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Elite sports and refugees

Copyrights: Rugby Opens Borders

Elite sports and refugees

What are the connections between high-level sport and work with displaced people?

For refugee children and youth, elite sport is often an escape, a way to forget, for a short time, the challenges of their lives and to enjoy watching their heroes compete at the highest level. Recently, however, the possibility to compete in sport at the highest level has become a reality for some of the world’s refugees. Professional sport is providing opportunities for refugees to find livelihoods opportunities, identify pathways into further education and to be role models to the almost 80 million displaced people globally.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), supported by UNHCR, launched the most public facing collaboration of their 25-year partnership, the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, announced for the Rio Olympic Games 2016. The aim behind the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team was to send a message of hope to displaced people around the world and give a global platform to the plight of refugees. It also aimed to increase access to elite-level sport for the world’s refugees. The IOC, sports federations, national Olympic committees and UNHCR worked to identify talented refugee athletes. 10 of them were eventually selected to make the first ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

Competing under the Olympic Flag, the athletes were well received by the global sport watching public and have been an inspiration for young refugees around the world. The IOC continues to support the 10 athletes from the Rio Games to train for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and have, since Rio, added another 40 refugee athletes to their Refugee Athlete Scholarship Programme, managed and funded by Olympic Solidarity. A second Refugee Olympic Team will participate at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, which were postponed until 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team, other sports associations and federations have introduced refugee athletes in major sporting events. While the Rio 10 made the headlines at the Olympics in 2016, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) fielded an Independent Paralympic Team with 2 refugee athletes that took part at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. They competed under the Paralympic flag. 

At the 2017 Athletics World Championship, World Athletics – the governing body for athletics – introduced an Athlete Refugee Team, which has competed at numerous events, including athletes who competed at the Rio 2016 Olympics and new talented refugee athletes. World Athletics has continued to support refugee athletes to compete in events around the world as part of the Athletic Refugee Team (ART). World Taekwondo and World Judo have also facilitated the participation of refugee athletes in national and international competition as part of their own commitments to support refugees in their sports.

Kakuma Kalobeyei Stars and Kakuma United Football Teams

Kakuma Kalobeyei Stars (KK Stars) is the first refugee women’s football team to play in the Kenya National League. Made of up of players from across the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei integrated refugee settlement in Kenya’s Turkana county, the team has players from both refugee and host community backgrounds. The players are the best from the Kakuma Divas league, which is a women’s league of ten teams based in Kakuma refugee camp that are registered in the sub-county league.

Kakuma United is the men’s equivalent of the KK Stars. It is composed of players from seven different nationalities, drawn from the refugee and host communities at the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement. They play in the National League and Division 2 – Western League. There are sixteen men’s teams playing in the Kakuma Premier League which are also registered in the sub-county league.

Over 40 referees and coaches from Kakuma and Kalobeyei were also trained and certified by the Kenya Football Federation, which manages football in the country, with the aim of ensuring professionalism in the game.

Both teams have been established by the communities with the support of UNHCR and partners in Kakuma.

If you want to provide opportunities to refugee young people through participation in elite sports, then please reach out to UNHCR at HQsports@UNHCR.org and info@sportanddev.org.