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Sport and asylum

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Sport and asylum

In an asylum-seeker’s country of origin, sport may have become a factor in exposure to threats that lead to obtaining protection in a host country. In the latter, sport can play an essential role in the integration of refugees.

As an asylum judge I have personally only seen one case of a sportsperson persecuted in this capacity, but it stood out for me. It was a woman, captain of a national team in a country at war. The team, initially multi-faith, was gradually torn apart by increasing persecution. Her teammates threatened her for refusing to take a stand in favour of the government, while she was bullied by her coaches for her faith. Sport, though a powerful force of cohesion, was unable by itself to make people remain united against a regime that had become barbaric.

Most of the time sport is rather a backdrop against which a person has higher social visibility and which therefore provides a context conducive to persecution as identified in the Geneva Convention of 1951. Many accounts of asylum-seekers confirm this. In Guinea, sport imitates the political parties, which are highly ethnicised. Football tournaments organised by the UFDG, the opposition party representing the frequently discriminated Fulani, degenerate into pitched battles against the Malinke. In Bangladesh, where politics is highly polarised, the same goes for the teams of the BNP and the Awami League. In other cases, homosexual relations that have occurred may lead to persecutions in a traditionalist society, and recognition of refugee status for being member of “social group” that is considered deviant or marginal.

Beyond the refugee status, a secondary protection, called “subsidiary”, also protects civils fleeing armed conflict: how could we forget the terrible journey of the Mardini sisters, Syrian swimmers, who had to push their boat during long hours in the Mediterranean? While one of them was part of the 2016 Olympics refugee team in Rio, the other was imprisoned by the Greek authorities in 2018 for helping to rescue other shipwrecked people, caught up in the process of criminalisation or rescuers at sea.

Asylum law enables these sportspeople to find security, a roof, medical care, in short: the priorities of emergency. In the long term, however, it is just a residence permit that does not lead in itself to lasting social integration. This is where sport comes in again, with is vocation to reunite and bridge linguistic and cultural barriers. And you see Afghans and Sudanese play cricket in Doué-la-Fontaine, in the middle of the French countryside.

Sport allows alleviating trauma, getting bodies to talk together, discovering different cultures, taking roots in a new territory and community. That does not go without saying: before being recognised as a refugee, an asylum-seeker will often have followed a chaotic path, notably because of a ban on paid work and precarious and imposed accommodation, leading them to leave on region suddenly for another, without choice and without a chance to inform the club that had welcomed them.

Bérangère Taxil is professor of international law at the University of Angers and Associate Judge at the national asylum court.


[This article is from Sport and Citizenship's journal no. 51, which can be found here.]


Sport and Citizenship is a Think tank created in Brussels in September 2007, a few weeks after the adoption of the European Commission’s White Paper on sport. Today, it is the only Think tank in Europe, whose social objective is the analysis of sporting politics and the study of sport’s societal impact. Independent and apolitical, Sport and Citizenship has ten years of expertise and benefits from a recognition by public authorities and stakeholders of European sport. It is regularly consulted by international and European institutions, the Member States, the sports movement and civil society which recognise it as a privileged interlocutor in this field.


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Friday, July 16, 2021 - 10:42

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