On World Refugee Day our thoughts naturally turn to the plight of asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution, but it is also an opportunity to think of the next stage, how to contribute towards their successful integration, which is one of the main challenges facing our continent today.

Increasingly Europe’s leaders are realising that sport has a very important role to play in the integration of migrants and refugees.

Sport has immense symbolic power. It is universal. It helps heal trauma. It unites people across ages, cultures, social backgrounds and borders. People once rejected as strangers, or rivals, are accepted, because they play the same sport, support the same team, take part in the same event or represent the same country. In some cases they become stars, with fans queuing for their autographs.

In particular, the Council of Europe has made integrating migrants through sport part of its Action Plan on Building Inclusive Societies, running from 2016 to 2019, and, the subject is a priority for our Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport (EPAS), which combats abuse in sport.

This month, our annual EPAS conference looked at the role of sport in creating a safe, inclusive environment for newly-arrived migrants and at how obstacles to integration can be overcome. The event takes place in the context of the current refugee crisis and the results will support all those involved in designing sustainable sports integration policies and deciding on long-term strategies and priorities.

Integration requires people with a migrant background to be included in sports teams and institutions, among coaches and referees and in media articles, interviews and programmes. The recently-selected Refugee Olympic Team of ten athletes – from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – will be represented by the Olympic Anthem and the Olympic Flag in Rio – all potent symbols.

It is necessary to create the right circumstances and opportunities so that migrants can channel their skills, energy, ideas and experience into useful initiatives and activities in their new country. Sports programmes and clubs need to be accessible and welcoming and to treat both migrants and members of the host society equally and positively, as having a contribution to make as well as things to learn.

Involvement in local sport provides new arrivals with a social hub, contacts, language practice… and, in terms of sporting prowess, it can put them on a level with their host community. 

In Borlänge, a small Swedish town, a group of Somali refugees, who had never before known snow and ice, took their integration into their own hands, creating their own bandy team, a popular local game which is a version of ice hockey with a ball. By 2014 they were in the bandy world championship and a film had been made about them. They have put Borlänge on the world map.

In Austria, a cricket club run by an Afghan cricketer, whose management training was funded by Caritas Austria, won the Austrian cricket league and the 2011 integration prize.

The London-based Bike Project repairs second-hand bikes and donates them to refugees, saving them the price of a travel card, which would cost nearly half their weekly allowance. The project offers social, linguistic and health benefits and freedom of movement. Those who receive a bike can train others. And, there are female refugees who cycle for the first time in their lives and experience the advantages of gender equality for themselves.  Such integration initiatives can be extremely and quickly effective and cost little, which is important for the host countries, for whom the challenge of integrating so many, often traumatised, people is exacerbated by pre-existing intercultural and economic problems.

Of course, sport cannot single-handedly resolve Europe’s integration challenges, but it can contribute to the essential work of building inclusive societies which validate different cultures, ideas and beliefs within an overarching human rights framework. It helps provide sustainable solutions which work over the long term. Given our current refugee crisis, Europe’s leaders need to make use of every good tool at their disposal to help integrate migrants. Now is the moment to harness the power of sport.