The world is currently experiencing the highest levels of forced displacement on record.
More than 79 million people have been forced from their homes, with large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers facing increasingly uncertain futures.
Furthermore, three of every four refugees across the world have lived in exile for longer than a five-year period.
This damning situation calls for innovative and effective ways to improve the inclusion and integration of refugees.
Thousands of organisations have attempted to deliver projects and initiatives that facilitate this integration, however, the lack of a coordinated, unified approach has often proved detrimental.
The International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) is a global platform that recognises this very problem.
Supported by the European Union and responsible for 260 member organisations, ISCA aims to use sport and physical activity as a tool to help unite solutions in the field.
As Rachel Payne, Communications Manager at ISCA explains, their approach is firmly focused on encouraging organisations to all pull in the same direction.
“We saw that there were passionate individuals working at a community level for non-governmental sports organisations and asylum centres who were using sport and physical activity effectively as tools to welcome and help integrate refugees and asylum seekers locally.”
“Therefore, we aimed to gather these like-minded people and help facilitate their collaboration and build their capacities to achieve more together.”
ISCA’s emphasis on collaboration was further underlined earlier this year as they launched a new Integration of Refugees Through Sport (IRTS) Networking Platform.
The network, which is focused on empowering people working and volunteering in related fields, became the first international knowledge hub and networking platform for the integration of refugees through sport.
“The aim [of the IRTS Networking Platform] is to make leaders of similar projects and initiatives around Europe aware of each other and provide them with in-person and online opportunities to meet, collaborate and learn from their peers,” explains Payne.
“We hope this will create a more integrated network of professionals who are inspired to combine their efforts, make a bigger impact and get recognised for their accomplishments.”
Creating a successful initiative
ISCA’s initiatives for refugee inclusion through sport continue to receive support and gather momentum.
As Payne reveals, the creation and subsequent delivery of these successful initiatives is best achieved when working with an open mind.
“What we have noticed through our projects is that successful initiatives at a local level often rely on a dedicated individual, or individuals, who take a compassionate and open approach to working with refugees and gain their trust.”
“The emphasis here is on working with the target group, rather than for them, because it is essential to design activities that meet real needs rather than perceived ones.
“Thinking of sporting activities as being ‘more than just sport’ is often the key to a successful initiative.”
Another important and often overlooked element of creating an effective initiative is the thorough amount of research that is required beforehand.
“There is so much ground work involved in setting up the right conditions for refugees to interact with each other, socialise in their new communities, learn a new language and be equipped with relaxation techniques to help them cope with the stresses they are dealing with,” says Payne.
“Our partners have seen initiatives fail when sports activities organised for refugees, like football matches, have ended in conflict when tensions surface between players that were not identified or addressed beforehand, or when players were divided into teams based on their nationality or language.
“Finding the right partners to help, either with the sports coordination aspects or the social work aspects, is also essential because the skills needed to build an IRTS initiative are so diverse.”
Using sport for good
ISCA, like many organisations around the world, consider sport a crucial vehicle for assisting the smooth integration of refugees into new communities.
Amongst many values, it has the potential to provide relief, improve health and facilitate human connection.
For Payne, while sport is undoubtedly a powerful tool, its influence is ultimately reliant on the quality and suitability of the sessions being provided.
“Sport is an aspect of community life where refugees and asylum seekers can find relief and social connections away from the “spotlight” of authorities who are processing their cases. So sports clubs have great potential to welcome and include refugees in their activities.”
“We have also learned that sport is not a “magic tool” that can achieve integration by itself. It takes well thought out activities and an understanding of how to work with the target group to achieve refugee integration through sport.
“It is also important to think beyond sport to how physical activity and movement in general can boost mental health and wellbeing, and how this in turn can help someone cope with a major life transition.”
Looking to the future
Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent restrictions that have been put in place, organisations and businesses across the world have been forced to face up to new challenges.
This is no different for ISCA, who recently began running an Erasmus+ Collaborative Partnership named MOVE Beyond with sport and humanitarian partner pairs.
Payne, the lead applicant writer for the MOVE Beyond initiative, admits the pandemic has had a direct impact on ISCA’s latest partnership.
“We have seen the lockdowns directly affect our partners in the MOVE Beyond project and they have responded creatively to the situation despite the difficulties in keeping the activities going.”
“In the UK, their walking, cycling and swimming groups were postponed, but the coordinators matched one of the participants (a bicycle mechanic) with a local bike shop and he was employed during the pandemic when active transport boomed.
“Despite these creative moves to adjust and keep the participants and communities connected, the partners have found that refugees and asylum seekers have been hit particularly hard by worries, uncertainty, difficulties in following ever-changing guidelines and isolation, and that this has made it too difficult for some to continue with their activities.”
Despite the obvious challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Payne remains upbeat that IRTS initiatives can continue to have a lasting, positive impact on refugees and asylum seekers.
“We hope to keep connecting individuals and organisations so that IRTS initiatives will grow and be more sustainable.”
“We are really pleased to hear that all of the MOVE Beyond partners plan to continue working together after the project – that includes humanitarian organisations like Save the Children, the Red Cross and sports organisations like DGI, RF-SISU and StreetGames.”
Maintaining these collaborations with various integration of refugees through sport related initiatives and projects is ISCA’s central aim moving forwards.
Not only will this subsequently grow the international network and community, the capacity for exchanging and sharing knowledge will also be improved.
With organisations all pulling, working and advocating in the same direction, ISCA have the strength in numbers to make a real, tangible difference for displaced people across the world.