Seeking Asylum in Football

Chris Ledger, ladies and gentlemen. He's on a roll.

Leyton Orient may be a typical lower-league club, but they made history ten years ago by signing former Partizan midfielder Naim Uka. He became the first asylum-seeker from Kosovo to sign for an English professional football club. Despite Orient’s assistant manager Paul Clarke proclaiming Uka - who escaped to South Wales via a Macedonian truck – as the best technical footballer of his age in English football, he failed to make a first-time appearance during his two-year spell at Brisbane Road. Fast forward to 2010, and very little has changed.

Whilst the majority of asylum-seekers have said that the British public are tolerant and kind, refugee footballers still face problems on and off the pitch. Shelbourne FC’s Oscar Sibanda, for example, faced the prospect of being deported anytime in June 2010 after his three-year bid to stay in Ireland failed. The Department of Justice also forced the Zimbabwean to relocate from Mosney to Dublin and, despite paying for his own transport, Shelbourne could not legally pay his wages; meaning he earned just €19.10 a week.

During the 2002 World Cup, there were also problems between English supporters and asylum seekers in Hull. Over 200 hooligans chased them down a street, after the match between England and Sweden, throwing bricks and bottles at them. This problem extends to other parts of Europe. The Budapest-based club African Stars, comprising of asylum seekers living in Hungary, often faces racial abuse as they are pelted with bananas during matches.

The most concerning incident, though, occurred in Slovenia. 24 refugees attended a pre-season training camp, held in 2006. They all sought asylum when it finished, but four of them were held in detention after a failed bid to prevent deportation. There was a public outcry, which included support from the then Slovene President Janez Drnovsek, but they were still deported by the Supreme Court.

Due to these problems, there have been some attempts to make football more accessible to asylum seekers. Partick Thistle has been one of the most consistent promoters, introducing a support programme for refugees that offered clothing and English lessons. Attempts at tackling these problems, though, are usually seen only on World Refugee Day. Afro-Jools United and the Unity Cup both host annual tournaments, which include refugee footballers from countries such as Algeria, Ghana, South Africa and Zambia.

The biggest event was in Belgium, where ‘Fair Play for Refugees’ was held on World Refugee Day. A football match was organised, which consisted of mixed teams of asylum seekers and Belgian footballers including Mbo Mpenza, Faris Haroun and Alan Haydock. The match - which was similar to other tournaments, held on the same day, in Leicester and Turkey - was held for refugees to experience playing the sport and to inject confidence, rather than giving them the opportunity to impress scouts.

The remit of the ‘Fair Play for Refugees’ event highlights inadequacies. They are often held just once a year, which smacks of tokenism, as efforts to host such events on a frequent basis are minimal. If there are regular events – such as the activities hosted by Partick Thistle – they are often reduced to existing as a care in the community programme. It is a patronising remit, as these schemes are often not aware of the fact that asylum seekers may be good enough to play football professionally. These schemes deserve praise, simply for preventing asylum seekers from being socially excluded, but they do little to increase the low number of refugees playing professional football.

Despite the fact that asylum seekers in Britain enjoy football – the male they most admire, for instance, is David Beckham – playing in a local league is likely to be the best that most can hope for. Crossworld is a team based in North Dulwich which, in addition to playing at an amateur level, prides itself in providing education and employment workshops for their refugee players. A £2,200 grant from the Dispossessed Fund has also enabled the club to provide summer training programmes and an annual team building residential.

It is because of these donations, though, why teams like Crossworld still exist. Teams like Plymouth Hope FC and Stoke’s Jaghori United, who actively recruit refugee footballers, would cease to exist if they did not have support from charities like Sport Relief. In these circumstances, a wannabe footballer – who is also an asylum seeker – may find it difficult to play in a local league.

Refugee footballers, however, can thrive if they are given the right opportunities and support. Crystal Palace signed Victor Moses on schoolboy terms, after being spotted by scouts in a local park, when he was an asylum seeker. He was immediately enrolled into Whitgift – the second wealthiest educational trust in England – where he was able to benefit from their facilities and expert tuition. Moses has since moved to Premier League outfit Wigan Athletic. West Bromwich Albion youth product Saido Berahino, who moved from war-hit Burundi to Birmingham when he was aged 11, is also expected to achieve great things in the future.

The big issue lies in the unavoidable fact that the likes of Moses and Berahino are exceptions to the norm. Many asylum seekers, who could play football at a professional level, are simply not given the opportunities to do so. The possibility that some of these players do enter the game too late may be an issue, but many football clubs still see refugees solely as a cog in their community remit. There is still a lot of work to be done before we see a change in this mentality.

As well as writing for IBWM, Chris is the editor of the outstanding Obscure music and football blog. You can follow him on Twitter @obscurefootball