The Rio Olympics are occurring during the worst refugee crisis since WWII, when the concept of “refugee” was first uttered in International Law. For the first time ever, a team of refugee athletes is competing under the Olympic flag. While this sentiment is very moving, it raises more serious questions that many nations are trying to handle, while others condemn and vilify the victims of war ravaged homelands.
The Olympic refugee team represents 65 million displaced refugees around the world escaping war, prosecution, famine and starvation. Some face double prosecution, with host countries that are unwelcoming, marking refugees as a threat instead of, people trying to forge a better life for themselves.
In a competition that typically celebrates national successes, the Refugee Olympics Team highlights national failures – the collapse of countries like Syria and South Sudan and the lack of progress by many countries to help resettle millions of refugees. The Olympics’ message of international cooperation has been muddied; the Refugee Olympic Team is, not only competing for medals, but competing for acceptance in their new home.
Olympic officials are carving out a place for refugees at a time when political leaders and candidates from the US to Hungary are verbally attacking refugees refusing to admit them because of the alleged threats they pose.
The Olympic refugee team features 10 members, whom were all forced to leave their homelands, some were orphaned, only to be sent off to refugee camps in other host countries, while others ran away from war in search of a better life; sports gave them hope, taught them discipline and endurance. They are from Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Syria.
Consider Yusra Mardini, who swam across the Aegean Sea to Europe when her boat sank while fleeing war in Syria. Rose Lokonyen is another member who at 7 years old was looking for a place to hide during the Sudanese Civil War, only to find the dead bodies of her grandparents.
Joining Mardini and Lokonyen are the other 8 members forming the 10-member team, backed by the UNHCR and the International Olympic Committee to bring global attention to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis and to act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide.
As Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times, there’s a disturbing contrast between the world’s enthusiasm for Team Refugees and its apathy and antipathy for refugees as a whole:
“They die at sea. They die sealed in the back of a truck. They die anonymous deaths. Fences are erected, walls mooted. … They represent danger and threaten disruption.”
Everybody wants to applaud refugee Olympians in Rio, Cohen observes, yet nobody wants to welcome refugees into their own country.
The Olympics Refugee Team represents a glimpse of optimism for themselves and for the 65 million refugees scattered all over the world. But, will the Olympics create more open borders and a lessening of the asylum backlogs in UK, Sweden, U.S. and the world?
A record, 1.3 million of refugees applied for asylum in the 28 member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland in 2015, nearly twice the previous record of 700,000 that applied in 1993 following the fall of the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain.
British claim 164 asylum seekers a day, a record. Even tiny Iceland received a record 50 asylum application in the month of January.
The rise of refugees into these countries has caused issues with violence in France, a backlog of all immigration in Sweden and the main reason behind the vote of Great Britain to leave the European Union. It is also fueling contention political debate in the US Presidential race.
Kudos to the Olympic Committee for its grand gesture to these athletes without a nation. But the tough question is what do we do for the other 64,999, 990?
Survivors of war and prosecution form the Refugee Olympic Team – By Vahe Gregorian on Aug. 2nd, 2016
Refugee athletes set out for Rio Olympics, and history – By Jonathan Clayton on July 28th, 2016
The meaning of the refugee Olympic team – By Uri Friedman on Aug. 10th, 2016
Record Number of Asylum Seekers – By Vala Hafstad on Feb 15th, 2016
Number of refugees to Europe surges to record 1.3 million in 2015 – By Phillip Connor on Aug. 2nd, 2016