At the Olympics, Let ‘Refugee Athletes’ Be ‘Athletes’

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics feel like a shred of normalcy amidst pandemic anxiety and fatigue. Oh, how we needed something to cheer for. But as a refugee advocate, one Olympic feel-good story also gives me pause.   

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee created a “Refugee Olympic Team,” to enable refugee athletes to compete in the Olympic games. The first Refugee Olympic Team competed in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, and was meant to encourage inclusion and hope, showcasing what is possible when refugees are given the opportunity to achieve their potential . After all, who better to embrace a spirit of overcoming obstacles, endurance, and determination than those who were forced to run for their lives and who are now rebuilding those lives elsewhere? It is humbling and inspiring to watch these elite refugees translate grit and determination into athletic excellence.

At the same time, the well-intentioned creation of the “Refugee Olympic Team” competing alongside other recognized states may unintentionally reinforce the notion that refugees are outsiders or “the other.” Where it promotes inclusion, it could also perpetuate an idea that they are beyond the bounds of “normal” citizens and states, and in this case, a special category in the Olympics that is distinct from the rest of the athletes representing their countries.

In a way, the world does hold them separate. By definition, refugees are people outside their country of origin who have fled for their lives based on a well-founded fear of persecution. The global refugee regime, which emerged at the end of World War II and continues to evolve, exists to protect refugees and to facilitate solutions to their displacement. Ideally, those who have fled will quickly be able to return home or find refuge elsewhere, either in the country where they first sought protection, or another country willing to take them in.

The reality is that most refugees do not have a solution to their displacement. Most conflicts driving displacement are protracted, meaning that returning home is often not an option. This translates into displacement that can last decades and even generations. Refugees are often trapped in crowded camps or urban slums with limited options to support themselves and move on with their lives. The international humanitarian and development community can only do so much if conflicts persist or other political, security, economic, climate or social factors make solutions elusive.

For their part, host countries may allow tens of thousands, if not millions, of refugees to stay for long periods of time. While a small number of countries provide opportunities for refugees, many others limit refugees’ access to rights, including freedom of movement and the right to work. Indeed, few refugees become citizens in the places where they have fled. And few wealthy countries, including the United States, are willing to take in more than a handful of refugees at most, despite a long list of success stories of the societal and economic benefits of resettling refugees. 

As heartwarming and inspiring as it is to cheer on refugees in the Olympics, we should also push ourselves and our leaders to remember that refugees are not separate. They are not outcasts attributing their identities to some “refugee state” of its own or their “refugeehood.” As this Refugee Olympic Team demonstrates, they have much to offer when provided opportunities.

Moving away from the constraints of the socially constructed refugee label , we should consider refugees as people just like us—raising their families, learning, working, and playing. Yes, those in crisis desperately need urgent protection and assistance, and the refugee label has essential value and function. But over the long-haul, the world must begin to see refugees as part of the societies they live and work in, and cheer for them not as “refugee athletes,” but just as “athletes.”

Sarah Miller is a senior fellow with Refugees International.

BANNER PHOTO: Flag bearers Yusra Mardini and Tachlowini Gabriyesos of The Refugee Olympic Team during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. Photo Credit: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images