Following the announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) earlier this month of the composition of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team Tokyo 2020, the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF) is marking World Refugee Day by celebrating the launch of a new sport-for-protection programme in Colombia.

Fostering protection of refugees and migrants from Venezuela through sport

Called “Ven y Juega” (Come and Play), the new Protection and Social Cohesion through Sport programme aims to improve social cohesion among young refugees and migrants from Venezuela, and their host communities, as well as internally displaced and returning Colombians.

The situation in Venezuela continues to be one of the largest crises in the world, with 5.6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants living abroad and 4.7 million of them in Latin America and the Caribbean. Earlier this year, in a gesture of solidarity, the Government of Colombia announced it would grant a ten-year Temporary Protection Status (TPS) to the more than 1.74 million Venezuelans in its territory. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) considers their needs to be immediate. With the spread of COVID-19 in Colombia and across the region, many displaced people from Venezuela, as well as local communities, struggle to survive as they face worsening poverty, job losses, evictions, hunger, and a lack of food and access to medical treatment. 

Designed in partnership with UNHCR and together with local partners, the programme seeks to help displaced young people cope with the risks inherent to their vulnerable situations by increasing access to safe sport, providing a curriculum of activities that foster social cohesion and peaceful co-existence, and supplying tools to enhance community-based protection mechanisms.

Implemented in the regions of La Guajira, Putumayo and Norte de Santander, the activities proposed include:

– sport for protection sessions using football, volleyball, basketball and futsal

– sports tournaments supporting integration, shared values, preservation of cultural identity and the respect of ethnic groups’ traditions

– the upgrade of sports venues

– training sessions on relevant social topics such as human rights, child protection, psycho-social well-being and peaceful co-existence

– project-building workshops allowing participants to increase ownership of their protection role towards refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons. 

The programme builds on the success of the previous IOC-UNHCR collaboration in Colombia and is expected to benefit some 18,000 people over the next three years.

The initiative is also fully in line with the call of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who said: “On World Refugee Day, I call on communities and governments to include refugees in health care, education, and sport.” He continued: “We shine together when we play as a team and respect everyone.”

“As UN Secretary-General António Guterres says, we are stronger together as a team and when we stand together in solidarity. That is what the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement are about. The new programme, collectively designed by the Olympic Refuge Foundation and our long-standing partner UNHCR, shows how sport can immediately play its part in improving the well-being of thousands of refugees and migrants from Venezuela currently living in Colombia,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.

“Providing a safe environment, sport enhances individual and collective skills, fosters social cohesion, and drives positive change in the lives of young people and their communities. The programme is another important step in the Olympic Refuge Foundation’s endeavour to provide assistance to refugees, ensuring support 365 days a year across the globe,” President Bach concluded.

Commenting on the project, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi, who is currently visiting the country, said: “The work of the Olympic Refuge Foundation, with my own organisation UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – to bring sport to displaced young people, builds on the tremendous spirit and generosity of the Colombian people, in providing safety to refugees and migrants from Venezuela. The will and compassion to support some of the world’s most vulnerable people, placed alongside the catalytic power of sport, will enable Colombian and Venezuelan young people in La Guajira, Putumayo and Norte de Santander to feel safe and protected, build friendships and contribute to stronger more inclusive communities, that we hope will last well into the future.”

Eleven programmes up and running in seven countries

Since launching in 2017, the Olympic Refuge Foundation has coordinated 11 programmes in seven countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Rwanda, Turkey and Uganda). As a result, more than 200,000 young people have so far been reached by sports programmes designed to improve their well-being and social inclusion. Its goal is for one million young people affected by displacement to access safe sport by 2024.

Over the last year, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly tough on displaced populations.

The ORF launched a COVID-19 response that enabled flexible funding and reporting for partners, with USD 500,000 in funding available for contextual, COVID-19-specific solutions.

This support enabled the launch of two programmes in Uganda that are giving young refugees and their hosts a place to play and dream for a brighter future – more information on the programmes can be found here.

Supporting refugees through sport in France

Following an agreement announced in February this year, the ORF has also been working in collaboration with the French Ministry of Sport, the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, the City of Paris and a number of French and international NGOs to support refugees through sport in France, with a view to launching an initial activities programme in the Paris region during the course of 2021.

The recent donation from the French Government follows donations from the National Olympic Committees of Qatar and Liechtenstein, and individual pledges from the IOC membership, plus technical and financial support received from IOC TOP Partner Airbnb, which has been supporting refugees and displaced people for many years through its Open Homes programme and active role in the Tent Alliance.

The Olympic Refuge Foundation is the next chapter in the IOC’s commitment to providing assistance to refugees, ensuring support 365 days a year across the globe. Those interested in supporting the ORF’s work and the grassroot projects that are using sport to change the lives of refugees and displaced people around the world can make a donation at www.olympicrefugefoundation.org.

The IOC has been helping refugees through sport since 1994 in partnership with UNHCR. In 2016, the first-ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team competed in Rio de Janeiro, and Olympic Solidarity has been supporting 56 refugee athlete scholarship-holders in the lead-up to Tokyo. Twenty-nine athletes representing 12 sports will compete in Tokyo this summer.

The International Olympic Committee is a not-for-profit, civil, non-governmental, international organisation made up of volunteers which is committed to building a better world through sport. It redistributes more than 90 per cent of its income to the wider sporting movement, which means that every day the equivalent of USD 3.4 million goes to help athletes and sports organisations at all levels around the world.

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Photo: IOC.