Team Refugees-Their Success is Our Failure

Dr Rebecca Richards – SPIRE
Lecturer in International Relations

On 5 August, after watching a few hours of typical Olympics opening ceremony, the crowd – and the world – erupted into cheers as the athletes of ‘Team Refugees’ entered the stadium. Rather than being included in the alphabetically ordered parade of nations, they entered the stadium in a position of honour, entering just before the hosts Brazil. The ten athletes competing for Team Refugees come from Syria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan (although South Sudan is officially recognised as the place of origin here, these athletes left their homes prior to 2011, when South Sudan became an independent state). Of the athletes, 19 year old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini has garnered most of the attention, and rightly so given her heroic story. And when she swam – and won – her heat in the 100-metre butterfly, the enthusiastic response from the crowd and the assembled press was tangible support for a young woman who represents the best and most resilient of humanity.

Indeed, all of Team Refugees represents the strength of humans, even under the most unthinkable of circumstances. Most of us in the West couldn’t imagine a situation in which we would be forced into a similar situation. Sure, we sometimes joke about it – “if so and so wins the election, I’m going to flee the country and claim political asylum somewhere else” – but the likelihood of any of us experiencing life as a refugee is slight. But then again, Mardini probably thought that at one point in her life too.

The Zaatari Camp in Jordan

When the International Olympics Committee announced the formation of Team Refugees in March, it was met with broad approval. How could you disagree with the premise behind it? When the team walked into the stadium in Rio, though, many were unexpectedly met with mixed emotions. Yes, the presence of those ten individuals in an Olympic Games was not only the fulfilling of many of their dreams, but it was also a recognition of their existence and an apology for their suffering. It was also a recognition of those who would never be able to fulfil their dreams, including 21 year old sprinter Samia Omar, who competed in Beijing but who, in attempting to escape al-Shabaab in Somalia, drowned in the Mediterranean in April 2012.  Team Refugees is a team of triumph and determination, but it is also a team of tragedy and terror, and watching them enter the stadium in Rio brought tears to my eyes. Yet the presence of those ten individuals in the Olympic Games is also a sad indictment of our failures – some political and some human – of not addressing the long-term refugee crisis that has existed since long before the war in Syria began. It is a sad indictment of the failures that have been highlighted in the past five years, with Europe closing its borders, political leaders raising obstacles to fulfilling their obligations under international law, and Western citizens holding up their privilege and saying “we do not want to live next to them”. These failures are a stark reminder of the ‘othering’ that we participate in on a daily basis. Team Refugees represents those who we reject, but they also represent a population that is roughly the size of that of the UK, and who are participating in the Olympic games as another state(like) contingent. This contributes to the seeming normalisation of refugees and of the refugee crisis, and this, more than anything, is a sad indictment of the failures of global politics.

When I set out writing this post, I did not intend to have a rant about the problems of Team Refugees. Rather, I wanted to contextualise the stories of the other nine members of the team, five of whom grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 65.3 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced, meaning that they have had to “flee to escape war, persecution, or terror,” and who are either internally displaced (stay in their state) or externally displaced (crossed into another state). Within this total, 21.3 million are classified as refugees. Only about 10 percent of refugees – around 2 million – make their way to the ‘rich world’ of Western Europe and North America. The Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa host around 60 percent of the world’s refugees. Jordan (655,000), Ethiopia (735,000), Iran (980,000), Lebanon (1.1 million), Pakistan (1.6 million) and Turkey (2.5 million) bear the majority of the human, economic, political, and social costs of the world’s refugee population. Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo are home to some of the world’s largest, and most established, refugee camps.


refugees 3

Source: The Guardian

The Dadaab camp in Kenya is one of these. Until recently it was home to more than 332,000 people, mostly people displaced from more than 30 years of conflict in Somalia. (For comparison, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the Zaatari camp in Jordan, is home to around 80,000).  Established by the UNHCR more than 20 years ago, it has continued to add around 30,000 people per year as Somalis flee from al-Shabaab. After the attacks on Kenya’s Garissa University (2011) and the Westgate Mall (2013), and in a political move by a government struggling with scandal and unpopularity, the Kenyan government began taking steps to close Dabaab and other Somali-populated camps and repatriate their estimated 600,000 residents back to Somalia. For many of the residents who were born in the camp and have never set foot in Somalia, this threat of eviction would send them back to their country of origin, but would make them a form of refugee in their own homeland.

Kenya also hosts large and long-established refugee camps populated by those fleeing wars in Sudan and South Sudan, and war and political violence in Uganda. Also threatened with closure, the Kakuma camp in the northwest of the country, established in 1992, is 580,367 square kilometres that is home to somewhere around 180,00 people, although that number continues to grow as violence escalates in South Sudan.

New Housing built in the Kakuma camp to accommodate refugees from renewed violence in South Sudan. Source: Al Jazeera

One of the observations of the Syrian refugee camps that people often make is the presence of a ‘camp economy’, where residents re-establish businesses they had at home, or start new businesses to either capitalise on circumstances or to meet the needs of the population. These businesses are more than just opportunism, though. They are indicative of the fact that life, and society, go on, and thus, as former UNHCR chief and  Keele alumni Fidelis Swai told us at his latest visit to campus, the functions typical of societies continue in the refugee camps. If these observers looked beyond the Syrian camps, they would see this in the long-term camps in many parts of Africa, including the camps in Kenya and the Kivu camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the DRC, a country that is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Burundi, but a country that also produces large numbers of refugees itself, including two members of Team Refugees, Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga (both Judo). These camps have established mechanisms of society, including economies, social provision including education and health care, and systems of governance; mechanisms which are established from within, although often supported by charities such as CARE International or international organisations such as the United Nations. We need to be careful to not romanticise this, though, as conditions are often horrendous and basic life-sustaining supplies are lacking. Indeed, one of the athletes competing in Rio, Yiech Pur Biel, who has lived in Kakuma since 2005, ran barefoot for ten years before he received his first pair of running shoes at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2015. It was from the Tegla Loroupe Foundation that Team Refugees found its origins, and five of Kakuma’s residents, including Biel, make up half of the team. These athletes, many of whom arrived in Kakuma from Sudan in 2002, some with their families and some, like Biel, on their own, ran in the camp as part of the continuation of life. 

Long-established camps are home to long-term residents, many of whom were born in the camps. Long-term displacement, often coupled with insecurity and instability or fragility in the state of origin, makes repatriation complex, difficult, and costly. Settlement in host countries is also problematic due to limitations of capacity and of political and social will. Because of this, long-term settlements often become self-fulfilling displacement camps that are home to large numbers of stateless individuals and permanent refugees. Five of Team Refugees athletes come from one of these camps. Five of the athletes marching under the IOC flag grew up in one of these camps, and barring spectacular opportunities following Rio, are likely to become life-long, or close to life-long, residents of one of these camps.

These camps are only a few examples of the ongoing refugee crisis in Africa. UNHCR estimates indicate somewhere around 15 million people on the continent are displaced, either internally displaced, as refugees, or as asylum seekers. A further 1.5 million are either stateless or people of concern. This crisis is massive, but it is a crisis that is vastly overshadowed and often ignored as the majority of the people effected by violence and conflict stay within the continent.


We as a society often do not pay much attention to the problems of Africa, possibly because in the language and perception of popular discourse, problems are ‘expected’; they are the “scar on the conscious of the world”. When we do pay attention, it is often when a boat of ‘migrants’ sinks in the Mediterranean, or when one makes it to Lampedusa in Italy or to another European port. But we almost always talk about them in the context of ‘migrants’ rather than refugees, and we do not talk about crisis until they are ‘at our door’. It is a way to look past the suffering and victimhood of displaced persons, and a way to place Europe as the victim of the movement of people instead.  It is ‘othering’, and it is the norm. Until we truly face the global crisis outside of the lens of ‘impact on us’, we will continue to fail the 65.3 million individuals who are forcibly displaced. Until we start to address the many causes of the crisis, and the repercussions of them, including the need for the long-term or permanent resettlement of refugees around the world, we will continue to fail these individuals. Until we look at Team Refugees and see our own failures as well as their success, our support for them will only ever be superficial.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s