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Sport and an Active Society without walls. Social Inclusion of Refugees through Sport and Physical Activity

Human Rights

Sport and an Active Society without walls. Social Inclusion of Refugees through Sport and Physical Activity

A short introduction

Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. The Olympic Movement works year-round to promote Olympism and use sport as an agent for positive social change around the world. The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
Since 2015 Greece has been faced with an unprecedented situation. On one hand, the continuing deep economic and political crisis and on the other hand the dramatic rise in the number of refugees arriving in the country. In Nagy’s (2018) words “during the past decade, Greece has become the center of international attention in connection with the two crises that are both also local variations of wider global problems. First, being hit hard by the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures, present-day Greece can be taken as a case of a country in chronicity, where crisis has become normalized. Second, as a consequence of interrelated international phenomena, Greece witnessed an increase in immigration, and the EU-Turkey deal of 2016 created a bottlenecked country, where presently about 65,000 refugees wait in so-called frozen transience”.

At the same time, in October 2015, at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, confronted with the global refugee crisis that has seen an estimated 68.5 million people in the world displaced, IOC President Thomas Bach announced the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team –the first of its kind– to take part in the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

Ten months on from the announcement, the ten athletes, who originally hailed from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were competing alongside 11,000 fellow athletes in Brazil, sending a message of hope and inclusion to millions of refugees around the world and inspiring the world with the strength of their human spirit.

The current migration crisis has become a highly sensitive political issue that calls for an urgent EU and member state level response. The challenges that this crisis carries are diverse, with the re-settlement of people a priority equal with the need to ensure their longer-term inclusion and integration into hosting societies. The integration and social inclusion of refugees and migrants into European society, therefore, represents one of the most serious problems facing the EU at the present time (European Commission’s Report, 2016). At the same time, there is a growing interest in the use of the social potential of sport as a tool to promote social inclusion, integration and equal opportunities. The EU White Paper on Sport (2007) states that “Sport can… facilitate the integration into society of migrants and persons of foreign origin as well as support inter-cultural dialogue”. It should be noted though that sport, cannot be seen isolated from other socio-cultural spheres as both refugees and hosting societies have more complex and overlapping issues to deal with that sport-related intervention has limited power to address. A holistic perspective with the involvement of multiple actors is therefore needed. As Schulenkorf (2010) argued, it is too much to expect sporting events to have an impact on social relations without the support and contribution of other contextual actors, such as local and national political parties and social partners. Sport should be only a part in a much wider network of agents dealing with the problems of the targeted group.

Social inclusion of refugees through sport and physical activity

The important role of a broader social network of agents for the effective provision of interventions in this area provides the basis for Coalter and Taylor’s (2010) distinction between “plus sport” and “sport plus” initiatives. According to the authors, plus sport initiatives are led by social development organisations dealing with particular social issues. Sports activities are added on to their programmes as a way of achieving their broader social objectives. Sport plus activities, on the other hand, are led by sport organisations, where sports is used and adapted in various ways to achieve certain social development objectives.

A helpful interpretation of the plus sport/sport plus classification for the purpose of the present paper is “inclusion through sport” and “inclusion in sport”.

Even though the IOC’s Sport and Active Society Commission’s theme explicitly calls for “Social inclusion of refugees through sport and physical activity” a clarification of terms is needed as the basis for our discussion. Inclusion in sport mainly refers to the introduction of underrepresented groups, refugees in our case, to sport and facilitation of the capacity to act within sport. It calls for regular, long-term participation in sports and an improvement of athletic skills and achievements. It is based on the premise that participation in sport activities already represents a case of inclusion. Inclusion through sport, on the other hand, refers to athletic processes that empower individuals by allowing them to gain experience and acquire skills by participation in sport, which they can transfer to other social contexts, such as schools, workplaces and communities, etc. According to Hartman and Kwak, (2011), participation in sport and physical activity can serve as a vehicle to improve social and professional skills and also as a tool to increase educational attainment. It is believed to confer life skills, social knowledge, values and leadership qualities. Regular participation in sport is expected to help young people of immigrant origin to develop key skills and to integrate more successfully into hosting societies.

But, at the same time, sport can equally be a setting for extreme nationalism, exclusion and discrimination particularly with respect to gender, social class, race/ethnicity, physical ability and/or sexual orientation. Sport not only creates bonds but also differentiates (Sport facing the test of cultural diversity, 2010). It seems that sport has the power to break down walls but also to build them. This presentation will explore the ambivalent potentials of sport by focusing on three
“W- questions”:
1. What are the benefits of participation in and through sport for refugees and hosting societies?
2. What are the walls to participation?
3. What kind of sport and physical activity contribute to breaking the walls?

Benefits of participation into and through sport and physical activity

Before focusing on the benefits of and barriers to participation in sports and physical activity, let us have a closer look at the term. Sporting Equals in their guide on “Equality and Human Rights in Sport and Physical Activity” identify six “key equality groups or strands” in need of access to equal participation: gender, ethnicity, disability, age, faith and sexual orientation. Possible combinations of these (for example, refugee women, or disabled elderly etc.) pose additional challenges. A lot of work has been done both by individual as well as state initiatives to promote sport participation with a special focus on one or more of the strands mentioned.

But what do we mean by active participation? Is access to sport sufficient to guarantee active participation? To answer this question, we need to look at the three dimensions of participation. Participation is indeed a condition. But at the same time, it is, or rather should be, a value and a social skill (Move and Learn. Training manual). As a basic condition, it implies available, accessible and affordable participation for everyone. As a value, participation is a developed, internalised attitude that motivates people to provide the conditions for participation by all. It is something that you strive for not because it is the politically correct thing to do or the policy of the organisation you work for but an inner disposition, a worldview, a belief. As a social skill, active participation transcends the realm of sports, empowering citizens for an active role in a democratic society and allowing refugees to create conditions for participation in other aspects of their lives. This should also include opportunities for refugees to pursue a career in the sport realm should they wish for one. Inclusion in and through sport should not be confined to participation as an athlete. Underrepresented groups need role models in the broader area of sport including trainers, coaches, sport managers, sport journalists. An illustrative example of good practice is provided by the SPIN Women project which is designed towards this direction. It addresses this need by enhancing the
participation of migrant and minority women and girls in sport and recreational physical activities. It aims to show the different perspectives of migrant and ethnic minority women and to develop strategies to increase their involvement in sports. This includes capacity-building and empowerment components that increase the qualification and skills of both female sport actors and multipliers (coaches, administrators, referees etc.).

Why though would refugees want to engage and participate in sports? While I was trying to organise our first Erasmus+ sport for refugees in the Greek Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs three years ago, I was repeatedly asked this question. Everyone understood that refugees needed education. But many people questioned their participation in sport while there were more urgent, vital issues and services to be provided by a state institution. “Isn’t sport a luxury for someone with more substantial, basic needs”? Let us skip the often mentioned and generally accepted health and psychosocial benefits that sport and physical activity offer for all who regularly participate, and look at some additional positive effects for refugees and the hosting societies:

Individual gains: refugees can learn how to manage stress efficiently and to release their emotions (aggressions, frustrations, etc.) safely. Sports teach self-control and self-discipline, enhance life quality and wellbeing and create a sense of personal identity. Sport provides a positive way to spend free time – as refugees often lack positive outlets for their energy and positive environments where they can enjoy themselves and have fun. In addition, sport, leisure and play can have restorative and healing qualities for the psychological rehabilitation of refugees (particularly unaccompanied children and teenagers) not only because play is therapeutic, but also because play is an inherent part of traditions and community and can create a sense of normalcy for people living in extraordinary situations (UNHCR, 1994).

The value of sport and games for resilience in contexts of high risk and/ or ongoing physical and psychological stress (e.g. refugee camps), and the restorative value for children and youth who have experienced traumatic events (e.g. natural disaster, war, forced migration) is well documented in the work of Holly Thorpe (2016).

Social gains: refugees who participate in sports and physical activity tackle isolation, build social networks and create a sense of belonging. Sport offers them a fun alternative to inactivity, boredom, and, in more extreme cases, to filling in time in order to reduce the incidence of negative anti-social activities (e.g. substance abuse, delinquency, criminal activity, etc.).

Community gains: sport and physical activity function as a vehicle of communication between refugees and host communities as they provide an icebreaking effect. They are a non-threatening way to bring people into direct contact with people from other groups and cultures and thereby work against racism and xenophobia. Sport and physical activity can provide structure as even the simplest sport activity is defined by some kind of framework or rules. Sport activities help young people learn to follow procedures and rules and to deal with authority.

Walls to participation of refugees into sport

The benefits from sport and physical activity depend on access to such participation which is not often the case for refugees. It is not the aim of the present paper to identify all possible barriers that have been set up to exclude or discourage refugees from sport and physical activity but rather to outline indicators to help practitioners better understand, develop and support initiatives that promote refugee participation in sport and physical activity.
Broad categories include cultural, practical and financial and personal barriers
(Schwenzer, 2017, Block, 2017, Morgan, 2008).

Cultural barriers
• Lack of culturally-appropriate programmes.
• Difficulties in linking culturally-targeted programmes with mainstream programmes and competitions.
• Linguistic difficulties.
• Lack of knowledge of systems, gender norms, and competing family priorities – with parents preferring their children to focus on education. Especially for girls and women additional barriers may include:
• Much greater parental and/or husband control than for males by attaching greater importance to “izzat” (need to uphold the family’s status and honour).
• More parental and/or husband apprehensions about any out-of-home activity, including sport, in which their daughters/wives are unsupervised or which would bring them into direct contact with the opposite sex.
• Heighten parents/husbands’ fears about females’ out of home activities due to experiences of racism at school, work and “on the streets”.

Practical and financial barriers
•• Cost of sport and physical activity
•• Lack of appropriate or affordable transport
•• Lack of resources and facilities
•• Lack of childcare
•• Concerns about personal safety in the activity
•• Non-inclusive policies, processes and procedures
•• Prejudice and discriminatory practice
Personal barriers
The refugees’ living circumstances
As a rule, refugees encounter an unstable situation. During asylum procedures, their residency status is still undetermined. Migrants who have no legal right to stay and no chance to be recognised as refugees or asylum seekers face an even more precarious situation. In some countries (Greece, Italy, Portugal), many refugees are in transit, planning to continue their journey to Northern Europe. These aspects can impede a continuous participation in sporting activities.

The legal situation of refugees

Sports instructors often lack a sound knowledge on the legal situation of refugees, including information on the different stages of asylum procedures, restrictions on their freedom of movement and insurance and liability issues which has certain implications for participation in sporting activities.

Different experiences and expectations

Refugee status is no strictly defined category. It is not an identity. It is a status. Some refugees may regard playing sports as a leisure activity, whereas others that have already reached a competitive level want to further improve their performance and establish themselves in professional sports. Sometimes, their expectations regarding a career in professional sports are unrealistic, as they do not match the opportunities in the host country.

Overcoming the barriers to break the walls

It would take a book rather than a short article to tackle the issue of how to overcome the barriers. These barriers obstruct creation of conditions for meaningful, active participation of both refugees and members of the hosting or even transit societies. We have all read or heard that when people practice sports and play games they practice essential social skills such as cooperation and leadership, they develop character traits such as perseverance and courage, and they come to embrace values such as loyalty and fairness.

However, how often has this ethical awareness and development been taken into consideration when designing PE curricula, sport intervention, or athletic programmes? Typically, notions such as “teamwork” and “fair play” are left vague and regarded as incidental (Butler, 2013).

For a more reflected approach it is necessary to consider the pedagogical as well as the psychosocial dimensions of sport and physical activity and how to incorporate them when designing an initiative or intervention. Hartman, D. and Kwak, C. (2011) argue that the success of any sport-related social intervention programme is largely determined by the strength of its non-sport components – of what it does within participants once they have been brought into the programme through sport. Clearly defining the objectives of your intervention is a good start. What are the life skills, the social knowledge, the values that you want to promote and develop? Is social change and transformation within the goals of your intervention? Or is the sport programme itself your main objective? Answering these questions is no issue of right or wrong, as they are intended to help you clarify the priorities before you attempt to optimise the social potential of sport and physical activity programmes. If you wish to proceed in this way, manuals such as Move and Learn can be a great assistance as they offer a comprehensive overview of the educational approach of sport (ETS), Education Through Sports.

However, if the objective is to support the psychosocial well-being of the participants then the development and implementation of the intervention may be more ambitious and complex and valuable insights and examples can be found in Moving Together, a manual on promoting psychosocial well-being through sport and physical activity. Psychosocial support is an approach that aims to promote the resilience of individuals, groups and communities in crisis and is of particular value to groups like refugees. It includes a broad variety of interventions to strengthen the resources of individuals, families or groups as well as the community as a whole. It helps people to overcome adversities, bringing them back to normality and recovery after crisis. In 2007 a group of experts agreed on five intervention principles to guide practice in relation to crisis events. These principles have become known as “the Hobfoll principles” and state that psychosocial intervention must focus on the promotion of:
1. A sense of safety
2. Calming
3. A sense of self and collective efficacy
4. Connectedness
5. Hope
The principles address activities that are inclusive, holistic and playful and focus primarily on participation instead of performance. They focus on the shared experience of playing sports and are not geared towards any achievement. The “Sport Welcomes Refugees, A guide to good practices” created by SPIN (Sport
Inclusion Network) gives ample practical examples and guidelines. In the realm of competitive sport, according to the “Implementation Guide for Integration
of Refugees Through Sport. #PlayTogether”, this objective may be achieved by encouraging modified sport activities and team building activities to enable participants to work towards a common goal. Generations for Peace provides an illustrative example of the way sport is used for peace building in communities.
GFP was founded as a pilot initiative of the Jordan Olympic Committee back in 2007 for the inclusion of refugee children and is the only peace-through-sport organisation officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee.

Actions and Practical Recommendations

Given the complexity of the issue of refugees’ participation in physical education and sport, and considering the outcomes of recent and current interventions we
may conclude that action is required on the three broad levels of policy and strategy, on the professional and institutional, and on the personal and social levels (Kirk, 2012).
• Actions on the policy and strategy level include, for example, the development of guidelines and in some cases legislation, investment in physical and human resources, and reference to international agreements and declarations. Government education and sport ministries have an important role to play in making policy, providing funding, monitoring the implementation of initiatives and, in some cases, making or changing laws. NGOs have played an important role at this level and should continue to do so. Universities’ potential to play a key role in this process has to date remained underdeveloped. Since they possess the capacity for knowledge generation and transmission, and also exist within international networks and communities, they are well suited to engage in policy and strategy level action. Coordinated action among organisations at the policy level is vitally important to increase influence and sustainability of initiatives.
• Actions at the professional and institutional level focus on the professional development of teachers, coaches and other sports leaders and the planning of high-quality physical education programmes in schools and related community sport programmes. The coordination of actions at this level is of crucial importance, in particular between the professional development of teachers, coaches and leaders, and designing curricula, as well as the alignment with actions on policy, strategy, personal and social levels.
• Actions on the personal and social level include the personal and social spheres, which are strongly interdependent. Research suggests that the most important personal psychological factors are motivation, perception of competence and self-identity and biological factors of motor competence and physical fitness. In the social sphere, social relationships within the family, the peer group and between teachers and pupils in the classroom establish the climate in which personal factors are nurtured. While the quality of teachers and of physical education and sport programmes are considered at the professional and institutional level, it may be relevant in some circumstances to inform families through education programmes at the personal and social level. Media and campaigning is important to run parallel with the actions in order to ensure:
• Awareness-raising coverage that does not reproduce prejudice and stereotyping, and report success and positive stories to provide a balanced perception of vulnerable and under-privileged groups.
• Reporting on the benefits of sport for development issues and making information accessible, especially to marginalised groups.
To achieve this, a strategy in needed to build media capacity by training and sensitizing journalists in the area of anti-discrimination through sport (See in: “Sport in Post-Conflict Societies” Council of Europe, 2011).
Developments in sport and physical education programmes tend to be oneoff and ad hoc events. Therefore, action at all three levels is important. To achieve widespread, regular, beneficial and sustainable participation, no level can be omitted. A significant challenge is to align actions across each of these levels as well as coordinate actions within levels.

Physical activity and social recreational sport alone are valuable for anyone taking part. But through utilising the situations and settings of sport and physical
activity for processes of learning and the development of an open pluralistic, democratic society, sport adds a new valuable dimension – in fact, it adds both value and values.


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Thorpe, H. (2016). “Look at what we can do with all the broken stuff!” or Youth agency and sporting creativity in sites of war, conflict and disaster, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2016.1206957

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Article Author(s)

Sport and an Active Society without walls. Social Inclusion of Refugees through Sport and Physical Activity
Dr Gelly ARONI
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Articles & Publications

Human Rights

Article Author(s)

Sport and an Active Society without walls. Social Inclusion of Refugees through Sport and Physical Activity
Dr Gelly ARONI
Visit Author Page

Articles & Publications

Human Rights

Article Author(s)

Sport and an Active Society without walls. Social Inclusion of Refugees through Sport and Physical Activity
Dr Gelly ARONI
Visit Author Page