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World Refugee Day 2021: six ways UEFA is using football to help refugees

Leveraging football’s unifying power to build a better future for refugees lies at the heart of UEFA’s social responsibility programme.

On the eve of World Refugee Day 2021, UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, announced that the number of people forced to flee their communities or countries has doubled in the last decade.

Of the 84.2 million who flee conflict and other emergencies each year, many find a new home in Europe. Integrating into a new society can be challenging. This is where European football has a unique role.

With its power to connect – regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or belief – the ‘beautiful game’ bridges social barriers. At the same time, its visibility can raise awareness of, and funds for, refugee programmes.

We look at how UEFA is capitalising on football’s unifying power to build a better future for all refugees, in Europe and beyond.

1. Cooperation agreement with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency

UEFA and UNHCR: Together #WithRefugees
UEFA and UNHCR: Together #WithRefugees

Earlier this year, UEFA underlined its long-term commitment to using football to support refugees’ social integration by signing a cooperation protocol with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency .

The agreement will facilitate regular exchanges between the two organisations, building synergies between UNHCR’s emergency operations and football’s ability to raise awareness of social and global issues. The partnership will also encourage collaboration on the ground between UEFA’s member associations and UNHCR offices across Europe.

"No matter where in the world I travel for UNHCR – refugee camps, settlements, towns and cities – I see how football has the extraordinary ability to unite people around a common passion," says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

"Through our partnership with UEFA, we hope to use the power of football to connect displaced people and the communities that host them. Sport provides an opportunity for refugee children and youth to be included – it also has the transformative power to rebuild lives and inspire positive values."

2. UEFA refugee policy

As part of a new Responsibility pillar recently added to its overall 2019–24 strategy, UEFA is drawing up a specific policy to guide its support for refugees. This will include a set of ten-year goals, actions and indicators.

In addition, UEFA will also establish minimum standards for its 55 member associations’ own social responsibility programmes. "As a governing body, it is our task to provide a policy framework that unifies European football’s sustainability programmes, ensuring they all speak the same language," says Michele Uva, UEFA’s director of football social responsibility.

3. UEFA’s football and refugee grant scheme

Refugees play during a tournament in Italy
Refugees play during a tournament in ItalyGetty Images

In 2017, UEFA’s football social responsibility programme set up an annual grant scheme that awards €50,000 each to six national association projects helping refugees settle into their new communities. Initially, most of the winning projects focused on a basic approach, such as using training and matches to support integration.

Today, more and more national associations continue their work off the field as well as on it. Some use their local networks to assist refugees in finding work or offer vocational training as coaches, referees or volunteers. Other projects provide psychological support, language training or specialised support for women and girls. Refugees may leave conflict and persecution behind them, but all too often, the trauma travels with them. Many of the projects also draw on specialist knowledge from expert partners to maximise their impact and reach as many beneficiaries as possible.

In 2021, UEFA awarded grants to projects in Armenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Future editions of the scheme will be restructured, giving more associations a chance to benefit from UEFA’s football and refugee grants.

4. Social responsibility projects funded by EURO revenue

How football is helping refugees settle in Italy
How football is helping refugees settle in Italy

Since 2004, UEFA has channelled EURO revenue back into the European game through its HatTrick development programme. Each year, HatTrick allocates €100,000 for each of Europe’s 55 national associations to invest in social responsibility programmes focused on human rights and the environment.

These programmes often provide support for refugees, such as Rete! (network) , which is run by the Italian Football Federation and encourages local football clubs to help people who have emigrated to Italy and/or are under humanitarian protection adapt to their new lives. To date, Rete has reached more than 2,600 children and young adults (aged 15–22).

Refugees watch Italy vs Wales

5. UEFA Foundation for Children

The UEFA Foundation has been helping children since 2015
The UEFA Foundation has been helping children since 2015

Set up in 2015, the UEFA Foundation for Children uses football as a vehicle to help improve children’s lives by supporting hundreds of campaigns and projects across Europe and around the world.

Several projects supported by the foundation use sport to help child refugees recover from the physical and psychological trauma caused by conflict and other humanitarian emergencies. For example, at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the joy of playing football gives hope of a better future to countless children and young people, while simultaneously training locals and refugees to become coaches. The foundation hopes to replicate its Zaatari experience in other countries and continents.

6. European Union

In addition to UNHCR, UEFA has also partnered with the European Union (EU) to ensure its member associations can support EU projects for refugees at country level. For example, the FIRE (Football Including Refugees) project and FIRE 2.0 projects, both coordinated by European think tank Sport and Citizenship, encourage football clubs to work with refugees and asylum seekers.

At UEFA EURO 2020, the EU and the UEFA Foundation for Children are also co-funding UNITY – a series of football festivals promoting the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in countries hosting EURO matches.