There are more international migrants today (some 272 million) than at any time since the end of the Second World War, with some 70.8 million forcibly displaced due to violence (UNHCR). But in what ways — and to what ends — is sport being used to help integrate or assimilate refugees and migrants into their new host communities? 

This question framed the conversation at the Sport and Refugees: Migration, Assimilation, and Civil Society — Sport’s Contribution workshop hosted by the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD), SOAS on 14 November. Scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and students gathered to examine this complex subject, learn how different projects are harnessing sports to aid and assist refugees at the local and global levels, and brainstorm ideas for future partnerships and work in the field. 

Amran Malik, Wicketz Development Officer for Cricket East, shared how cricket is being used as tool for outreach and engagement with Afghan refugees, Pakistani youth, and traveler communities in Luton. Wicketz’s use of cricket, international sports events, and incentives—to say nothing of the importance of having good role models—has broken down barriers and isolation, built trust, and helped these teenagers better integrate into their foster families and the Luton community.

“To engage is really important,” Malik said of his work, while highlighting the importance of building a sense of self. “When one has enough esteem, they can have a level of confidence they never had.” 

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Matthew Barrett, founding CEO of Goal Click, detailed his work sharing stories of refugees through the mediums of football and photography. Goal Click sends a disposable camera to a footballer, who then composes a photo essay, telling their football story from their own perspective. Working at the grassroots level, Goal Click shares the culture and journeys of their photographers.

“When we started, our desire was to work with locals in the community and that could not exclude the refugee community,” he said.  “We’re showing what’s happening.”

Eric Murangwa, founding CEO of Ishami Foundation, also shared his story and experiences. As a former goalkeeper for the Rwandan national football team, Eric survived the genocide thanks not to his sports talents, but by the network and contacts he built as an athlete. Murangwa pointed out that there is often a negative connotation associated with the word “refugee.” Here, he noted, sports can be deployed usefully, particularly in integrating refugees into local communities.

“We know the power of football,” Murangwa said. “Sports and football in particular can be used to build and influence people positively.”

The day’s conversations highlighted four areas for further examination vis-à-vis the intersection of sport and refugees: identity cohesion within communities; societal issues around crime as a facet for respect for governance; enhancement through education and health; and sustainability, particularly around programmatic growth and contributions of individuals. The workshop also spotlighted how critical messaging and the means of conveying the story are in the equation, particularly around building partnerships and mapping out various nodes of activity in this domain. 

But what is the relationship between the use of sport to help integrate or assimilate refugees and migrants and sports diplomacy? Some argued that it’s difficult to force the relationship as most refugees have not chosen to be representatives and thus cannot speak for institutions, etc; while others pointed to the ways relationships of the sporting field rather than in the work place, or classroom, have proved the most resilient to conflict of all sorts. What is clear from the workshop is that there are more questions to ask of the relationship between the case of refugees, their recipient communities and the broader Sports Diplomacy discourse.

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