by Jack Yates

For asylum seekers, life is characterised by emptiness and struggle in equal measure. Harrowing pre-migration experiences must be psychologically dealt with; these include physical torture, the death of loved ones and the destruction of any semblance of normality. Living through such tragedy leaves members of this community traumatised- life inexorably changes due to the constant threat of persecution.

Lamentably, an additional array of difficulties is presented upon arrival in the host country. Separation from family, sub-standard accommodation and social isolation all result in a distressing and unfulfilling existence. Day-to-day life is desolate and insecure.

Asylum seekers are prevented from working, meaning that one’s time revolves around the stresses of the asylum process. Working provides an individual with routine, structure and a sense of wellbeing. For asylum seekers, the absence of such things is especially damaging- one’s sense of purpose and self-worth have already been shattered in the events experienced prior to migration. 

Not only this, but employment would provide members of this community with a much-needed source of income. The current level of financial support provided to asylum seekers is £37.75 per person per week- an amount that rises by a meagre £3 for pregnant mothers. It is a subsistence rate not fit for purpose, and one that leads to many experiencing severe destitution.

The charity Refugee Action spoke to twenty-five asylum seekers who were living on government support. The majority of respondents stated that they struggled to afford essentials such as clothing and medicine. To make matters worse, being prohibited from working means that recreational activities- an essential means of social integration- are often unaffordable. 

Football has the power to change asylum seekers’ lives for the better

It is a means of connection with both those in the same situation and the wider host society. It enables day-to-day struggles to be forgotten, even for just ninety minutes. Crucially, it helps to foster a much-needed sense of belonging, and can provide the building blocks for a more stable existence. Charitable, grassroots initiatives do immense work behind the scenes to facilitate participation in football, breaking down funding barriers and cultivating an inclusive and welcoming environment. 

Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) is a registered charity based in Sheffield that focuses on youth and social exclusion, and utilises football to fight racism and break down barriers. It was born in the winter of 1995, created by a number of Sheffield United fans who were seeking a way to combat a rise in racial abuse, both at football matches and in the local area. In recent years they have helped to create spaces for asylum seekers, both in local football teams as players and coaches, and in the wider footballing community.

As a result, they received funding from the Big Lottery Research Fund. This allowed FURD to investigate the role of football in refugees and asylum seekers’ lives, seeking to give a voice to a community that often feel as though they don’t belong. Belonging is, in itself, a difficult concept to pin down. As a feeling it cannot be empirically measured, but for some, citizenship is viewed as the peak of belonging. However, this project showed that this is not the case.

Those with British citizenship may not feel at home in Britain. Conversely, those without it can, providing the right community support is available.

Belonging is built on routines, socialising, and community

Football can provide a platform on which to build these things. FURD has provided football training sessions for young men and teenagers from a minority background for over 20 years, and have recently introduced drop in sessions for asylum seekers of any age. This provides an outlet to distract asylum seekers from what can be a stressful everyday life, and helps to foster a sense of community and belonging.

Football is able to provide a safe space that is accessible to asylum seekers in a way that much of Britain is not; “I come here to let off steam and enjoy it with people who understand me…” A Zimbabwean asylum seeker who spoke to FURD said, “everyone really understands the situation you’re in, which is a very difficult situation and people don’t constantly bombard you with the situation you’re in. You are free and you’ve got people who understand, people who are learning to understand, which means a lot to people like me.”

These sessions help asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants alike to bond and create social groupings in which they feel at home, particularly – but not solely – amongst people that understand their struggle. 

Football has the power to transform the lives of asylum seekers (Source: Kent Online)

Playing football may sound like a somewhat fanciful idea in the face of the profound difficulties that asylum seekers face, but it is just the beginning; it isn’t really about football, it’s about creating community, building confidence, and providing a platform on which to allow for further engagement.

The same Zimbabwean asylum seeker mentioned earlier spoke about how the FURD programme had saved him from his reclusive behaviour, giving him the confidence to now take part in further programmes and even do voluntary work to help others in the same situation he found himself in. A welcoming environment, group decision-making, and progress on the football pitch all help asylum seekers to build up their confidence, and a belief that they can take on the hostility that has made their lives so difficult.

Asylum seekers and refugees are uniquely vulnerable to mental health conditions as a result of their pre-migration lives and the conditions they live in following migration.

They are five times more prone to mental health struggles than the rest of the country, something exacerbated by the sad truth that they are distinctly under-supported and under-resourced to fight against this. Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are much maligned by the media, politicians, and members of the public alike for their supposed failure to integrate into British society.

Whilst this notion is much exaggerated, it is important to note the difficulty that must be faced by those who are attempting to integrate into a society that often is not open or welcoming to them. FURD have shown that this does not have to be the case, and that football can help to bridge the gap. However, we should not be relying on charities and community organisations to make asylum seekers feel at home; the government should work to provide, or at the very least support, grassroots initiatives that help in this way. 

Jack Yates is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status.