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The life of an asylum seeker can often feel like a vacuum.. The memories of traumas such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, torture and the deaths of loved ones can be consuming.  Building life in a new country all alone only exacerbates their plight. As unlikely as it may seem, football has the power to change all of this. To engage in an activity which promotes social integration, a sense of competition, belonging and the familiarity of routine, can make all the difference to the lives of these vulnerable people.

After successfully helping to integrate asylum seekers and refugees into local football teams, Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) conducted a three-year research project with the aim of examining the extent to which football helped these people integrate successfully into their new lives. Ultimately, they discovered that football helps foster a sense of belonging by promoting routine, catharsis, sociality, empowerment and plurality whilst providing a safe space and improving mental health. The game itself can help realign players with their sense of identity, particularly if they regularly partook in the game in their home country. 

Routine and regularity “builds relationships with other participants” and interestingly, the sociality of football provides players with an alternative means of communication that “avoids the reduction of identity to that of ethnicity or political status”. This is of particular importance to asylum seekers and refugees who often report feeling out of place or unwelcome when settling into new countries. The inclusive nature of football allows them to engage and communicate with others from all walks of life; a feeling of belonging is fostered through working together to achieve a shared target, eliminating the sense of marginalisation that these groups often feel. The study describes mental-wellbeing and a sense of belonging as “mutually interdependent”; therefore, the benefits of social integration via sporting activities such as football can drastically alleviate the symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Lamentably, such issues are commonplace amongst asylum seekers, with around 61% experiencing mental distress. 

Whilst asylum claims are being processed, applicants are not permitted to work. The majority must depend on support from Section 95, which provides less generous support than  that received by UK citizens who are also unable to work. Links between poverty and ill-health have been well documented over the years. Processed foods are often cheaper than fresh, meaning eating unhealthily becomes an “economic, not a moral choice”. This is an issue for refugees and asylum seekers who receive little financial aid and often live in poor-quality accommodation too, which has been proven to be linked to the onset of health issues particularly in children, such as meningitis, asthma and tuberculosis. 

Not only does football facilitate social integration, but for those living in poverty and substandard accommodation, it can provide a means of escape that promotes exercise and a healthy lifestyle, ultimately increasing the effectiveness of the immune system in battling illness and disease.  Many football initiatives intended for refugees and asylum seekers such as those run by FURD also provide a free hot meal, showers, toiletries and funding to cover travel costs. This helps to break down the economic barrier between poverty and general well-being, which can be a lifeline for those isolated from society and living in poverty due to their immigration status. 

Initiatives such as those run by FURD have been incredibly successful for refugees and asylum seekers by promoting social integration, reducing the prevalence of mental and physical health issues and breaking down barriers between poverty, sociality and health and wellbeing. Sports such as football are universal: by providing vulnerable people with opportunities and a sense of identity, we are giving them the best possible chances to succeed in life, make friends and stay healthy – all whilst having fun and not fearing further judgement or marginalization due to their immigration status. 

Bethany Morris is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.