A number of humanitarian organizations provide opportunities for migrants to play sports in Greek refugee camps. Families often have to live in extremely dehumanizing and mentally taxing conditions in the camps. Lesvos, one of the encampments helped by the programs, is situated on the eastern Mediterranean migration route. When refugees began arriving on the island in 2015, Lesvos residents welcomed the refugees with open arms, and the island earned the Nansen Refugee Award and a nomination for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
More and more refugees came to the island due to the open environment. Conditions quickly became overcrowded, and refugees lacked access to basic necessities. Some call the island a European “open-air refugee prison.” Refugees must stay on the island while the government reviews their refugee status, and the government has rejected all demands to create new refugee camps, resulting in a packed and underserviced area. Some have waited for years for a decision on their asylum case as they continue to live on the island with their families.
In 2022, about 1,500 asylum seekers were living on the island. They live in makeshift camps with barely any access to food, shelter, medicine and education for their children. The EU has failed to establish a sufficient allocation system to relieve the pressure on Italy and Greece, leading to overcrowded camps like Lesvos that can only offer limited aid. Four other Greek islands are also home to makeshift refugee camps.
The Katsikas camp is another underserviced camp helped by Yoga and Sport and Soup and Socks. The Katsikas camp is the largest refugee encampment in the Epirus region of Greece, which hosts more than 3,000 migrants. In 2020, the European Commission published its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which focuses on returns and deterrence of migrants rather than improving human rights standards in existing refugee camps or preparing new camps to elevate the pressure off of overcrowded camps like the one in Lesvos. Authorities especially dehumanize migrants in Katsika. The camp has slowly adopted the structure of a prison.
A Beacon of Hope
In 2022, the government built 3-meter-high walls around the camp, and the camp director announced a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with migrants needing permission to leave and enter the camp during those hours. Security cameras have been installed all over the camp to surveil the migrants. Interviewed migrants indicated their disapproval of the wall and expressed a sense of alienation and separation from the surrounding Greek community.
As such, these humanitarian organizations’ work is instrumental in maintaining morale and allowing refugees a brief reprieve from their harsh reality. Becoming passionate about a sport offers a brief diversion from the stressful conditions of the camp. Sports in Greek refugee encampments may start as a way to find joy in the encampments. Still, it can also become a lifelong commitment, with some refugees expressing a desire to make a career in the sport by joining a more advanced professional athletic team or becoming teachers of the sport. Habibi and Sports with Refugees (HSR), led by Soup and Socks in partnership with Yoga and Sport, has a tremendous impact on refugees in the Katsikas camp. HSR allows refugees to choose different sports, including yoga, running, swimming, martial arts, dance and climbing.
Another program initiated by the organization in 2016 called Habibi-Works gives refugees in the area a chance to develop their creativity by running a maker space facility near the encampment. The makerspace features a media lab, a metal and wood workspace and a sewing atelier. The program allows the refugees to explore the arts and develop technical skills that could be useful in their future careers.
Bringing sport to Greek refugee encampments and allowing the refugees to explore creative outlets are incredibly impactful methods of raising morale and giving a sense of community to the often-alienated migrants. By fostering connections, promoting self-expression, and offering an escape from the challenges they face, these initiatives play a vital role in creating a more supportive and inclusive environment for migrants.
– Tatiana Gnuva