Every action counts for refugees
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World Refugee Day (June 20) is dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. It is a celebration to highlight the valuable contribution that refugees make to societies, and remind the world that Every Action Counts in the effort to create a more just, inclusive, and equal world.

One area where we celebrate the positive contribution of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people within Australia is in the domain of sport. Picture a young man fleeing from the war-torn northern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa arriving in Australia as a refugee, who goes on to receive Australian residency. He then goes on to wear the ‘baggy green’ for the Australia Test Cricket Team. An impossible tale you ask? This true story is the journey of leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed, who arrived in Australia on a short-term visa in 2010, only to go on and make the national team in 2013.

Or imagine a hard-hitting Australian Rules football team from Western Sydney that is comprised primarily of Muslim women. It couldn’t happen you say? Well this is another true story - the Auburn Tigers are mostly comprised of women from a Lebanese background, but there is also Fijian, Bosnian, Turkish and Afghan members too. Stories such as these, once unlikely in world sport, and very unlikely in Australian sport, are becoming more common by the day.

Research by the Settlement Council of Australia suggests that sports can play a vital role in contributing to positive settlement outcomes, promoting social inclusion and supporting migrant and refugee integration into Australian society. Their report says that many migrants and refugees have found that participation in sport has helped them establish social networks and “can offer a social and political space in which to cultivate team diversity”.

The social interactions that occur through participation in sporting teams and community clubs play an important part in shaping and reinforcing patterns of community identification and community belonging (Cortis, Sawrikar, & Muir, 2007). Ager and Strang (2008) also assert that establishing social connections with those of other national, ethnic or religious grouping is essential because it opens up opportunities for intercultural understanding and social cohesion.

Celebrated football (soccer) commentator Les Murray (a refugee from Hungary) always proudly told his story of inclusion and assimilation:

Refugees, and their sons and daughters, have been an integral part of football’s development in Australia for over half a century. The first wave came from post-War Europe in the 1950s while the current wave is coming from trouble spots in Africa and Asia. While my parents struggled to make ends meet and did their best to make a new life for their family, my two brothers and I spent all our down time from school playing football as a sweet distraction from the hostilities of migration and a need to assimilate. When I was selected to represent my school, at age 12 as a very average number 8, I felt all my Christmases had come at once and my assimilation was complete. Football was my pathway to becoming Australian. Now the kids from Sudan, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same. For many of them football is their lone source of hope.

However, there are some significant barriers to participation in sport for people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) backgrounds. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s What’s the Score? report: A survey of racism and cultural diversity highlighted how many new arrivals may not know what sporting clubs exist in their area or how to go about joining a club, while others may feel intimidated or uncomfortable about approaching a club without the support of friends or peers. The report also highlighted how young women from a CaLD background are particularly limited from participating in sport due to language barriers (a particular problem for newly-arrived migrants and older women), limited information, limited resources and limited transport.

The Settlement Council of Australia has also identified a number of barriers that limit migrants and refugees’ engagement in sports and impact on the success of sports programs. These include: lack of funding; lack of communication and collaboration between sporting and settlement organisations; issues surrounding cultural sensitivity and appropriateness; lack of opportunities for women in sports; lack of information around sporting opportunities; and racism. VicHealth’s Immigrant Physical Activity Study found that key interpersonal barriers included: conflict with cultural expectations or beliefs; conflict with religious rules, beliefs or expectations, and; conflict about clothes that should be worn.

Over the past decade there has been much greater emphasis on social inclusion in sport, as we gain greater understanding of the often critical role it can play in promoting multiculturalism and the settlement experience of migrants and refugees. There are now many excellent programs and policies that promote diversity and inclusion in Australian sport as we move “towards the 'cosmopolitanising' of Australian sport culture - within which people of all ancestries and skin colours are assumed to have a place”. Sport and society is much the better for this progression.

No matter who you are or where you are, there is something everyone can do this World Refugee Day. To find out more how you can celebrate the contribution of refugees to broader society and promote harmony and inclusion visit the UN website.  

Dr Paul Oliver is an advisor to Australian sports and governments on safeguarding, inclusion and integrity matters. He was the Adjunct Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Curtin University (2017-18).



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