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Five ways sport can help rehabilitate refugees

A UNHCR trauma rehabilitation programme is using yoga to reach Ethiopian refugees in South Sudan.

Five ways sport can help rehabilitate refugees

On World Refugee Day 2013, sportanddev reflects on the role of sport in improving the lives and prospects of refugees around the world.

There are over 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Refugees’ lives can be characterised by physical, psychological and emotional strife, and well-run sports programmes can help improve their quality of life and psychosocial development.

1. Dealing with trauma
Losing loved ones, traumatic experiences, a loss of security and a lack of normalcy are among the factors influencing a refugee’s emotional wellbeing. Safe spaces for healing can be established through sport. People are brought together as they gather and communicate with peers and counsellors. Refugees can enjoy the psychosocial benefits of physical activity and enhanced self-confidence. Children have the opportunity to laugh and play, build social networks, share experiences and pain, and restore some sense of normality.

2. Improving conditions in refugee camps
At camps, refugees often experience idleness and boredom, a loss of morale and a feeling of desolation. Sports programmes can enable people of all ages to take part in social and recreational activities, creating an environment of recovery and growth rather than stagnation and hopelessness. Social structures are created, improving the camp’s sense of community and security. In addition, sport can help prevent health crises by serving as a tool for the distribution of positive health messages.

3. Integrating with other groups or members of host communities
Sports participation creates a sense of belonging, which helps counter negative stereotypes, building trust and bridging social, economic and cultural divides. It can provide a remarkable learning experience as negative prejudices are dismantled, shared identity is constructed and groups learn to work together and appreciate other cultures. This principle is as relevant to internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo as it is to Sudanese refugees trying to integrate into Australian society.

4. Building skills for employability
Displacement inevitably has a disruptive effect on education and employment. Physical activity is enjoyable and therefore an effective way to recruit for educational programmes that run parallel to sport. The sport itself provides participants with the opportunity to develop skills such as cooperation, teamwork, respect, decision-making, leadership, adherence to rules and handling success and failure – skills that are attractive to employers.

5. Providing an alternative to destructive behaviour
The consequences of anger, resentment, fear, isolation and depression can include turning to drugs, participating in or being recruited for armed conflict and using sexual and domestic violence as a coping mechanism. If people, in particular the young, are not offered adequate opportunities to live independently and productively, they may contribute to the next round of conflict. Sport can provide a controlled environment to channel feelings of frustration or aggression. Participants are also guided by the group to avoid harmful behaviour.

Take a look at the links down the right hand side of this article for specific examples of the effective use of sport as a tool for the integration and rehabilitation of refugees.


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Paul Hunt


Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 23:00