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Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner: Football for Refugees


At UEFA’s Respect Forum in Frankfurt, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – a UEFA partner - discussed the important role that European football can play in helping refugees settle into their new lives and communities.

Filippo Grandi at the UEFA-UNHCR Unity Euro Cup
Filippo Grandi at the UEFA-UNHCR Unity Euro Cup Lara Suffel/DFB

UNHCR recently published figures showing there are 110 million people who are currently forcibly displaced globally– the largest figure ever recorded. How can football support your efforts to address this enormous challenge?

Filippo Grandi (F.G): Sport can be an important tool to respond to the problems of refugees in a series of ways. Football is about healthy bodies and healthy minds. Often refugees have suffered major trauma affecting their mental health. Football is about healthy competition for people who are fleeing unhealthy conflicts.

Sports and football are also about motivation, very often for people who are facing despair. Sport is inclusive. We often say that one of the best ways to protect refugees is to include them in society. Sport is a powerful instrument of inclusion and integration.

How is UNHCR’s partnership with UEFA making a difference?

F.G: Our joint initiative with UEFA, the Unity EURO Cup, is a beautiful example of the partnership. It is made up of teams that are diverse in every respect. Their players must include both refugees and nationals from the countries they represent, as well as men and women. Playing together is always the best option for inclusion.

We are trying to say to countries hosting refugees, don’t put refugees in camps. Most refugees now live in the communities that are hosting them. The first step to integration starts in the street, playing together, because every kid in the world whether refugees or not, male or female, loves to play football.

Children come together easily, young people also, but once you become older, that integration becomes harder. If we encourage children from a young age to play football together, to play team games, this is a fantastic way to promote inclusion.

UNHCR/ C.Melzer.

How can members of the wider European football community contribute?

F.G: Everything that you are discussing here at the Forum - respect for the environment, awareness of what climate change means, fighting racism - these are all important things that also contribute to creating more welcoming societies for the 110 million people who have been forced to flee their homes globally.

I would like to see even more done by European football federations, to cascade their actions down to clubs, at all levels. Bringing people together in the community has a very important local effect. We are partnering with UEFA to pursue this objective through football.

How would you describe the attitude of Europeans towards refugees?

F.G: I am not naïve. Europe is confronted with complex issues of population movements, (but) the reaction to Ukraine and last year’s huge movement of people showed that Europeans have incredible solidarity. It has lasted a year and a half and shows no sign of abating, demonstrating that the laws, the polices and the practices are possible in Europe to ensure the same compassionate and organised response for all refugees, no matter where they are fleeing from.

What’s the most important message that football can help to deliver?

F.G: When I went to the Polish border in March last year, I saw a mountain of toys that local communities had brought to the reception centre for the Ukrainian children arriving there in their hundreds. That sent a strong message of solidarity. In football, you have an incredible vantage point to convey a positive message to huge crowds, that (refugees) are just like us but in a difficult position. That would be a fantastic achievement.

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