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The state of play: scientific research on sport, refugees, and forced displacement

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The state of play: scientific research on sport, refugees, and forced displacement

The research around the topic of sports and refugees has grown significantly with the increased interest around the topic. This article analyses key trends among the published research.

The scientific literature on sport, refugees, and forced displacement has seen a considerable acceleration of published research since 2017. With the significant growth of sport and refugees as a field of research, it is timely to take stock of recent achievements, developments, and gaps in the literature. In this article, we report the results of a major integrative review that analysed 83 publications derived from fourteen languages published between 1995 and 2019.

Evolution of academic research

The evolution of the literature can be broken down into three phases (see Figure 1). Between 1995 and 2008, the number of publications directly addressing the topic was minimal, at an average of 0.57 published studies per year. The second phase extends from 2009 to 2016 and is characterized by a relatively steady flurry of published research on the topic. Thirty-five publications (42%) in our review were published during this period, at an average of four publications per year. The third phase, from 2017 onwards, features a considerable acceleration of the publication rate. The years 2017 and 2018 had twelve and sixteen publications respectively, while the first half of 2019 (up to 30 June, which was the cut-off point for the review) produced eleven publications. The total number of publications in this two-and-a-half-year period was 39, which corresponds to nearly half (46%) of the sample. This trends appears to have continued in 2020.

Figure 1: Evolution of scientific literature on sport and refugees, 1995-2019 (by 30 June 2019)


Key research themes

Research on sport, refugees, and forced displacement primarily addresses three themes.

Despite some overlap, the research themes fall largely along disciplinary lines, revealing two distinct groupings: research in the health sciences, which focuses primarily on health issues and health promotion (i.e., sport as medicine); and social science research, which typically examines social inclusion/integration and barriers to sport participation.

Critical issues and gaps

The review identifies four challenges that require attention in future research: strengths-based approaches; ethics in research; intersectionality; and methodological innovation.

From deficit to strengths-based approaches

Much of the literature exhibits a deficit-based perspective that associates refugee status with trauma, poor health, deprivation, and social isolation. While these challenges are real and meaningful, this discursive linkage contains the risk that we fail to see the ‘normality’ and agency of forced migrants, and that research reproduces stereotypes. There is a need for strengths-based approaches that recognise refugees’ capabilities, knowledge, aspirations, and resources.

Ethical relationships in research

We strongly encourage researchers to explicitly address ethical reflections and strategies within their research. For example, existing research tends to use standard interpretations of informed consent. A more iterative approach to consent, whereby consent is an ongoing negotiation, would enable refugee participants to play a more active role in setting the research agenda so that it is responsive to their needs, aspirations, and concerns. It can also assist in building and sustaining trust, including the consideration of how the research is shared, disseminated, and used. At a deeper level, ethical relationships emphasise reciprocal benefits for those concerned, for example in developing skills and capabilities, improving health and social outcomes, influencing policy, or enhancing the quality of programming. This may contribute to the broader project of decolonising research.


Refugees are not a monolithic category. Despite commonalities, there are stark differences in experiences and journeys among refugees. Gender, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, (dis)ability, sexuality, religion, age, and migration journey mediate refugee experiences and trajectories, as do policies, support systems, and community attitudes in transit and destination countries. Taking an intersectional approach in research is critical if we are to avoid the trap of unreflexively ascribing certain challenges or experiences exclusively to a person’s status as a refugee.

Methodological innovation

Engagement with alternative methodologies is still in its infancy, with the exception of the emergent interest in participatory action research and the (slow) adoption of visual (participatory) methodologies such as drawings, photovoice, and film analysis. Other methods, such as autoethnography and institutional ethnography, are still underexplored in studies of the intersection between sport and refugees. We see three promising methodological directions for this field of research:

  • There is an opportunity to complement case studies, which constitute the majority of existing research in this area, with robust mixed methods designs that bring together meaning and measurement by integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches. Only 10% of publications were based on mixed methods research, and <5% on quantitative methods.
  • Longitudinal research is completely absent and could provide information about changes over time that are highly relevant to understanding experiences and outcomes of sport and physical activity. We recommend that scholars in this field of study consider how longitudinal designs can be applied effectively in their work, for example with regard to retention of participants over time and the adaptation of research tools to changing contexts and life stages.
  • There is room to implement transnational methodologies to counteract the dominance of methodological nationalism in the literature. Methodological nationalism is a mode of thinking in which the nation-state is seen as natural basis of analysis; in the literature, this is most visible in studies of sport as a means for integration in a destination country. In migration studies, there has been a growing emphasis on transnational flows and connectedness as foci of analysis that is yet to fully permeate research on sport and forced displacement.

In sum, research on sport, refugees, and forced displacement is evolving at an unprecedented pace, and there are plenty of opportunities to enhance the quality and impact of this research. We encourage researchers to engage with the full breadth of studies in all languages, societies, and publication outlets that can inform our understanding of sport and refugees across the world.

This article is based on: Spaaij et al. (2019). Sport, Refugees, and Forced Migration: A Critical Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 1(47): 1-18. Figure 1 is reprinted with permission.

About the authors

Ramón Spaaij is a Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia, and Special Chair of Sociology of Sport at the University of Amsterdam. His current research includes 'Change Makers: Empowering sports to enhance social inclusion for migrants and refugees', and ‘We Play: Refugee settlement through sport’.

Carla Luguetti is a lecturer in Physical Education and Health in the College of Sport and Exercise Science, and research fellow in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia. Her line of research focuses on topics of sport pedagogy and social justice, and her current research includes 'Change Makers: Empowering sports to enhance social inclusion for migrants and refugees’.

Jora Broerse is a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer at Victoria University, Australia. Her research is concerned with lived multiculturalism and placemaking practices in the context of physical activity in super-diverse neighbourhoods. Her current research includes ‘We Play: Refugee settlement through sport’.


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Ramón Spaaij, Carla Luguetti and Jora Broerse


Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 16:31