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Building Inclusion Through Football: How the Beautiful Game Can Be Pivotal in the Lives of Asylum Seekers

Jack Yates is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers providing free advice and support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse.

Asylum seekers are one of society’s most susceptible groups when it comes to mental health problems. They face trauma from the lives they have fled due to war, violence, abuse, persecution, UK and struggle with being separated from the communities and culture that they have known their whole lives. Their living situation post-asylum plays a huge role too, with being unable to work and feelings of social isolation problematising their plight further. They develop depression, and anxiety disorders at a uniquely high rate. This means that they require additional support in order to live happily and fulfil their potential. Regrettably this support is often not forthcoming; as a result, the government is consistently failing asylum seekers and adding to their burden. Asylum seekers struggle financially, are regularly housed in inadequate shelter, and are perpetually under fire from the mainstream media. With this said, is it really any wonder that asylum seekers and refugees suffer mental health issues at five times the rate of the rest of the United Kingdom, or that 6 in 10 asylum seekers will suffer serious mental distress?

Due to the inadequacies of the government’s provision for asylum seekers, charities have stepped up to the plate. Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) is a charity that was founded in late 1995 by a group of Sheffield United fans, troubled by the rise in racial incidents at the football and in the local area. They correctly recognised that one of the biggest struggles asylum seekers and refugees face is feeling as though they do not belong. They felt football could help, and decided to create the spaces and avenues through which asylum seekers and refugees could take part – as players, coaches, and in the broader football community. The idea of football being able to help asylum seekers and refugees face up to such complex problems may sound somewhat far-fetched. But upon delving a little deeper, it becomes apparent just how much of a difference it makes.

Whilst being interviewed as part of FURD’s study into the impact of football on asylum seekers’ lives, A Zimbabwean asylum seeker had this to say: “Before I got into this programme (at FURD) I had become sort of like a recluse. I was anti-social and I was so angry… but after [starting to come regularly to FURD], I got to speaking to a lot of people, different cultures and everything… It builds you in some sort of sense. And as a result… some people might not see it as very big but to me it makes a difference… as a result, I’ve started a lot of programmes and I’ve started doing a lot of voluntary work… It just changed me as a person… Because now, who would’ve thought that I would be able to speak in front of people about the situation I’m in.”

A sense of belonging is fostered through interpersonal relationships, positive routines, community, and socialising. In this case of the person being interviewed, football has provided all these vital things. He now feels as though he has the confidence to help others and to become even more active in volunteering, which will no doubt further cultivate a sense of belonging. Not only this, but some of the activities that FURD run help to combat the poverty faced by the asylum seeker community. At the open training sessions, participants not only have travel expenses and sports equipment provided, but receive a hot meal and a cup of tea. In light of the fact that asylum seekers are susceptible to food poverty and often struggle to survive on the asylum support rate of £37.75 per person per week, such assistance makes a monumental difference. The charity Refugee Action spoke to fourteen of those receiving such support, and the majority of respondents stated that they struggled to afford basics such as food and clothes.

Football Unites, Racism Divides has successfully built a platform that allows young men and teenagers from minority backgrounds to have access to football- and all the benefits that it can bring- for the best part of a quarter of a century, and now provides dedicated football sessions for asylum seekers at any time in their life. Not only does this help these marginalised groups build confidence, community, and routine, but it provides an often much-needed distraction from the difficulties in an asylum seeker’s past and present. The democratic, group-based decision making that FURD places at the core of their project is just as important as the football itself, as it allows asylum seekers and refugees to rebuild their faith in their own decision making, and works to embed them deeply into the community of football. This allows for a welcome respite from an asylum system that makes those who are subject to it feel isolation and a distinct lack of self-worth.

The work of FURD is so important, and the impact that they have had as a group with such humble beginnings cannot be overstated, but the sad truth is that charities should not be forced to fill a void left by the state. The UK government should be doing more to create community programmes that help asylum seekers feel at home; from football to theatre, these projects can make a real difference in the lives of those that most need it, and it is an indictment of the system that the responsibility to provide them has fallen at the feet of charities. A lack of social inclusion is a distinct problem across broad swathes of society – from asylum seekers to those who hold British citizenship – and government funding of grassroots initiatives, just like Football Unites, Racism Divides, could make huge strides towards remedying this.

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