Action research for inclusion: Migrant and refugee women in sports
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Non-mainstream football clubs adapt to the particular needs of migrant and refugee women, making them feel more comfortable to participate in sport.

SPIN Women "Sport Inclusion of Migrant and Minority Women: Promoting sports participation and leadership capacities" is a pan-European project co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme. The SPIN partners are the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC - fairplay), Liikkukaa – Sports for all from Finland, UISP from Italy, the football players' union SJPF from Portugal, the Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Organisation from Hungary, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the research institute Camino from Germany.

This project aims to encourage social inclusion and equal opportunities for women and girls with an immigrant or ethnic minority background through increased participation in sports and recreational physical activities. On behalf of the SPIN Women Project, three female migrant researchers based in Finland, Austria and Germany conducted action research to explore participation and inclusion opportunities of migrant and refugee women in sports.

Action research is a practice-oriented methodology that draws on a diverse set of participatory methods and reconceptualises research as a mutual process. The approach explicitly aims to achieve social change by positioning individuals affected by a particular social circumstance as experts of their condition. Action research employs a down-to-up, collaborative inquiry to knowledge production and focuses on the individual experiences and voices of the participants. The SPIN action researchers dive closely into the everyday realities of migrant athletes and jointly reflect upon the difficulties and barriers they encounter in sports.

Kayra Hohmann conducted the SPIN action research in Berlin, Germany. The small study focuses on the experience of five athletes and explores the potential of non-mainstream sports clubs to increase participation and inclusion opportunities.

Non-mainstream football clubs (also referred to as alternative clubs) are non-profit organizations that target migrants and/or refugees and are usually maintained through volunteer work. Drawing on participatory observation and narrative interviewing methods, the action research gives practice-oriented insights into the experiences of young refugee athletes in the Berlin football scene.

The following article highlights five key features which organisations can use to increase participation and inclusion, including membership, flexibility, support, social life, and anti-discrimination policies.

1. Membership

The team's composition contributes to a sense of belonging to sports. Since most athletes in non-mainstream clubs have experienced flight or migration, the participants felt that sharing similar life stories contributed to a positive experience.

Those women who had formerly played in mainstream sports criticised their former co-players who had confronted them with personal questions about their refuge, rendering them a "migrant other" vis-à-vis the German athletes.

2. Flexibility

Coaches in alternative football clubs are familiar with the everyday realities of their athletes. Those who recently arrived in Germany said they played football for stress relief and did not have time to join practice regularly. While many "regular" clubs penalise missing attendance and shorten the playing time on the field, non-mainstream clubs do not obligate the athletes to attend, thus adjusting to their players' individual needs and capacities.

3. Support

Alternative clubs provide a support network. Trainers are often involved in the lives of the athletes and give emotional guidance in familial or romantic matters. Further, as the players and coaches are familiar with the bureaucratic regulations and hurdles of arrival, they help participants find housing, connect them with NGOs, or refer them to translators and social workers.

Having a non-institutional source of assistance was perceived as a great benefit by the young refugee women who relied on their clubs for administrative and emotional support.

4. Social life

Non-mainstream football clubs employ team-building capacities outside of practice. They include their players in social life by organising field trips, workshops, dinners, and gatherings. Women who recently arrived in Germany often made their first acquaintances and friends within or through the social activities.

The participants saw their club not only as a place to work out but as a social space for leisure time, which they particularly valued as finding social contacts can be particularly difficult outside a school or assisted housing environment.

5. Political awareness and anti-discrimination

Alternative football organisations often show a more pronounced political awareness, which all athletes found crucial. A central critique among the participants was that anti-discriminatory policies, ranging from gender awareness to antiracism, are not a part of "regular" club culture.

Alternative clubs often conceptualise their practice from a gender reflective and antiracist perspective and aim at creating safe spaces. They provide clear guidelines, including regarding how to address the athletes and penalising derogatory language. Besides, they hold information workshops and even attend protests together.


Most of these sporting organisations rely on volunteers; they are underfunded and need further financial sponsoring. As such, they often play with big teams that are open for any skill level, which is a problem for those athletes who are more professionally skilled.

Another barrier perceived by the participants was that some of them wished to play in "regular" sports clubs but ended up in non-mainstream sports because they did not have another option due to language, a former bad experience or lack of information. While some of the outlined features and inclusion strategies are inherent to non-mainstream football, mainstream clubs can improve their participation opportunities substantially by adjusting to their athletes' life situations, providing means of support, and implementing anti-discrimination club policies.

  • Read the full research report here


Kayra Hohmann is pursuing a multidisciplinary graduate degree in Social Sciences at Humboldt University Berlin and has obtained her B.A. in Political Sciences at Freie University Berlin and Sabanci University Istanbul. She currently works as a research assistant with Camino and specialises in migration studies. Kayra conducted action research on behalf of the SPIN Women Project, exploring participation and inclusion opportunities of female migrants in non-mainstream sporting organisations. She can be contacted at [email protected].

sportanddev published this content as part of our partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.


Football (Soccer)
Sustainable Development Goals
10 – Reduced inequalities
5 - Gender equality
Target Group
Girls and women
Displaced people

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