Blog: Football’s path to freedom

Refugees, and their sons and daughters, have been an integral part of football’s development in Australia for over half a century, writes Les Murray.

Excuse me for breathing, but I am about to buy into the debate on asylum seekers.

I do this from two positions that are relevant to a football website:

1. I am a refugee and I am a football man. My life experience in football is intertwined with being a refugee;

2. Refugees are beneficial to football, and football is beneficial to them.

So no apologies from me for delving into a subject that, some of you will say, I should stay out of.

Refugees, and their sons and daughters, have been an integral part of football's development in Australia for over half a century. The first wave came from post-War Europe in the 1950s (like Frank Lowy) while the current wave is coming from trouble spots in Africa and Asia.

Many have become Socceroos heroes, such as Attila Abonyi, who escaped from the same place as me and at the same age as me. Les Scheinflug, our first Socceroos World Cup captain, was a refugee.

The last European refugee to now play in the A-League, unless I'm mistaken, is Western Sydney Wanderers striker Labinot Haliti, displaced as a boy by the Kosovo war in the late 1990s. The newest refugees or sons of refugees are young men with roots in war-torn or oppressed parts of Africa and Asia.

The most successful ethnic community to contribute historically and numerically to Australia's playing stocks is from Croatia. Many, if not the majority, were and are the sons of refugees.

Refugee communities all over the country, including some who arrived here on leaky boats, thrive as a throbbing sub-culture of young people trying to find their place in their new country through football. They play football in those dreadful detention centres as a vehicle for easing their pains and as a source of hope. When they finally get out they continue doing it.

I did the same when I first settled in Australia. While my parents struggled to make ends meet and did their best to make a new life for their family, my two brothers and I spent all our down time from school playing football as a sweet distraction from the hostilities of migration and a need to assimilate. When I was selected to represent my school, at age 12 as a very average number 8, I felt all my Christmases had come at once and my assimilation was complete. Football was my pathway to becoming Australian.

Now the kids from Sudan, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same. For many of them football is their lone source of hope, whether they are in one of those sprawling tent cities in Africa or in our own pathetic detention centres.

I feel for them, as I feel for the asylum seekers who are at the centre of today's blazing and, to be sure, grubby political debate.

The reality is that refugees, and history bears this out, are good for our country and, far from being a burden, only bring benefits. The very fact that asylum seekers undertake such a reckless, perilous journey to get to their destinations, leaving homelands and family behind for an uncertain future, is a signature of their determination to make better of their lives and work hard to make use of their new-found opportunities and freedoms.

This fact has completely been lost on those who drive this debate, including the vast sections of the media, all of whom portray asylum seekers as illegal intruders. In fact they are not intruders, just people running for their lives. In fact they are not illegal because there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum.

What we do with them and how we treat them is tantamount to shutting the door in the face of a neighbour who seeks refuge in our house after being battered by her husband.

Here's the thing. The boat people are not actually seeking asylum when they get on those boats. They are merely seeking the opportunity to seek it. And some of us want to deny them even that.

What puzzles and amazes me is how different this is, and why it is, to what I experienced as an asylum seeker in the 1950s, along with hundreds of thousands of others, like Atti Abonyi, the late Socceroos coach 'Uncle' Joe Vlasits and Frank Lowy.

After I crossed the border from Hungary to Austria as an 11 year-old boy on a cold December night in 1956, no Austrian tried to turn me back, no Austrian called me illegal, no Austrian called me a queue-jumper, no one shipped me off to a third country for processing, and no Austrian said: 'We will decide who comes to our country and under what circumstances they come'.

What my family received was a warm embrace, a warm place to sleep, warm clothing and food. The first Austrian we confronted after arriving at an Austrian village said to my father: "Well, welcome. You are free."

Six months later we arrived in Australia and were treated as welcome immigrants. Five years later we were citizens. Since we landed here my late father and mother, and my two brothers (who are very much alive and give me lectures on football every week) did nothing but work hard to make good the opportunities this country gave us. I am now a very proud Australian for having been accepted in this way.

This is what disappoints, this irony, about how the boat people are being viewed by so many in this country today. Is it not time this otherwise wonderful country asked itself, does it have a heart?

You will forgive, therefore, my sympathies for the asylum seekers given my experiences. You will probably understand why I, as a football man, want them to be welcomed. There are over 40 million displaced persons seeking a new home in the world. Over 1.6 million refugees have left Syria alone since the hostilities began there. Not one of them has been turned back. Yet we get hostile and insecure about a few hundred or thousand boat people who dare to come, seeking what the rest of us enjoy.

Of that 40 million, Australia's annual refugee intake is a wretched 14,000. We ought to be ashamed.

Never mind the moral compass. There are, let us assume, quite a few gifted young football players among that 40 million. As a congenital promoter of football, I say let them in. Let them contribute and let them use football as a medium for finding a way to their freedom and a new life, as was the case with me.

Frank Lowy once said of the refugees, let them in and let them live next door to me. I say let them in and let them enrich us with their love for football.



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