One of the bravest people I’ve ever met was a lad from Afghanistan who I encountered at the Refugee Education & Employment Programme in Sheffield a few years ago. REEP offered free English lessons to asylum seekers and refugees in the city and I was one of the volunteer tutors who worked on a one to one basis with those whose English language skills weren’t yet up to a sufficient standard to allow them to attend classroom based lessons. It was all about learning practical language skills to enable people to go shopping, get the bus, visit the doctors’ etc. The lessons were informal and, to be honest, were as much about having a chat and a brew in a relaxed, friendly environment as they were about teaching English.
This particular lad had been in the UK for over a year and was still awaiting the outcome of his application for asylum. The frustration of being unable to find anything other than casual work was obvious. Initially our conversations revolved around life in Sheffield and football. He was a Persian speaking Hazara, from a part of Afghanistan with close links to Iran and was rooting for the Iranians in the 2006 World Cup. He enjoyed watching the Premier League and, in particular, Liverpool. He asked me who I supported and I tried to explain about FC United of Manchester but my English teaching skills simply weren’t up to it.
Over the course of several months, he divulged his reasons for fleeing his homeland and leaving behind loved ones. And he described a tortuous seven month journey through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France culminating in a cross-Channel journey clinging to the underside of a lorry before disembarking at a Kent motorway service station in the middle of the night. All the time, fearful that, at any moment, he could be caught and sent back home. It told of desperation that few of us will ever come close to experiencing. I had nothing but admiration for the lad’s courage.
Two of the biggest sporting stories of 2012 involved refugees. In March, Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch after suffering a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup quarter final at White Hart Lane. Initially doctors feared for his life, his heart having stopped beating, but fortunately he was able to make a full recovery and left hospital a month later. Muamba was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and his father fled the country in 1994 fearing for his life because of his political views and applied for asylum in the UK. Eventually he was given indefinite leave to remain in 1999 and was joined by the rest of his family including Fabrice.
Double Olympic champion Mo Farah has a similar background. Mo was born in Mogadishu in Somalia but moved to neighbouring Somaliland at a young age as Somalia descended into two decades of ruinous civil war. The family were refugees and lived in squalid conditions in a small tent in a refugee camp. Eventually, an eight year old Mo moved to Britain to join his dad, barely able to speak a word of English.
Much has been written and discussed about the legacy of this British sporting year. One of my hopes is that, through the likes of Mo Farah and Fabrice Muamba, we will all become a little less suspicious of asylum seekers and refugees and recognise the enormous contribution that they make to British life. A recent poll commissioned by Amnesty International, Refugee Action and the Refugee Council showed that 48% of young people in Britain believe that few asylum seekers are “genuine”. And 58% think that asylum seekers and refugees do not make a positive contribution to the UK.
Sadly there remain huge misconceptions about who asylum seekers are and the reasons why they come to the UK. That they have often fled violence and torture in their own countries and have left behind families, friends and jobs is conveniently ignored in nonsense news stories about “floods” of “bogus” asylum seekers arriving on our shores merely to scrounge off our over-generous welfare state. Too often we talk about numbers but ignore the incredible human stories behind the statistics.
The idea that most asylum seekers and refugees from across the globe are intent on making a bee-line for the UK is simply not true. The UK provides a home for less than 2% of the world’s refugees (there were 15 million worldwide in 2011). Around 86% of those seeking asylum, like Mo Farah’s family, end up in neighbouring developing countries, often living for many years in refugee camps without running water and electricity.
The right to asylum is enshrined in international law. The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention guarantees everyone the right to apply for asylum in another country. Down the years it has saved many millions of lives and should be something of which we are proud. It recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to make it to a place of safety; there is no legal way to travel to the UK specifically to claim asylum.
Refugees make a huge contribution to British life. Their contribution to the UK coffers through taxation massively outweighs the benefits received by asylum seekers who are not legally able to work. As an example, since 1972, it is estimated that over 30,000 jobs have been created in Leicester alone by refugees from Uganda. The British Medical Association has over 1,200 medically qualified refugee doctors and nurses on its database. Indeed, it is arguable whether or not the NHS would continue to function without immigrant staff.
Sport, and football in particular, is a wonderful way to integrate newly arrived communities. As a co-owner of FC United of Manchester I’m immensely proud of the considerable work that the club does with asylum seekers and refugees in Manchester. This includes running football coaching sessions for refugees and asylum seekers, and joint teams of FC supporters and refugees playing in tournaments and attending matches together. In addition there is the work with the Boaz Trust through the annual collection of warm clothing on Big Coat Day. The Boaz Trust helps destitute asylum seekers in Greater Manchester by providing accommodation, food, clothing and other necessities.
When I purchase my “pay what you can afford” season ticket each summer, the knowledge that a proportion of that money goes on work like this is something I take great pride in and means much more to me than paying a competitive wage to a new player who may, or may not, get us promoted.