Football is known as the ‘world’s game’ for a reason. The sport is watched and played by billions around the globe and transcends all of the barriers that normally divide humans. The simplicity of football is what sets it apart from other sports; it has become its own language. Sport in general has been shown to be beneficial to a person’s mental health, but the social side of the game is often underappreciated. Asylum seekers arrive in this country with nothing. Not only must they come to terms with immensely distressing pre-migration experiences- such as war trauma and physical trauma- but arrival in the host country brings an additional array of issues. These include being prevented from working, being provided with substandard accommodation and being separated from family. Football can change this. It is a means of connecting with one’s environment and forging bonds with those in the same boat. Ultimately, it can create a sense of belonging in lives that are otherwise bereft of familiarity and structure.
Many refugee footballers have made a name for themselves in the UK, such as Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and former Chelsea player Victor Moses. Several high profile football clubs have been leading the way in embracing asylum seekers and refugees and using football to incorporate them into society. In 2017, Amnesty International UK launched a Football Welcomes Refugees Initiative, where many of the top clubs in the Premier League put on events and activities to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. In 2017, 30 clubs participated. By 2019, 177 clubs were involved, including the 2016 Premier League Champions Leicester City.
Non-league clubs are also heavily involved in the work that is undertaken to help asylum seekers feel at home in the host society. One notable example is Bath City, who play in the National League South. The club offers refugees and asylum seekers free tickets and pizza at home games, a hugely positive and welcoming gesture. Film director Ken Loach, who is a lifelong Bath fan, stated that it is a good way to allow refugees to be ‘accepted without feeling left out’. Ten Syrian families and one Iraqi family have moved to Bath since the start of 2016, and despite not having the best support system, gestures such as this have helped them settle into the community. Bath City has been a key part of their integration.
A research project by ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’ (FURD) has investigated the positive impact that initiatives such as Bath City FC’s have upon asylum seekers, paying particular attention to how they help aid the social integration of this immensely vulnerable community. FURD themselves have been holding regular football training sessions for young men and boys from ethnic minorities since 1996. The report, which was conducted over three years, outlined the numerous positive effects of regular football. They found that it can help foster a sense of belonging in the community, through promoting routine and providing a safe and welcoming place to come and play every week.
The affordability of initiatives such as Bath’s and FURD’s are vital. Asylum seekers’ weekly allowance is pitiful, with a single person over 18 receiving just £37.75. Such a meagre subsistence rate barely covers basics such as food, clothing and other essentials. This means that most methods of physical activity, including football, are out of reach for these people. To play in one 5 a-side game at Powerleague for example, it is £7.80 per person in a team of five. While local parks may provide some opportunities, it is clear events like those organised by Bath and FURD are essential for asylum seekers to get some meaningful exercise. Combined with the physical benefits, football and sport in general have numerous positive mental benefits.
Asylum seekers and refugees are often fleeing persecution or untenable living conditions. Both have high prevalence rates of trauma-related mental disorders, with many asylum seekers and refugees fulfilling the criteria of having PTSD. Most are also reported to have high rates of anxiety and depression. Intervention models to help them deal with these problems rely on developing safety, trust and stabilisation to their lives.
Regular football can be part of this treatment. Local football can create a sense of community and belonging, helping to integrate asylum seekers in to British society. It also helps create a weekly routine and gives people something to look forward to. This sense of community can transcend the legalities of British Citizenship, as the ‘world’s game’ has helped bring people together regardless of their background, something that can be seen in the actions of non-league clubs like Bath City. While not a cure for serious mental issues, the routine, the sense of community and the safety can help alleviate some mental distress in the short term. Feeling as though you belong can help an individual to psychologically deal with everyday life.
Britain can be an immensely unwelcoming place to asylum seekers. More must be done to help integrate the most vulnerable into British society, and football provides one of the most cost-effective and accessible ways to do this. To this end, the open-mindedness and progressiveness of non-league clubs such as Bath City should be both supported and applauded.
Conor Kavanagh is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that offers free advice and support for asylum-seekers and victims of abuse.