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The underestimated importance of leisure to improve forced migrants’ wellbeing

Updated: May 3

In the past months, the Covid-19 pandemic and its enforced lockdowns have highlighted the importance of recreational activities in preserving individuals’ mental and physical wellbeing. Yet, this health crisis has also exposed, and at times exacerbated, the stark inequalities in access and opportunity to enjoy leisure activities. For instance, in the UK, the fears and stigmatization engendered by the pandemic have led to the hardening of immigration policies. This has meant increased control over forced migrants’ everyday lives and increased difficulties in accessing wellbeing and sociality, at a time when it is most needed (O’Brien & Ever, 2020).

Besides being a fundamental human right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration, leisure is linked to immediate and long-term wellbeing benefits: it provides opportunities for fun, pleasure, and relaxation, and opportunities for personal growth, sociality, identity formation, and skill acquisition (Mannell, 2007). Due to difficult pre-migration, migration, and post-migration experiences, forced migrants in the UK face numerous psychosocial challenges and suffer a greater prevalence of mental health conditions than the general population (Miller & Rasmussen, 2017). Bringing leisure to the fore of public debates, policymaking, and service provision around the wellbeing of forced migrants is therefore essential. As a starting point, it is necessary to ask, how do forced migrants living under the constraints of the UK’s asylum system address their wellbeing needs through their leisure practices? How do, and how should, service providers tackle the leisure needs of forced migrants? What barriers constrain their participation in such recreational activities?

Leisure as a means of negotiating the asylum regime

Despite claims that ‘Global Britain’ welcomes and saves those fleeing persecution, the country’s approach to immigration has been increasingly focused on deterrence, dispersal, and deportation, particularly since the advent of the ‘hostile environment’. Under this government agenda, the everyday life of those navigating the asylum system is marked by a lack of freedom and choice due to policy-imposed restrictions on their mobility, employment, housing, and welfare (Lewis, 2015). In addition to having been forced, often under traumatic conditions, to leave their country of origin for reasons of persecution, war, or conflict, the British asylum regime works to intentionally generate a sense of powerlessness in forced migrants, to deter them from staying and to reduce the alleged ‘pull’ factors bringing people to the UK (Mayblin, 2020). As they are confronted to a ‘culture of disbelief’ and the ‘slow violence’ perpetuated by the asylum system, asylum seekers are often plunged into a state of prolonged uncertainty and fear of deportation, with some people waiting a decade for an asylum outcome (Bulman, 2021). While waiting to be granted protection, asylum seekers are forcibly dispersed in temporary accommodation across the UK and have no legal right to work. The Home Office’s control pervades many aspects of asylum seekers’ lives, including by making them report regularly to immigration centres which sometimes forces them to travel miles or face penalties if they don’t (Bulman, 2020). Once granted protection, refugees’ engagement in public life and employment opportunities continue to be restricted.

The ‘Football Including REfugees’ (FIRE) project promotes football as a means of inclusion, participation, socialisation and access to sport for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants. Source: Sport and Citizenship

Leisure as momentary relief and freedom

These asylum conditions, deliberate and inherent to the ‘hostile environment’ compound to foster a sense of ‘existential suspension’ in forced migrants (De Martini Ugolotti, 2020, p.7). The lack of structure imposed by the restrictions on their everyday lives cause many to feel boredom, frustration, and a feeling of being in ‘limbo’ over which they have little control. Combined with difficult experiences pre-migration, these psychological conditions caused by the asylum system have a significant impact on the subjective wellbeing of forced migrants, who come to feel that even the most personal features of their lives are appropriated by the asylum regime: ‘you even feel that laughing is not up to you anymore’ (De Martini Ugolotti, 2020). This imposed relinquishment of control is particularly devastating in a context where the pursuit of safety, freedom, and choice features significantly in forced migrants’ migratory decisions (Chase, 2017). As a result, forced migrants often fall into a pattern of ‘disillusionment, demoralisation, or depression’ as they encounter the enduring obstacles of exclusionary immigration policies (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p.960).

To recover some power over their everyday lives and alleviate these wellbeing challenges, forced migrants often turn to leisure activities to gain momentary escape and relief from the ‘perpetual wounding’ inflicted by the asylum regime (Mayblin, 2020, p.14). In the UK, informal refugee music and dance parties are numerous and well-attended, demonstrating their importance in the lives of forced migrants (Lewis, 2015). Many express how these informal events help them rediscover forms of joyfulness and light-heartedness that they had forgotten in exile and in navigating the hostile environment. Not only does such leisure help temporarily remove negative thoughts and negotiate the inner pain experienced in the present moment, it also gives forced migrants ‘something to look forward to’ in the future, a projection which is usually made hard by the constant fear of deportation imposed by prolonged asylum processes (Webster & Abunaama, 2021, p.28). While ephemeral, these experiences of pleasure and fun can cumulatively increase long-term psychological wellbeing (Mannell, 2007). The routine aspect of certain leisure practices, like playing football, provides forced migrants with structure to punctuate the ‘suspended time’ during which they are not allowed to access employment or further education opportunities (Griffiths, 2014, p.1997).

The use of the body in leisure practices plays a particular role in the alleviation of forced migrants’ psychological suffering. Their bodies are often discursively inscribed with expectations of victimhood and trauma and carry bodily experiences of suspension, exclusion, and destitution enacted by the Home Office (Schmoll, 2014). Participating in music or dance sessions, for example, can enable the bodily demonstration of competence and spatial control, which helps generate a sense of security and familiarity. The corporeal and affective feelings that arise in response to the sounds, rhythms and singing can help alleviate bodily pain fostered by the asylum regime and help forced migrants reappropriate their bodies as more than objects of asylum policies. Similarly, some individuals describe that when they play football, they momentarily disconnect from their concerns and are consumed by the ‘here and now’ of the game, as the intensity of the game overwhelms their mind and body and restores their confidence and familiarity in bodily movement and flow (Dukic et al., 2017, p.107).

Leisure as a means of strengthening belonging and reducing isolation

An important wellbeing consequence of forced migration is the loss of or separation from kin networks. This is compounded on arrival to the UK by the intentional social exclusion enacted by dispersal policies, which disperse social networks across the country. Dislocated from their existing networks, forced migrants commonly experience prejudice and racial harassment as well as language barriers which further hinders their socialisation and the creation of new friendships (Jarlby et al., 2021). Social isolation and loneliness are widely reported amongst forced migrants, who tend to have and make fewer connections in the UK – connections which are extremely valuable for the emotional and practical support that they provide (Ager & Strang, 2008).

Taking part in shared leisure activities centred around a common interest can foster mutual understanding and trust between refugees (Woodland & Conricode, 2016). For instance, refugee parties and music events can foster a sense of community and belonging through the opportunities they provide in expressing and reproducing national and ethnic identities in exile, for example through listening to and sharing music from home, speaking the same language, and dancing and dressing in similar ways (Lewis, 2015). It is nevertheless important to keep in mind that for forced migrants, reminders of home are not always welcomed or desired (Rishbeth & Finney, 2006). Participating in activities can also provide an opportunity to eschew dehumanising refugee labels and categorisations to instead feel as insiders: ‘How can you say who is a refugee, who is not, when you singing, or laughing, or instruments playing? That’s why this is good’ (De Martini Ugolotti, 2020, p.9).

Through spending time in local recreational spaces, forced migrants can also make connections with members of the local community in informal ways, gain familiarity, and make a sense of ‘place’ in the community (Rishbeth & Finney, 2006). For forced migrants, these moments of sociality are significant in generating connections that are unrelated to immigration status, and that are often less hierarchical and passive than those encountered within the hostile environment (Rishbeth & Finney, 2006). In a hostile environment which commonly treats people as cases or numbers, leisure has the potential to restore something of forced migrants’ identity and sociality.

Leisure as a means of acquiring skills

Leisure can also be of instrumental value in fostering learning experiences. In a context in which asylum seekers are not permitted to work and receive little financial support, leisure participation can involve aspects of learning and mastery that have the potential to help alleviate some of the material consequences of exclusionary policies in the long term (Ley et al., 2020). By taking part in recreational activities, many forced migrants seek to improve their language and communication skills and develop competences congruent with their interests, which can improve their future employability if granted protection (Amara et al., 2005). Leisure places supporting learning are considered sources of personal development, increased self-esteem, and ‘places of opportunity’ (Waardenburg et al., 2019, p.939).

Barriers to participation

While, for some forced migrants, leisure participation is a coping strategy to alleviate the negative impacts of the asylum system, for others, the restrictions imposed by the asylum system constrain enjoyment of leisure opportunities. The lack of legal status and the destructive aspect of ‘suspended time’ and social isolation can negatively affect the strength and energy that forced migrants have to take on leisure practices (Griffiths, 2014, p.1997). In addition, the restrictions on employment and the lack of welfare support given to forced migrants means they are restricted in their material and financial capacity to access available recreational activities in the community (Blanchard, 2018). For individuals facing daily insecurities, meeting their basic needs may take over as everyday priorities, which prevents the transformation of free time into leisure until pressing health and housing issues are resolved (Amara et al., 2005). Material barriers to leisure participation are compounded for individuals with childcare obligations and money to send home (Mohammadi, 2019). Feeling safe in the community and in using recreational infrastructures is also key in understanding migrants’ leisure participation, as it shapes how likely they are to engage with the individuals and activities around them (Rishbeth & Finney, 2006).

Leisure service provision: low priority and assimilationist tendencies

Despite its clear wellbeing benefits, the provision of leisure services remains remarkedly narrow (Mata-Codesal et al., 2015). In the years following arrival to the UK, leisure is often considered a ‘low priority’ need by service providers who are largely concerned with ‘primary’ needs such as education, housing, and welfare (Amara et al., 2005). This is reflected in the lack of specific leisure provisions that exist for forced migrants, the inconsistent referrals to leisure services by resettlement services, and the lack of funding ascribed to this dimension of life (Blanchard, 2018). In the few instances where leisure is provided, service providers often view it as a vehicle for facilitating the ‘integration’ of forced migrants, rather than to improve their wellbeing or meaningful engagement (Blanchard, 2018). This ‘integration’ is one in which forced migrants are expected to assimilate, or to ‘fit in’ to pre-existing mainstream leisure services in a ‘one-way’ process (ibid., 2018). In this model, individuals are blamed for their lack of participation, rather than the barriers generated by exclusionary practices and policies (Spaaij et al., 2019). This ‘assimilationist’ approach to leisure risks silencing forced migrants’ diversified leisure meanings and practices and reproducing the exclusion that they oftentimes experience in British society (Lewis, 2015).


Indeed, leisure cannot be understood or communicated as a universal phenomenon – it is contextual and socially constructed and therefore it can be conceptualised and valued differently. In Western societies, leisure is understood and commodified as the opposite of work, as free time from obligation and necessity. However, for many forced migrants, leisure can be integrated within the holistic nature of their lifestyles, if they view different domains of life as less fragmented in their culture (Stack & Iwasaki, 2009). Additionally, for asylum seekers without the permission to work, the pertinence of the work/leisure dichotomy is dissolved, and leisure may instead be seen as a burden, especially if it is the only way to fill an abundance of time (Russell & Stage, 1996). Leisure can also be considered a source of risk rather than pleasure and wellbeing for those who work, as it has the potential to cause injury which could prevent individuals from undertaking their job and thus cause the loss of essential earnings (Amara et al., 2005). It is necessary to attend to the intricate personal and societal meanings of leisure in the everyday life of those who take part, as to impose Western-centric practices certainly reduces the likelihood of wellbeing benefits being gained.

As a result of the assimilationist tendencies of many leisure providers, forced migrants express a clear preference for less mainstream, rigid, and formal forms of recreation (Dukic et al., 2017), ones in which they are actively involved in the organization and the creation of leisure sessions. Informal and socio-culturally sensitive leisure provision can therefore help forced migrants access the leisure opportunities that they value, and they avoid reproducing the subtle but powerful differentiations between ‘service providers’ and ‘users’ that traditionally characterise ‘spaces of care’ for forced migrants (Darling, 2011).



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About the Author

Juliette recently completed her Migration Studies Masters at the University of Sussex. Prior to that, she spent her Sociology with Psychology undergraduate placement year working with refugees at Action Emploi Réfugiés, where she became interested in the impact that media representations have on our perceptions of refugees. Passionate about forging a new way forward in the way we view and respond to refugees, she now works on the Social Media team for Conversation Over Borders.

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