Podcast: “We see sport and leisure as a deep integration tool for refugees in Denmark”

Posted September 1, 2020

By Rachel Payne, ISCA

Five years ago, Danish authorities had to respond quickly to a refugee crisis that saw families and individuals walking along its highways to seek asylum in Denmark or continue their journey even further into Sweden. The situation has since eased and borders have been tightened. But while this took the immediate pressure off services and municipalities, it also took refugee integration off the table as a social priority. The Danish Red Cross and sports club umbrella DGI are now working together to put the value of sports and social clubs back on the table as “deep integration” tools. We speak to them in our exclusive MOVE Beyond podcast.

As the Head of Inclusion at DGI North Zealand in Denmark – and a football coach for refugees and asylum seekers – Peter Bennett has witnessed a clear shift in national and local approaches to refugee inclusion in the past five years.

“The refugee agenda has been pushed aside and Denmark has a very strict refugee policy now,” he says. “So we’ve seen the situation from five-six years ago when they were walking on the highways until now, when nearly no refugees get into the country.”

To help clubs provide welcoming leisure activities for refugees who are still residing in the country, Peter and his team at DGI are working with the Danish Red Cross on a pilot initiative in Rudersdal municipality, north of Copenhagen, as part of ISCA’s EU-supported MOVE Beyond project.

They aim to bring key actors from the community together – sports and social clubs, humanitarian workers, municipal staff and volunteers – to pool their ideas and resources and match clubs with refugees according to their interests.

As Alexander van Deurs, from the Danish Red Cross explains, “the focus of Red Cross staff and volunteers these years is to achieve more deep integration: getting refugees into jobs, education or their families reunified. In the process of getting into the local community, this is an important stage. Sports clubs and sports activities could be one of those elements of getting someone deep into the society they’re living in now.”

Peter notes that being included in a sports club not only helps refugees make social connections and learn Danish, it also offers a less intimidating introduction to life in a new community.

“Sports clubs are also part of civic society; they’re not part of the system,” he says. “Refugees are used to meeting Danish people from inside the system – they’re all people who are evaluating them and telling them what to do and what not to do. In civic society we’re seeing them as people first and foremost and not as refugees. That makes a big difference, actually, for people to get out into places and be seen as the persons they are.”

Welcome workshops an eye-opener for people working with refugees

DGI and the Red cross are using Rudersdal municipality, which has one of the highest refugee populations in Denmark, as a test bed for “welcome workshops” that help sports and non-sports actors get to know each other and prepare them to welcome refugees in their initiatives.

“What we saw in Rudersdal municipality was that there were many volunteers and many members of the municipality working with refugees, all wanting to help them get into society and get integrated,” Peter says about the experience of hosting the workshops.

“But what we noticed very quickly was that there was actually no coordination between the parties. So there’d be sports clubs, social clubs, schools, integration consultants and so on, all working on the same aim but not working together. So that is the core of our project, to try to get these well-meaning people and volunteers to work together to achieve more with the same amount of effort.”

Bringing people with the same aims and interests together was a deliberate approach to encourage ongoing collaboration after the MOVE Beyond project ends in December. It was also a positive surprise for some of the participants.

“It was an eye-opener for them,” Alexander says. “‘Oh, do you do the same as me? Now, we should talk together!’”

“Bazaar” for sports clubs and refugees the next big calendar event

The next step of their pilot is to hold an open “bazaar” in Rudersdal on 13 September, where the sports clubs that were part of the workshops and refugees can meet each other. Local social organisation The Bridge and DGI have pledged to sponsor membership fees for refugee and vulnerable children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to join a sports club.

“And that’s the whole idea with the bazaar day,” Peter says. “That sports clubs can meet refugees and the refugees will hopefully get interested in what they have to offer and then we can pair refugees and sports clubs up in the same way as we did in the workshop.”

Peter and Alexander hope the Rudersdal model will highlight the win-win scenario of including refugees and bringing more active members into sports clubs. They also hope concept will spread throughout the country – something that is yet to be achieved – when they present the results of their pilot to sports clubs and social workers from around Denmark in Odense on 30 September.

“Many people have tried to do something like this before and failed in one way or another,” Alexander explains. “So many people have been telling us that it’s not easy to do this and you’re not the first one to try, but please try again and if you succeed, it will be perfect.”

Find out the secrets and learning points behind the Danish Red Cross and DGI’s “welcome workshops” for sport and non-sports actors in refugee inclusion. Listen to the podcast below.