Refugees Welcome: Football Fan Activism is Alive and Well

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Football has always been a channel through which social and political change can be sought.

From the fans of Barcelona championing the cause of Catalonian independence, to Liverpool’s campaign against the injustice of Hillsborough, the football community have time and time again encapsulated the notion ‘unity is strength’.

Football and politics are inextricably entwined to such an extent that entire clubs and fanbases can be categorised and characterised by political stance. Fan activism- both on the terraces and in day-to-day life- has been beneficial to a number of vulnerable communities around the world, none more so than refugees and asylum seekers. The migrant crisis has led not only to immense suffering amongst those affected, but to a dramatic upsurge in anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment.

In light of this, it is hugely evocative to see football supporters take a stand against such issues. Football is unique. Its strength in numbers and universal appeal gives it a voice powerful enough to enact truly positive change, and we are now seeing clubs long regarded as apolitical joining the fight against injustice.

It is hoped that such developments are indicative of the sport as a whole beginning to utilise its collective might.

Fan activism in support of refugees at Arsenal.
Arsenal fans demonstrate support for Syrian refugees [Image: overyourhead]

The Celtic support are an apt starting point for any discussion of football fan activism. Celtic were formed in 1887 as a means of providing for the impoverished Irish immigrant community in Glasgow’s east end. Many of this community were victims of forced migration due to the Irish Famine, and experienced immense destitution upon arrival in Scotland.

Brother Walfrid, Celtic’s Irish founder, stated that:

‘A football club must be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed’

Thus, charity has been at the club’s core ever since. Not only this, but being formed by immigrants is a hugely important part of the club’s identity, and supporters of Celtic regularly show solidarity with other marginalised groups around the world. Flags displaying the slogan ‘Created by immigrants. Refugees welcome’ are proudly flown on the slopes of Celtic Park, yet the work of Celtic fans goes above and beyond aesthetic demonstrations of support.

It is hoped that such developments are indicative of the sport as a whole beginning to utilise its collective might.

At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, Celtic donated the entire proceeds of a charity match to an international aid agency who were working to alleviate suffering. In the words of CEO Peter Lawwell, ‘Celtic was established as a football club to help people in need and that remains a fundamental part of our ethos’.

Liverpool FC is a club with a socialist identity.
The Kop, Liverpool’s world famous home end. [Image: The Anfield Wrap]

Gestures such as this not only display the power of the football community, but illustrate that positive change comes not only from supporters, but from the clubs themselves.

With a reported 3,770 migrants drowning in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, the importance of such donations cannot be overstated. Additionally, the groups that are affected by issues such as persecution and forced migration often feel isolated and ignored by the international community. As a result, it means a huge amount for influential football clubs such as Celtic to be drawing attention to their plight.

This idea is exemplified by Celtic fan groups and their regular showings of support for the Palestinian people. In 2016, £176,000 was raised for two Palestinian relief charities, an act described by a Palestinian community group as ‘one of the biggest solidarity actions in European football history’. Given the disastrous circumstances facing those in the West Bank and Gaza, such assistance makes a huge difference.

Outside the east end of Glasgow, Merseyside is a further epicentre of fan activism. Well-known for the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and its rejection of the Sun newspaper- whose false allegations traduced the name of Liverpool Football Club- it is a region with a proud history of taking a stand. Everton and Liverpool are both clubs with a social conscience- their supporters organisations have led the way in organising foodbanks, with various collection points situated outside both stadiums.

Gestures such as this not only display the power of the football community, but illustrate that positive change comes not only from supporters, but from the clubs themselves.

Yet a much lesser known football club in the city is also contributing hugely positive, progressive work- City of Liverpool FC. Due to playing non-league football, the actions of the club garner less media attention. However, the supporters of City of Liverpool raise funds in order to provide asylum seekers and the homeless warm clothing during the winter, an outstanding show of support.

As touched upon, there are now more clubs than ever taking a stand against injustice, even those not historically associated with political activism. One such club is Huddersfield; whose Supporters Trust saw the excellent work being carried out on Merseyside and decided to follow suit. The trust has established and funded a successful outreach programme that works with refugees in the town, helping to foster a sense of belonging. It is reassuring to see that the actions of a few is inspiring similar work in others.

Celtic FC has always had a plotically active fanbase.
Syrian Refugees: Mascots at Celtic [Image: Twitter, @CelticFC]

‘Refugees Welcome’ banners have now appeared at various grounds around the country. At the height of the migrant crisis, Aston Villa and Swindon Town followed the example set by non-league clubs- such as Dulwich Hamlet and FC United of Manchester- with visual displays of support. Additionally, 160 clubs across the UK pledged some form of support to refugees as part of Amnesty’s ‘Football Welcomes’ weekend. With racism regrettably still a problem in the sport, the need for supporter action could not be greater.

Research from Amnesty found that 41% of fans believe that there has been an increase in racism in the last three years, and 90% believe that clubs have a responsibility to tackle it. Whilst at present supporters themselves are the driving force behind social change, the clubs themselves are becoming more and more involved with taking a stand, as evidenced by the levels of support for Amnesty’s weekend.

If the positive trajectory continues, there is no limit on how much suffering can be alleviated by the football community.

With football supporters often carrying connotations of hooliganism and disorder, it is important to emphasise the amount of hugely positive work that comes from this community. Unity truly is strength, and that notion should lie at the core of all action going forward.

[Header Image: LinkedIn]