ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - It may not have had the profile of the World Cup in Russia, but for the 40 teams doing battle in Belgium, the soccer tournament in honor of World Refugee Day was just as fiercely fought.
The teams from across Belgium traveled to Antwerp’s Royal Football Club to compete in the second annual tournament, which seeks to rally refugees around soccer.
“Soccer is the sport that almost everybody loves and through soccer it is very easy to meet each other as players but also as coaches, as a referee, whatever role you have,” organizer Hedeli Sassi said.
Several Belgian soccer associations joined forces in 2017 to create the project dubbed “Everybody on the pitch” through Fedasil, the Belgian Agency for Refugees and Asylum-seekers.
In addition to organizing the tournament, clubs across Belgium were selected as part of a program to pilot an initiative to incorporate refugees and asylum-seekers in their day-to-day running.
Teams for Wednesday’s tournament were composed of those working in Belgian football clubs, among other refugees and asylum-seekers across Belgium.
Organizers hoped that, by shining light on such integration programs, more such programs might come to be.
“Our brothers are here; Guineans, Ivoirians, Malians. If they do this every year or every six months, that will help us with the stress that we undergo at the (refugee reception) centers,” said Alpha Diallo, a Guinean participant of the tournament.
Belgium received some 14,000 first time asylum applicants in 2017, according to data from European statistics office Eurostat.
Immigration policy is still high on the agenda of European leaders, following a 2015 migration crisis in which a million people fleeing war and prosecution made their way to Europe to apply for asylum, exposing the lack of coherent migration rules in the bloc.
Reporting by Megan Dollar; Editing by Alison Williams