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Rio 2016: The Refugee Olympic Team doesn’t need your cheers. They need countries to fix their crisis.

The team shouldn’t have to exist — but it might spur governments into action.

Yolande Mabika, a judoka (judo artist), at a press conference for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Olympics.
Yolande Mabika, a judoka (judo artist), at a press conference for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Olympics.
Ker Robertson/Getty

Toward the end of the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony in Rio, a team will march in the Parade of Nations that shouldn’t, ideally, be there at all.

It will not carry the flag of any nation. Instead, it will carry the Olympic flag: a symbol of international unity and cooperation.

That’s somewhat ironic.

The Refugee Olympic Team (or #TeamRefugee) is the first time refugees have been represented at the Olympic Games.

And by representing the 19 million refugees and asylum seekers displaced around the world, the team is an inspiring symbol of internationalism. Its 10 team members, who have been displaced from five countries to five other countries, embody tremendous fortitude, discipline, and courage.

But the Refugee Olympic Team is also a symbol of the failure of the international community. In 2012, the year of the last Summer Olympics in London, there were only 11 million global refugees. Four years later, that number has increased by nearly three-quarters — both because of new and worsening crises and because, more than ever, longtime refugees are unable to go home.

Instead of stepping up to face the challenge, many of the world’s richest countries are resigned to inaction at best, and closing their doors at worst. The Olympians represent millions of people for whom "refugee" has become a semipermanent status.

When people in the US and other countries far removed from the front lines of the crisis talk about refugees, they often talk about terrorists or frauds. The point of the Refugee Olympic Team is to change that: to make viewers see refugees as heroes who’d be a credit to any country they lived in, and perhaps even inspire a desire to call on politicians to welcome more refugees in. But it’s not clear that it will be enough.

The Refugee Olympic Team shows how many ways someone can become a refugee

Members of the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio.
Members of the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio.
David Ramos/Getty

There are basically two squads of refugee Olympians.

Five of the team members are athletes who fled their home countries and have sought asylum far away: from Syria to Germany and Belgium, from Ethiopia to Luxembourg, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Brazil.

Many of them were already competing at the international level before they fled home; all of them have experience in international athletics.

In some cases, their athletic skills were literally their ticket to escape. Judo competitors Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika defected from the Congolese judo team during an international competition in Brazil to ask for asylum. The family of swimmer Yusra Mardini escaped from Syria by crossing the Mediterranean; when their dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, Mardini and her sister jumped overboard and acted as human rudders.

The second refugee Olympic squad is a group of five South Sudanese distance runners who were all discovered in a refugee camp in northern Kenya by former Olympian and activist Tegla Loroupe. Over the past few years, Loroupe has developed a small Olympic program. She pulled the best runners out of the refugee camps to train at a center she built outside Nairobi.

Some of the refugee Olympians, like Mabika and Misenga from Congo, say that keeping up their sport has helped them endure dark times throughout their lives. Most of the South Sudanese runners, on the other hand, didn’t see themselves as athletes before they were asked to train with Loroupe. Many were so inexperienced that they didn’t know how to stretch before a run, or even how to move their arms.

It shouldn’t be surprising that sports play a different role in the lives of the refugee Olympians, because they’re refugees in different ways. Some fled with family, some abandoned family, some left after their families were killed. The diaspora refugees (after dangerous and uncertain journeys) have found new homes in new countries; the South Sudanese refugees had spent years in one of the largest camps in the world.

It’s tough to generalize about the refugee experience. But there are trends — and those trends are not good. Increasingly, they suffer the worst of both worlds: a perilous journey and years in limbo.

This is the first time refugees have had an Olympic team. Arguably, it’s the first time they’ve needed one.

For the past few years, the global refugee crisis has become impossible to ignore.

By 2015, a record 65.3 million people had been forced from their homes. While many of them have stayed within their home countries as internally displaced people, nearly 20 million did not: They live as refugees (officially designated by the United Nations) or as asylum seekers (people seeking recognition from the UN or from another government).

More refugees means more need for international aid and protection — especially from rich countries, since 86 percent of refugees are housed in the developing world. But just as the refugee population has risen precipitously, wealthy countries in Europe, the US, and Australia have gotten bogged down in contentious political debates over opening their doors to refugees at all.

"What we’re seeing is worrying unfairness in the international protection paradigm," former UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in 2011. "Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industrialized countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration. Meanwhile it’s poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden."

Remember that there are now 1.7 times as many refugees and asylum seekers on Earth as there were when Guterres made that statement. And the political problems have only gotten worse.

One big driver of the crisis has been the Syrian civil war, which has displaced 4.9 million Syrians. Some of those, like Olympians Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, managed to escape to Europe, spurring a political crisis across the continent as politicians struggle either to accept and integrate asylum seekers or to shut them out. Many more ended up in "front line" countries like Jordan and Turkey, which house hundreds of thousands of refugees.

syrian refugees (Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)

In the middle of all this, longstanding refugee crises are staying the same or getting worse. And refugees are dying: 5,350 people died trying to make crossings in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

But humanitarian sympathies are often being drowned out by fears of terrorism — especially in America. Traditionally the most welcoming country in the world, by far, in resettling refugees, the US has barely increased its intake of Syrians and suffered considerable political backlash for taking any at all.

"It kind of becomes harder and harder to galvanize public opinion when there’s a drip-drip effect," points out Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. "It takes hundreds of people dying to make an impact now." The hope for the Refugee Olympic Team is that it will break the cycle of tragedy and numbness, and raise awareness for the plight of refugees without any of them having to die.

More than ever, refugees like the Olympians are staying in limbo for decades

The underlying problem that’s causing the huge swell in refugees isn’t just that more people are fleeing their homes. It’s that fewer and fewer people are able to return home.

Between 1996 and 2005, 12.9 million refugees returned to their home countries. But between 2006 and 2015, only 4.2 million did. New conflicts, like the Syrian civil war, have created millions of new refugees who can’t go home, and conflicts have flared up again in old regions, like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic.

Chart of refugee returns from 1990 to 2015, from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR

Wealthy countries (especially the US, Canada, Australia, and now Germany) have started to step up; 2014 and 2015 were the first time that more than 100,000 refugees were resettled in consecutive years. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the number of refugees who’ve historically been able to return home.

For context, here’s a comparison of the number of asylum seekers and refugees to the number of people who returned to their homes (or were resettled).

In this respect, the South Sudanese distance runners are far, far more representative of refugee life than their teammates. The Kakuma camp in Kenya, where they had been forced to settle, has been a refugee camp for 25 years — it was built to host Sudanese refugees, and has since received refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, and now-independent South Sudan.

Historically, the international community has assumed that getting refugees back home isn’t just the best option for them but the most likely one. That assumption is beginning to break down. In 2015, 41 percent of all refugees were in "protracted" situations: five years or longer. The average length of a protracted situation (though not necessarily the average time each refugee was displaced) was 26 years.

"Millions of people have had to rely on humanitarian assistance for years – sometimes even for generations – as traditional solutions remain unavailable for the majority," the UNHCR wrote in its most recent annual appeal.

That’s millions of people who are living in camps that were supposed to be makeshift but have turned into semipermanent tent cities. They usually can’t work, and often can’t leave the camp at all. They’re forced to rely on the UN for food, and on their host countries to continue to tolerate their presence.

Syrian refugees Dresden
Refugees wait at a temporary Red Cross camp in Dresden, Germany.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Refugee camps can be so dehumanizing that some people escape, forfeiting their refugee status, to risk a dangerous journey to a richer country to seek asylum.

"We’re not talking about people who are in camps for a year. They’re in camps for years," says Aaron Sherinian of the UN Foundation. "There will be babies born in camps who will leave as adolescents."

The reason there will be a Refugee Olympic Team this year, in other words, isn’t just because there are more refugees than ever before. It’s that for many people, "refugee" has become a semipermanent status. Refugees are "defined in law as people who can’t call on their own countries to protect their rights," says Newland of the Migration Policy Institute — by the same token, she says, they can’t claim those countries as a place of belonging anymore. They’re also more likely to be stuck as refugees because countries where they’d like to resettle are unwilling to offer them asylum.

"Refugee" is supposed to be a temporary label, but it’s turning into the only one they have.

The UN doesn’t want "refugee" to become a permanent label

This isn’t a sustainable situation.

The "countries of first asylum" — places where large numbers of refugees immediately flee, often adjacent to their home countries — are feeling the worst of the burden. "Many of them just don’t have the capacity to do very much for refugees, and feel the strain on their infrastructure, their natural environment, their schools, their medical facilities," Newland says.

There’s only so much international aid can do to help, and only so much aid to go around to begin with — especially because some of the hardest-hit countries are "middle-income" countries. Turkey has 2.7 million Syrian refugees; Mexico’s under increasing strain as refugees flee the "Northern Triangle" of Central America; in Southeast Asian countries, 450,000 people from Myanmar are living as refugees or in "refugee-like situations." But "they’re not eligible for international assistance," Newland says, "because they’re too rich."

It’s a tricky position to be in — and one that makes it easy for host governments (and their people) to turn refugees into scapegoats. In Jordan, Syrian refugee laborers face daily discrimination and abuse. The Kenyan government threatened earlier this year to shut down all its refugee camps — including Dadaab, the largest camp in the world (with a population of 300,000), and the Kakuma camp where the South Sudanese runners were discovered. (The plan, which hasn’t been put into practice, was seen as a ploy for more international aid.)

But fundamentally, the problem of millions of people living in semipermanent camps wouldn’t be a solution at any price. "There just isn’t enough money in the world to just provide care and maintenance to that many people for such long periods," Newland says. That’s not to mention "the dignity of purpose refugees gain from work" — and the indignity of forcing them to live in limbo for years on the charity of others.

syrian refugees

So the UN and other international organizations are being forced to change their priorities. Instead of assuming refugee situations will be temporary and few refugees will have to be permanently relocated, the UN is trying to find ways to turn displacement into a livable situation — while trying to prevent the next wave of crises.

One element of that is improving conditions and services in camps, bringing a development mindset to places where services have often been sloppy, duplicative, or simply absent.

IKEA has developed "flat-pack" refugee shelters and helped install solar lights and panels in camps. The World Food Program is experimenting with better ways to deliver food to refugees. Groups are beginning to work on improving education programs in refugee camps (and access to education elsewhere), on the assumption that many children may spend many or all of their school-age years there.

Another element is encouraging host countries to integrate refugees into their economies and societies: "to let refugees work, to give them access to land," Newland says.

At the international level, advocates are encouraged to see that the refugee crisis is being discussed as part of a bigger picture. For the first time, says Newland, people are beginning to discuss the rights of all migrants, not just refugees; the UN is developing compacts on both refugees and migrants to be ratified in 2018.

And the UN Foundation’s Sherinian says that in conferences this year, he’s hearing people talk about immediate humanitarian needs alongside the root causes of crises: "not only innovating for refugees when they’re in refugee status, but so that conflict or poverty or natural disaster won’t push them into refugee status."

The Olympics will show viewers that refugees are neither terrorists nor victims

The Refugee Olympic Team is another part of this paradigm shift. Its boosters in the UN and human rights groups hope it’s not just going to be a tool of empowerment for other refugees but also a way to break out of the stereotypical dichotomy refugees usually face: villains or victims.

The Refugee Olympic Team cuts loose in Rio.
The Refugee Olympic Team cuts loose in Rio.
David Ramos/Getty

Germany and Belgium, for example, are struggling mightily with the fear of refugee crime and terrorism. Their Syrian refugee Olympians — especially telegenic Mardini, who’s become a media star in Germany — are symbols of the value of refugees, and of the countries’ efforts to welcome and integrate them.

It’s not entirely clear that a handful of positive images of refugees will be enough to bust up the fear of terrorism — especially when that fear, in America and Europe alike, is usually expressed as the belief that "bad people" will sneak into the country rather than a belief that all refugees are evil. What’s more plausible is that the refugee Olympians will bust up a more sympathetic but pernicious stereotype: that refugees are passive victims of global circumstance.

"These athletes don’t conform to their stereotypical idea of a refugee as someone sort of helpless and starving and sitting passively waiting for someone to come by and help them," says Newland. "That’s not who refugees are." And it would certainly be a useful lesson to, say, countries that are worried about the impact of refugees on their economy, or the effects of allowing them to work.

Ultimately, the hopes for the refugee team are pretty simple: that the refugee crisis has been exacerbated by negative attitudes toward refugees, and having positive media depictions of them will change those attitudes. "By the end of the Olympic Games, there will be millions of people cheering for refugees," says Amanda Simon, director of media relations for Amnesty International USA. "That itself is a big step forward."

But will it pressure governments to step up?

It won’t be enough for people to feel better about refugees — or to be more aware of them. Those things won’t help refugees not be refugees anymore. What’s going to need to happen is for governments to step in and do more to help — and, in particular, to resettle people.

Resettlement is the most direct thing rich countries can do for refugees. It’s also, as UNHCR points out in its 2015 Global Trends report, a "tangible expression of responsibility sharing" — a way for rich countries to prove they aren’t just walling themselves off from instability in the rest of the world.

It works both ways. It’s a feeling of shared responsibility that turns sympathy into action.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty
The body of Aylan Kurdi.

Last fall, newspapers all over the world printed the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on the shore after drowning as he and his family tried to get into Turkey. Newland describes the initial reaction in countries like Australia and England as "a sort of denial: ‘Oh, this is terrible, but nothing to do with us.’" But as the public outcry continued, she said, politicians in both countries changed their positions — and each agreed to accept thousands more refugees in coming years.

In America, too, willingness to accept refugees is linked to what Elizabeth McIlvain of the Brookings Institution calls "a sense of liability" — last fall, 54 percent of Americans said the US bore some responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis. But after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that communal responsibility was swamped by a desire for protection through isolation.

That’s the attitude that’s prevailed — even up to the eve of the Olympic Games.

A few days before the opening ceremony in Rio, the UN General Assembly agreed to a "political declaration" about the refugee crisis — which will be formally adopted during a UN refugee summit on September 19, a month after the closing ceremony.

It’s a declaration of best intentions, Newland says: "It’s a very aspirational statement, I can put it that way."

But it doesn’t include what the UN most wanted: a commitment to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees (which would be about 2 million people, given current numbers). Western Europe and Russia weren’t willing to agree to a discrete goal.

(The US, for its part, was squeamish about a proposed provision that would prevent governments from detaining children seeking asylum — something the US is still doing to hundreds of Central American families who’ve crossed the border in recent years.)

The UN kicked the can down the road to 2018, when it will ratify an official refugee compact.

That doesn’t mean that the pressure isn’t on individual countries to act now. "Sometimes countries will do a lot more than they will formally agree to do," Newland says. When the UN hosts its refugee summit on September 19, President Obama will host a "leaders’ meeting" alongside it — with the express purpose of getting countries to individually commit to taking in more refugees.

No one will say outright that they think the Refugee Olympic Team will generate enough goodwill (or political pressure) to get leaders to sign up for more resettlement. But it would certainly be a good indication of whether it was able to inspire feelings of not just global community but global responsibility.


Watch: What Rio doesn’t want the world to see

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