According to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sport is, “an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognize the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.” This contribution is marked by the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on 6 April every year.

There is no doubt that sport and physical activity has become to be viewed as an incredibly powerful cultural resource for the variously conflated aims of social inclusion, community development and world peace. But then has that not always been the case? The history of modern sport is rooted in the notions of positive character development that emerged from the British public school system and Muscular Christianity; social responsibility on the part of 19th Century industrialists and the Rational Recreation movement; and global wellbeing encapsulated by the Aristotelian ideal of excellence through ‘taking part’ in the Olympic games.

Fred Coalter, leading professor of sport studies, has spent much of his academic career trying to overcome his scepticism about the seemingly inherent educational and developmental capacities of sport (Coalter, 2013). Other scholars have been similarly critical of the lack of evidence about the assertions made by promoters of sport as a development tool. What they have advocated for is a more rigorously researched evidence base that focuses not on general ideals but on what works when and where, and for whom in specific contexts – the programme theory approach.

With respect to our focus at HERE, there are numerous examples of sport and physical activity being utilised for the benefit of refugees. Various databases of programmes across Europe can be found through organisations from the Council of Europe to FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe). There are numerous more specific projects such as that carried out by FURD (Football Unites Racism Divides) in Sheffield, England, which focused on the value of football for refugees, both as a physical activity and a cultural form (Stone, 2013; 2017; 2022), or the Bike Bridge project which uses cycling to increase mobility and facilitate social and cultural integration of refugee women and asylum seekers in Frieberg, Germany (Mohammadi, 2019).

Much of the knowledge base is framed within the field of Sport for Development (and Peace) and certainly includes some studies of the part sport plays within informal and non-formal educational contexts. A search of the HERE database, reveals some of these studies but what seems surprising is the lack of research around the role of sport in relation to refugees’ experiences within formal education – especially considering the overwhelming support for sport’s positive contribution to mental wellbeing, social cohesion and the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda. Whilst the relationship between sport and physical education is contested (see Bailey, 2005), the role that PE might play within the educational lives of refugees seems to be under researched.

A critical review of the literature carried out by Hudson, et al. (2022) revealed a total of 30 articles on this topic, of which only six fit with the HERE knowledge base criteria of being focused on the European context since 2015. In these studies there is a focus on PE as both a vehicle for integration though non-verbal means and as a means for language acquisition. The focus tends to be from the perspective of PE teachers, which is in some ways an important indicator of cultural relativism and wider interactive dynamics between members of host communities and forced migrants.

Antilla, et al. (2018) highlight that, “Physical education teachers often belong to the majority culture and thus, need to be aware of their privileged position, as well as cultural and social practices that may maintain unequal participation in physical education.” Their study focuses on an experiential learning intervention in which second-year PE students at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, presented kinesthetic language-learning workshops to asylum seekers, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan. Taking an interpretive approach to understanding their role in integration, they suggest that, “The applied use of physical education and dance … provided a distinct opportunity to consider a PE teacher’s intercultural competence and role as an agent of integration.”

The study is based on the PE students’ reflections of an experiential learning component of their course whereby they provided Finnish language workshops at a local Reception Centre for approximately 180 asylum seekers. Within the workshops, the PE students facilitated task-based activities that blended physical activities and games with the acquisition of Fin- nish vocabulary. The themes that emerged from the participants’ reflections were an awareness of how their preconceptions, often informed by media accounts of refugees, generated uncertainty and mixed expectations about their encounters in the reception centre. Significantly, many questioned the relevance of such an activity to their training in becoming PE teachers, suggesting a desire to focus on the technicalities of teaching their subject matter rather than cultural properties and differentiations associated with physical activity. There were also experiences of positive cultural exchange that were seen as beneficial, though it is acknowledged how student teachers’ presented themselves as ‘benevolent givers’ in relation to the asylum seekers – an important finding within the context of interpersonal matrices of power.

Bartsch, et al’s (2021) study of PE teacher’s integration-related perceptions of students from refugee backgrounds in Germany utilises Esser’s (2009) multi-dimensional integrational theory in the context of sport and physical education. Using a more quantitative methodology than the study above, their findings found a positive correlation between teacher perceptions of integration and the role of PE. This may not be surprising considering previous research outlining the socialising factors that inform PE teachers’ decisions to pursue such a career (see Lawson, 1983). Of more value, as the authors acknowledge, is perhaps the role of the study in potentially opening up the debate and evidencing the use of their theoretical framework for further study. They highlight the lack of student voice in their work and conclude that an important finding is the role that PE teachers might play:

“Based on our findings, we suggest that teachers should be made more aware of their own personal lens and that their views on students from refugee backgrounds are never neutral or completely unbiased. They are affected by various factors, especially, according to our data, gender and school type. These factors influence how teachers perceive and treat students in PE and thus determine whether the students may be affected by exclusion and oppression… Teachers’ perceptions should, therefore, be understood as a powerful frame that shapes the way teachers interact with their students and the integration opportunities they grant them.”

Bartsch & Rulofs (2020) followed up this paper with an article specifically focused on the Intersections of Forced Migration and Gender in Physical Education.

Cseplö, et al. (2021) provide a perspective from that of pupils with refugee backgrounds. Building on earlier research by Huitfeldt (2015), their study aimed to deepen the understanding of how students from refugee background make sense of PE within Swedish schools by drawing on a salutogenic approach, and the concept of sense of coherence (SOC). Their findings identified three important themes from the perspective of students with refugee backgrounds: 1) they viewed PE as more meaningful in Sweden than in their country of origin due to perceived short-term benefits. These included social interaction with friends, and increased personal health and wellbeing and long-term benefits (e.g. learning for the future); 2) understanding the rules and purpose of the activities helped students to better comprehend the experiences acquired in PE and communicate with others; 3) students described their constructive social relationships with teachers and classmates as an important resource that made PE manageable for them.

As we develop and refine the HERE knowledge base there are clear areas of discussion that arise. The relatively small amount of research that has been undertaken in Europe around the role of sport and physical activity as part of formal, non-formal and informal education in comparison to the amount of practice-based support for and perceived value of sporting programmes and interventions aimed at refugees is one such gap in our knowledge.