UNHCR works to utilize the unique ability of sport programmes and partnerships to improve the lives of displaced and stateless people and the communities where they live.
Sport and games have been found in humanitarian settings for as long as UNHCR has been working with people forced to flee conflict and persecution. For most of this time sport has been seen as a distraction for young people rather than a positive tool for supporting displaced communities. In recent years the approach to sport has become more strategic, and in 2022 UNHCR released its first-ever sports strategy – More than a Game. It outlines UNHCR’s ambition to expand the use of sport and strengthen engagement with the sport world to benefit displaced and stateless people globally.
Recognizing the power of sport, UNHCR works to develop partnerships, programmes, projects and tools to support the social development, inclusion, cohesion, and well-being – in particular of children, adolescents and youth – in displacement contexts. This thinking was concretized in paragraph 44 of the Global Compact on Refugees, which recognizes "the important role that sport […] can play in social development, inclusion, cohesion, and well-being, particularly for refugee children […] and youth, as well as older persons and persons with disabilities".
UNHCR's 'Sport for Protection' approach builds on the unique capacity of sport to actively and meaningfully engage young people. Sport and play can have a pivotal role in creating a fun and safe environment that supports children and youth to learn and grow. It can also provide a space to address the specific risks that displaced children and youth face.
At the 2019 Global Refugee Forum, more than 80 entities – from grassroots clubs and civil society organizations to UN Member States and national and international sporting federations – concretized their commitment to building a better world for refugees through sport, pledging to support increased access and participation at all levels for displaced communities.
Giving refugees the opportunity to compete in elite sport can be a powerful way of demonstrating that when given the opportunity they can compete at the highest level. In 2020, 29 refugee athletes competed at the Tokyo Olympic Games and 6 at the Paralympics.
UNHCR also works for the inclusion of refugee protection and development in global sporting agreements such as the Kazan Action Plan and groups such as the Open-ended Working Group on SDG sports model indicators, as well as working across the UN system.