Often, when asylum seekers arrive in Britain they are fleeing a harrowing past. Their pre-migration experiences are laden with moments steeped in violence, death and many other kinds of trauma. More often than not they come into the country vulnerable with an uncertain future before them. As they struggle to find suitable housing, overcome the language barrier, deal with family separation and financial issues – not helped by the fact that they are prevented from immediately working – post-migration problems soon begin to stack up. Resultingly, mental health issues are not uncommon for asylum seekers. They are five time more likely than the general population to have mental health needs, and more than 61% will experience serious mental distress. But for some, there is at least a momentary escape; a remedy; a distraction. This is football.
Perhaps Bob Marley said it best: “Football is freedom, a whole universe.” This statement rings true for so many asylum seekers in Britain. And in that universe, they have an emotional release, a chance to make connections, and a way to add stability and routine to a life bereft of such things. In a new country, football is a way to empower individuals and give them a sense of belonging. The feeling of belonging is something a lot of asylum seekers struggle to come to terms with. And while it can be technically termed as someone who simply has British citizenship, feeling like you belong doesn’t have to pertain to any legal notions; it runs a little deeper than that.
Indeed, as individuals move from one nation to the next, the connection between football and belonging can help provide some continuity across those different borderlines. Identities are often diminished and undermined by forced migration. On the football pitch, with a feeling of belonging, that notion of self can be rediscovered. It allows for a certain sense of ontological security coming from the ability to reconnect with a personal identity and find a social group attachment at the same time; all in a stable and consistent environment.
One group that have been looking to provide such support to asylum seekers is Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD). The organisation run informal training sessions, at which sporting equipment is provided alongside travel expenses and a hot meal. It is grassroots initiatives, such as FURD, that allow asylum seekers onto the field of play; without them, opportunities in football would be scarce. And these sessions are so essential in giving individuals something to not only look forward too, but to also give them an emotional escape from the troubles that may hang over them.
But what makes FURD so important is the fact that they provide more than just a football to kick about. Destitution is a term commonly used in research on asylum seekers for a reason. Some researchers (e.g. Gillespie 2012) define it as the complete absence of state support. Whereas others, like Still Human Still Here 2011, point out that even those asylum seekers who are in receipt of government support – which is currently £36.62 per week for a single asylum seeking male over 18 claiming Section 4 support or £35.36 via vouchers for a refused asylum seeking male eligible for Section 4 support – are still living in a state of destitution.
Severe poverty is a prominent issue in the asylum seeker community. Refugee Action found that the majority of those they spoke to ‘struggled to feed themselves and their children’. FURD, who have held regular ‘training’ sessions targeting young men and teenage boys from ethnic minorities since 1996, are well aware of this ongoing issue. But their initiative is providing a different kind of support; one which cannot be undervalued. Talking about the programme, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker was quoted saying: “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.”
And it’s that underlining sense of personality and confidence that football can give to individuals which is so important. Asylum seekers come to Britain because it is often their only hope of survival. And frequently, as a nation, we do not provide enough for them in so many different ways. But initiatives such as FURD can make a monumental difference in the wellbeing of these vulnerable people. Providing football and just a little bit of support can give asylum seekers a sense of stability, routine and personality again. Like any human in Britain, asylum seekers have the potential to become vibrant and important members of our society and cultural make up. We just need to provide the right kind of support.
Hal Fish is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their status.
Please contact Cameron Boyle (Political Correspondent, Immigration Advice Service) for further details.