In January 2018, Ullet Road Church Rebels were formed in Liverpool. The Rebels are the first club to field an 11-a-side football team in league competition exclusively consisting of refugees and young men in the UK asylum system.
As club secretary, I have kept a diary that tells the story of the Rebels and its players: the development of the team, their progress and setbacks on the pitch, and the personal struggles that some of the players have negotiating the hostile environment of the UK asylum system.
This is the fifth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary: The lads are caught up in the UK government’s hostile environment every day of their lives. Life is hard and football is their escape. But, this week, they face a hostile environment on the pitch, too.
Have you heard all of those stories about ‘asylum seekers’ living it up in plush hotels at your expense? The reality is that the UK government puts them up in dirty hostels and expects them to live on a ‘benefit’ of £37.75 per week. They are not allowed to work, rent, have a bank account or use public services.
This means that our players live on about £5 per day. Let’s put that in context: A return bus fare in Liverpool is £4.60. Yet, our players also need to clothe themselves. They need some way of communicating with solicitors about their case. They also need food, toiletries and sometimes medicines. The reality is that it’s nowhere near enough to live on.
Interestingly, the £37.75 was calculated using Office for National Statistics data on the spending patterns of the poorest 10% of the population. It is purposely designed to consign people seeking sanctuary, some of the most vulnerable people in the world, to poverty.
For this reason, many people seeking sanctuary in the UK are dependent on food and clothes donations to survive. The Red Cross provided 14,824 people in the asylum system with basic support such as food parcels or clothing in 2017. According to UNCHR statistics, there were 40,365 pending asylum cases in the UK at the end of 2017. So, more than one in three people in the asylum system are dependent on food parcels.
Asylum Link Merseyside runs a clothes bank and a food bank in Liverpool. Without Asylum Link, many people seeking sanctuary in our city would go hungry and malnourished. This is the case for one of our players who has told me how, on returning from the exertion of a football training session, he goes hungry until he can eat at Asylum Link the next day.
Our goalkeeper lives in a house with 14 people and only two bathrooms. This is below the regulatory requirement for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), which should have three bathrooms with three separate toilets. Yet, that is par for the course if you are in the UK asylum system: In January 2018, an investigative report by The Guardian newspaper found people in the asylum system ‘too often [living in houses] full of dirt, vermin, damp and broken furniture’ and in ‘filth and squalor’.
Although refugees are people that have been allowed to stay in the UK, and can therefore work, they don’t fare much better. The Refugee Council undertakes research on the problems of being a refugee in the UK. Typical problems are securing the correct documentation to work, difficulties securing work outside the ‘gig economy’ and living in insecure housing. All of this makes playing football quite attractive.
Having shown me phone footage of someone being burned alive in his home country, one refugee player recently told me that football is his escape from the incessant flow of bad thoughts that these experiences create in his head. The suicide rate among refugees and people in the UK asylum system (especially those who, like many of our players, come as unaccompanied children) is incredibly high. That’s how important football can be.
Football is so important yet poverty so acute among our players, that we can’t charge ‘subs’ to pay for the running of the club. This produces its own pressures, but also creates benefits, as we saw last night when we held a Cèilidh fundraiser for the team at Phil’s Church. Local people turned out in numbers to support the club by purchasing tickets and making kind donations. It provided a great opportunity to bring people together that may never have met.
Far from the hostile environment of the UK’s asylum system, our young players spent Friday evening Cèilidh dancing with the locals. And it was another opportunity for my son Charlie to expand his knowledge of the world. Charlie lives in wealthy West Oxfordshire with his mum. Still, he understands poverty because he speaks to street homeless people when he comes to stay with me in Liverpool. He has also been on board with the Rebels from the start, so he knows some of the players.
As I came into the church hall, I noticed Charlie on the other side of the room deep in conversation. I asked my wife, Pauline, about it. She said that when Charlie walked into the church hall, he caught the eye of Majid, who beckoned him over. They had their heads together and looked quite animated. I later asked Charlie what they were talking about. “Majid was asking me about my team at home and I was asking him about the Rebels,” he replied. Football had brought these two people, from impossibly different situations, together.
Unfortunately, the humanity of Friday is followed by a Saturday afternoon low. We turn up at our new home ground to be beaten 6-0 by FC Ramos. To add insult to injury, Tommy breaks his left leg in three places with five minutes to go. The less said about the match the better. Suffice it to say, it was marred by opposition violence and aggression. We all feel low in the dressing room afterwards. I feel low for the whole weekend.
Pete (our manager), Larry (our coach) and Tsering and Beraki (from the team) accompany Tommy to A&E and stay with him until he is admitted at 9.30 that evening. They keep us all updated with news from the hospital via our WhatsApp group. In turn, I pass the news onto Charlie, who is as upset as I am. It feels like such a come down from the high of last weekend’s win and the positivity of Friday night.
After taking Charlie home on Sunday evening, I text Tsering to see if Tommy wants visitors. He does, so we visit on Monday and Wednesday, before his discharge on Thursday. I am dreading seeing Tommy laid up. However, what I walk into is uplifting. Tommy is in good spirits. He also has lots of friends, some of whom are there when we arrive. On Monday, Tsering and I arrive together. Wilson arrives later. On Wednesday, Tsering and I arrive again, followed by Maher and Lewis from the team.
As we laugh and joke around Tommy’s bed, I realise that great friendships are already forming out of our football club; we now know each other so well that, despite our language difficulties, we are able to take the mickey out of each other.
Standing by Tommy’s bed, I feel thankful for the people around me. They are enriching my life. And our football club is enriching their lives too. It is through football that we share time and space together: We play football together. We watch football together. We spend social time together. And we are now also there for each other in times of need.