This article is about the beating heart of AFC Liverpool – and other football clubs and supporters in the UK. I will be talking about the beating heart of AFC Liverpool because it is doing something that the UK government refuses to do, that is, to look after some of the most vulnerable people in the world. This is because the club engages with society with its heart. Our club came into existence because we could feel the consequences of social exclusion (especially from the Premier League football grounds) and wanted to do something about it. As such, we make a point of welcoming people that have been told they are not wanted elsewhere. Welcoming asylum seekers and refugees is therefore in our DNA. But before I write about AFC Liverpool and its beating heart I first need to provide an outline of the current world refugee crisis.
#RefugeesNotWelcome: The Iron Heart of the UK
These headlines clearly indicate that asylum seekers and refugees are not welcome in the UK. They fuel hate and division. The reality of the situation, however, is quite different to that presented by papers such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail as the following statistics from the Red Cross and Refugee Council indicate:
- The UK received 38,500 asylum applications in 2016. This was less than Germany (722,265), Sweden (83,103), and France (62,771).
- In 2015, only 45 per cent of cases were granted asylum and allowed to stay once their cases had been fully concluded.
Gandhi once stated that the moral greatness of a nation could be judged by the way in which it treats its animals. The same might be said for the way it treats human beings fleeing persecution in their home country. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1953 give us an indication of how well we can judge the humanity of a society in this respect. Article 3 of the ECHR states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and that, if this is the case, it is incumbent on countries such as the UK to accept asylum seekers with open arms. This does not simply mean not ‘sending them back’. It means accepting people into the host society in full so that they can integrate properly into their host country.
So, how humane is Britain and does it have a heart?
With a right-wing media that demonises asylum seekers and refugees on a daily basis and a government that makes their lives as hard as possible, Britain does not register highly on the humanity scale. While the picture presented by the media and government makes us think that most of the world’s asylum seekers and refugees are coming to Britain the truth is rather different. Far from being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers, the UK barely shoulders any of the asylum burden despite the world being in the throes of the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. In reality, poor countries (not rich western countries like the UK) look after the vast majority of the world’s refugees. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries. For instance, last year alone Uganda welcomed 489,000 South Sudanese refugees. In two weeks alone Uganda offered refuge to more people than Britain did all year. Moreover, most refugees just move from one poor country to another. They actually don’t go looking for rich countries like Britain.
It is interesting to note how Britain compares to countries such as Uganda. At the end of last year, 39,365 asylum seekers and their dependants were being supported by the Government. To put it into starker perspective, let us consider the case of Syrian refugees. The number of Syrians who have sought asylum in Britain since the conflict began stands at just 10,626. That’s just 0.2% of Syria’s refugees of which there are now 5.5 million. The number of Syrian refugees resettled in Britain stands at 7,307 since the conflict began.
More generally, and from a European perspective, over 1 million people sought safety in Europe in the year to March 2017. Yet Britain received just 36,846 asylum applications, including dependants. Thus Britain only received around 3% of all asylum claims made in the EU during last year. Then there is the issue of the Mediterranean passage route: 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea last year whereas, this year, 1,530 men, women and children have lost their lives during their desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Just under half of arrivals in Europe were women and children. The situation now is such that the countries on Europe’s borders – Greece and Italy – are struggling to cope with the numbers of desperate people arriving. For this reason, European countries agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 refugees away from Greece and Italy to help ease the pressure. Britain has refused to help at all and has actually been sending people seeking asylum back to countries on Europe’s borders. It has also refused to keep to its commitment to provide a safe haven for 3,000 “Dubs Children” from the Calais camps; only 350 were brought to Britain.
Bogus Asylum Seekers
The idea that asylum seekers and refugees are bogus is also far from the truth. Aside from having to deal with a government that does not want them here, asylum seekers have fled traumatic circumstances. It is no coincidence that, at present, more than half of the world’s refugees (55 per cent) come from just three conflict ridden countries. These are Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million) and South Sudan (1.4 million). Other significant countries of origin are the conflict ridden societies of Eritrea and Somalia. The situation in Syria is probably better known by readers so let us consider the circumstances in some of the other countries that asylum seekers are fleeing to the UK from.
Sudan and South Sudan: Sudan is an Islamic authoritarian one-party state governed by the National Congress Party. South Sudan, which split from Sudan in 2011, is predominantly Black, traditional (animist) and Christian and governed by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). After the 2011 split a number of territories became transitional areas leading to fighting between Sudanese government forces and SPLM/A over cattle, land and natural resources. The Lord’s Resistance Army (a Christian group) is also active in multi-ethnic and tribal South Sudan. Darfur is a hotspot of fighting where the Sudanese government is accused of oppression and ethnic cleansing of Darfur’s non-Arab population.
In the contested territories both government and non-state militia forces are responsible for civilian deaths, the torching and destruction of property, and mass displacement of persons. Government militias are also guilty of crimes against humanity, including using rape as a tool of war, systematic torture, robbery and recruitment of child soldiers. In addition a government bombing campaign has killed and maimed civilian men, women and children, displacing tens of thousand others, whilst preventing communities from planting crops and feeding themselves. Human rights activists, journalists, and others that speak out against the government, and those suspected of having links to rebel movements, are harassed, intimidated, arrested, detained and tortured. Over 400,000 Sudanese people have claimed asylum under the 1951 convention, and another 5 million have been internally displaced as a result of the continued fighting. Darfurians were a key element of the population in the Calais Jungle.
Eritrea: An authoritarian state governed by the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Human Rights Watch has found that “torture, arbitrary arrests, detention, and forced labour are rampant in the country” against opponents of the regime. Torture includes severe beatings, mock drowning, being hung by the arms from trees, being tied up in the sun in contorted positions for hours or days, and being held in unlit underground bunkers and in shipping containers with extremely hot daytime and freezing night-time temperatures. Although Sunni Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity are officially recognised, members of other religions are persecuted for being ‘unpatriotic’ and a threat to national security. Churches are regularly raided and members imprisoned and tortured (some to the point of death) so that they renounce their faith.
As a result Eritrea is one of the most notorious refugee producing countries in the world. Yet, for the majority of 2016, the UK was failing to recognise Eritreans seeking asylum. In the first nine months of 2016, just 28% of Eritreans were granted asylum in the UK. Significantly, 87% of refusals on Eritrean claims that have been appealed were overturned in court. There is a good reason for this: The Eritrean government views refused asylum seekers who return to the country as enemies of the state and treats them accordingly. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, refused asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to Eritrea have been arrested without charge, detained with no access to the outside world and tortured and killed at the hands of the authorities. According to the US Government ‘Country Report for Eritrea’, many simply ‘disappear’. It is for this reason that UNHCR has advised against refusing asylum seekers who are critical of government or are members of, are associated with, or are even perceived to be associated with, opposition political groups since they will be at significant risk of all of the above human rights abuses on return to Eritrea.
Somalia: A country that has been at civil war since 1990 with both government and non-state armed forces seriously violating international humanitarian law. The two most pertinent groups in the conflict are government and Al-Shabaab which is a militant Islamist group. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces routinely carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings of alleged Al-Shabaab members. Similarly, Al-Shabaab has carried out extrajudicial killings of suspected informers or enemy sympathisers using public executions and beheadings . They also use torture.
There are many reasons for seeking asylum from Somalia but two key ones are as follows: First, according to Human Rights Watch, the forced conscription of adults and children is widespread on both sides. According to the UN, Al-Shabaab abducted an estimated 2,000 children for military training in 2010. Amnesty International have reported that almost all Somali refugees interviewed in 2010 cited the forcible conscription of children as their reason for fleeing Somalia.
Second, members of minority clans are vulnerable to attack and human rights abuses because they lack the military capability to defend themselves against the warlords and militia groups of the large clans. Members of minority clans are particularly exposed to the risk of rape, attack, abduction and having their property confiscated.
Living Charmed Lives
The idea promoted by organisations such as Migration Watch that bogus asylum seekers would uproot themselves and put their lives at risk on the often dangerous journey to their destination countries, such as the UK, is fantastical. The Refugee Council research report ‘Chance or Choice?’ makes it abundantly clear that the single most significant reason for asylum seeking is to escape conflict and that, moreover, the most popular reason for arriving in the UK (rather than elsewhere) is down to the role of agents rather than people themselves; although it is important to note that some people do come to the UK because they believe that their human rights will be respected.
As we have seen, people arriving in the UK have fled the most intolerable of conditions, only to find themselves in yet more intolerable conditions when they arrive: Asylum seekers arriving in the UK can find themselves in detention centres or living in a ‘dispersal area’ on section 95 funding which is a mere £36 each week. Moreover, passage through the asylum system is a trauma in itself for people already suffering the traumas of conflict, forced migration and sometimes separation from family. Despite this, less than half of asylum claims are accepted, so huge numbers of people are faced with the further trauma of having to return to their country of origin.
So what about the actual experience of seeking asylum in the UK?
Although many asylum seekers spend time in libraries (where they learn English) most are dependent on interpreters when they first arrive. Yet Refugee Council research shows that these services are wholly inadequate and that this can prejudice the outcome of cases. Meanwhile asylum seekers living in dispersal areas do so in the most hostile of conditions which have been whipped up by the right-wing British media and politicians. Theresa May has talked about creating a ‘hostile environment’. She has succeeded. In the month after the Brexit vote, hate crime increased by 49% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland which the Institute for Race Relations directly linked to the xenophobic language of politicians and media. In the aftermath of the Manchester Bomb Islamophbic hate crime increased by 500%. Asylum seekers are frequently targets of such crime. But that is just the thin end of the wedge. The level of hate crime is under-reported because many asylum seekers will not report hate crimes to authorities. This is because they have a mistrust of authority given their experiences in their home country as well as their fear of attracting unwanted attention to themselves since they believe that this might lead to their deportation. In a nutshell, asylum seekers arrive traumatised and continue to live that trauma as they make their passageway through the asylum system and everyday life in the ‘hostile environment’ of Theresa May’s UK.
The Beating Heart of AFC Liverpool
If we were to transport ourselves back to the 1970s and 1980s, when I first began to watch football, there would be no reason to believe that football could offer anything different to the society that surrounded it. Far-right racist groups recruited inside as well as outside of football grounds and racist chanting on the terraces was common place. Football was no place for someone from another country or with skin colour other than white. But football has changed. After the rampant greed of the 1990s, which was set in train by the establishment of the Premier League, the 2000s have witnessed a flourishing of football ‘in the community’ initiatives. Community work has become such a prominent feature of football, in fact, that it now merits its own slot on TV programmes such as Match of the Day. Of course it is easy to be cynical about these initiatives, which can be as much about attracting new fans as benevolent intent. But whatever their real reasons for existing, they do. Non-league clubs do more than their fair share too.
Insofar as these initiatives focus on asylum seekers and refugees the activity is mostly oriented to providing opportunities for people to play football together. A report by Chris Stone, for Football Unites, Racism Divides shows that these opportunities to play produce many benefits in terms of well-being. However, many of the football playing projects are provided for asylum seekers and refugees, which strengthens those communities internally but they do not necessarily provide links to social networks outside of them.
Suffice it to say that engaging with asylum seekers and refugees is not not just about playing football. Some clubs offer tickets for matches. Sheffield United is one of these clubs. However, the offer of tickets is infrequent so there is little chance that asylum seekers and refugees can integrate themselves into the fan communities of clubs such as Sheffield United. They are more likely to experience them as tourists.
So what can we do that is different?
I have been involved at AFC Liverpool for just over one year now and the one thing that has struck me is that the club is a space of kindness. In this respect it defies the world that surrounds it. People give their own time, without payment or other reward, to run the club. The beneficiaries of this are those that attend the matches or otherwise follow the team from afar. Our fans embody the ethos and values of the club to make it a wholesome space of generosity and kindness.
This is not to say that the people running the club do not get anything out of it. Friendships have been formed among board members that did not exist prior to the club coming into existence. These friendships have emerged from a shared set of values that, at AFC Liverpool, came from a desire to provide affordable football to people that were excluded by the Premier League and a desire to “contribute to social inclusion, and reinforce collective identities, improve self-esteem and inspire”. In a nutshell, AFC Liverpool exists to “reach as many people as possible, especially minorities, excluded and under-represented groups”.
It is for this reason that we, at AFC Liverpool, were particularly aware of asylum and refugee issues. We discussed these issues at a recent board meeting and decided to establish an asylum and refugee fan project. The point of the project is to provide travel cards and AFC match tickets to asylum seekers and refugees so that they can attend our matches. Unlike at Sheffield United, we hope to be able to welcome asylum seekers and refugees to all of our home games. And, as a non-league club playing in step 5, we are a small and welcoming community. This means that it is easy for a new face to become known, and for the new face to get to know established ones. As such, we are hoping that regular attendance will make it easy for asylum seekers and refugees to become integrated into our community. Just to make sure, we will be running pre and post match events to ensure this happens. These events will use the common language, interest and experience of football to build a greater understanding of the experience of asylum seekers and refugees.
This integration into our fan community is important because a key issue facing asylum seekers and refugees is a lack of social networks in their host city. Asylum Link Merseyside are concerned that this is a particularly salient issue in Liverpool. Ultimately, we hope that we can become the community that provides links into social networks that are currently missing for asylum seekers and refugees. In doing so, we want those asylum seekers and refugees to feel welcome in our city. But we don’t just want them to feel welcome. We are hoping that regular attendance will give asylum seekers and refugees a sense of true belonging in our city because, ultimately, this is what football is good at doing. Ultimately, then, we hope that this integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the heart of the safe and friendly world of AFC Liverpool will act as an antidote to the hostile environment that Theresa May has created outside – we want people to begin to feel more safe and more secure. So although the UK has badly failed the humanity test, we are hoping that the beating heart of AFC Liverpool will finally provide asylum seekers and refugees with the humanity that they so badly need and hoped they might find when they came here.
Please donate to our asylum and refugee project here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/afcliverpool4refugees