to fairness and equality, it is pleasing to note Football Welcomes. Our own research has supported the view that sport has the potential to develop a sense of belonging and promote integration. However, left to its own devices sport may be more likely to reaffirm feelings of separation, even rejection, and may encourage anti-social attitudes. A more critical approach by academics, policy-makers and sport providers is needed if sport is to foster the inclusion of new migrant communities. It takes the kind of proactive interventions supported by the football community trusts to make sure the potential is realised so that sport extends a welcome and encourages intercultural dialogue.

As Kevin Nolan, the Notts County player-manager, says, “It’s about bringing in different cultures and different people and trying to say that they’ve got a place in our community and we can all be as one together.”

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