A safe haven in the beautiful game?

Refugees using football as a way to build communities of resistance, report Eline Yara Jeanné and Beeke Katarina Melcher.

April 30, 2019 · 8 min read

“For me it makes no difference where I play as long as it makes me happy.”  These are words from Mahdi, a 19 year old refugee from Afghanistan, living in Germany.

Mahdi plays for German football team FC Lampedusa St. Pauli in Hamburg, a team made solely out of refugees and migrants. The team name stems from refugees who came to Hamburg via Lampedusa a few years ago. Around 380 refugees stayed in the St. Pauli church at that time and some of them reached out to coaches to find opportunities to play football. That is how FC Lampedusa St. Pauli started, now an all-male team made out of refugees and migrants from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Kosovo who all share a passion for football.

Mahdi is happiest on the football field, playing in Germany just as he did back in Afghanistan. FC Lampedusa is about more than just football for Mahdi though; before every game, he and his teammates cook dinner and spend time together. Most are in Germany alone, having had to flee from their home countries, and so the camaraderie of FC Lampedusa is extremely important. “I made loads of friends here at FC Lampedusa and also met loads of other people,” Mahdi shares.

FC Lampedusa was set up with the help of FC St. Pauli, a football club known for their left-wing politics and strong anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-racist stance. We spoke to two of the FC Lampedusa’s four all-female coaching team, Hagar and Nico, about the players and nature of the team. “Most people want to help refugees. We don’t want to help them; we are a family. They are a part of our life, they are a part of St. Pauli; we want to make them feel at home here.”

Football is used as an integration method in many countries. In the United Kingdom, Amnesty International hosts Football Welcomes, a program that is taking place for the third time in April this year. We spoke to Naomi Westland, Football Welcomes Manager at Amnesty International UK, about the event: “The Football Welcomes weekend took place for the first time in 2017, with 30 clubs participating. In 2018 that number doubled to 60 and this year it is set to be even bigger.”

“This shows that there is real appetite from football to welcome and show solidarity with refugees and people seeking asylum, as is the fact that over the last couple of years a number of clubs have been developing ongoing programs to welcome women and men who have recently arrived in their communities by putting on weekly football sessions, helping with English language learning or offering coaching or volunteering opportunities.”

But we have to ask; is football truly a safe haven away from the hateful rhetoric and language often reserved for refugees and migrants?

Earlier this year, a video circulated online of Millwall fans using extremely racist chants during their FA Cup game against Everton. Just a few weeks later, another video showed a West Ham United fan shouting derogatory and Islamophobic language at Liverpool player Mohamed Salah. Kick It Out, a British organization representing equality and inclusion in football, received 520 reports of hate speech in the football arena, an 11% increase from the previous year. 53% of these reports relate to racism, and a further 10% concern antisemitism.

The UK Home Office’s most recent statistics, from 2017/18, show an increase of 17% in recorded hate crime offences compared with the previous year. 75% of these hate crimes were related to race, with a further 9% regarding religion. The Home Office groups xenophobic hate crime, targeted at refugees and migrants, together with hate race crime.

With these statistics in mind, it is hard to imagine that refugees and migrants are safe from hate speech, both inside and outside of the football arena. Fernando came to Germany from Colombia and has played for FC Lampedusa since the beginning. He shares that whilst he feels safe within his team and at most local tournaments, this does not extend to daily life: “People see that I am not white and don’t have blue eyes, and people leave their seats on the ICE [Intercity Express] trains because they think I am an Arab.” Hagar and Nico recall an incident when the team travelled to a suburb in Hamburg only to be confronted with racism, with the opposition refusing to play against some of FC Lampedusa’s Black players. Despite incidents like this, Hagar and Nico claim that their experience is “99.99% positive.”

This could be down to the fact that FC Lampedusa is linked with FC St. Pauli, a club very welcoming of refugees and migrants from all backgrounds. Unfortunately, not all clubs and their fans have this attitude. Recent research conducted by Sky Data found that 71% of BAME (Black, Asian and ethnic minority) fans have had racist abuse directed at them personally whilst watching a football game. Moreover, 9 in 10 football fans have witnessed racism at a game. These numbers are shocking, and it puts into perspective the experiences of refugees and migrants who are part of football initiatives directed at them. While positive, they do not reflect the actual football environment when it comes to hate speech.

Hagar and Nico understand this too: “I am really surprised that we never experiences anti-Muslim racism, even though most of the players from our team are from Muslim families. But we are always in a group; what happens when they go alone, we don’t know.”

Football can play a key role in the integration of refugees and immigrants. “Football is an opener”, say Hagar and Nico; it can counteract the hate speech experienced by refugees and migrants and instead offer a welcoming environment. It is about more than just the game: “It’s 20% football and 80% political work, such as creating awareness”, share Hagar and Nico.

Naomi shares this sentiment too: “I would like to see all football club community trusts welcoming refugees and asylum seekers of all genders, through running weekly football or other sports sessions, inviting them to watch a game, and working with other local organizations that provide support such as English classes or help with access to housing or health services, for example.”

“They can encourage fans to get involved where appropriate, and also use the work they do in local schools to increase awareness of what it means to be a refugee. And I would like to see them communicating more frequently about this work – through local media, their websites, match day programs and social media – using their influence and their unique role at the heart of their communities to say loud and clear that refugees are welcome in the UK.”

The positive attitudes within refugee football need to transcend into the larger football culture. Refugees and migrants should be able to feel safe in any football stadium and on any football field, without the threat of hate speech or worse. If a large football arena can become a true safe space for refugees and migrants, we have come a long way.

The reporting for this article was funded by the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Program 2014-2020.

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