International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach today visited the Open Reception Centre for refugees in Athens to get a first-hand look at the refugee crisis and witness how the IOC’s USD 2 million emergency fund is aiding humanitarian efforts in the country.
Joined by the IOC Honorary President, Jacques Rogge, who is also the United Nations Special Envoy for Youth Refugees and Sport, they talked to refugees and got a closer look at the sporting facilities provided by the Olympic Movement. They were invited to visit the camp by the Greek government and the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) in the presence of the UNHCR in Greece. According to the UNCHR, Greece remains the main entry point into Europe for refugees and migrants, with close to a million arrivals last year alone.
President Bach privately met with a family of six from Yemen who had spent seven months making the dangerous journey from their home to the transit camp. Afterwards he toured the camp and played football with some of the refugees. He also met two refugees who are top-level athletes, one in karate, the other in shooting. The HOC immediately offered assistance to them in regard to training and integration into the Greek sports community.
“Together with the Hellenic Olympic Committee we have helped provide sporting facilities here in this camp,” said President Bach. “By providing these sports facilities we want to give some hope to these refugees. We want to give them at least a little joy of life in these difficult circumstances. We want to give them the opportunity to mix with each other. Here you saw refugees from Syria, from Mali, from Sierra Leone, from Iran, from Iraq, all playing together with us, and really showing a small Olympic community here in this camp.”
In a symbolic gesture, the IOC President also announced that on the initiative of the HOC, the Greek section of the Olympic torch relay would come to the refugee centre, with the torch carried by a refugee.
Honorary President Rogge announced a further significant IOC contribution to the UNHCR in Greece, adding: “We want to contribute with the values of sport. Sport can heal many wounds. Sport can bring them hope, can help to forge their ideas and to integrate in society. Ultimately it brings them hope and dreams. Sport is not the solution but it can make a great contribution.”
President Bach also announced that the HOC will receive an additional sum for the regeneration of the Moria Football Stadium on Lesbos island for use by the thousands of refugees and migrants there. Lesbos is a prime landing spot for those fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.
Accompanying the IOC President and Honorary President were Acting Representative of UNHCR Greece Philippe Leclerc, Greek Minister for Immigration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas, European Olympic Committees President and IOC Member Patrick Hickey, HOC President Spyros Capralos and Mayor of Athens Giorgos Kaminis.
The IOC made the USD 2 million emergency fund available in September 2015 to National Olympic Committees (NOCs) organising programmes to help refugees worldwide. To date, 13 NOCs have received USD 1.4 million in funding, including the HOC, whose Refugees Support Programme helped build four basketball courts in the largest refugee centre in Athens.
Alongside the USD 2 million fund, the IOC is also in the process of identifying athletes living in forced displacement that have the potential to qualify for the Olympic Games Rio de Janeiro 2016. The IOC has already provided sports scholarships to a number of these refugee athletes.
President Bach announced that this ‘team’ of refugee athletes would march behind the Olympic Flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio.
President Bach praised the humanitarian efforts being undertaken by the HOC and the UNHCR, with which the IOC has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership. The IOC’s 20-year collaboration with the UNHCR has provided relief to refugees and internally displaced people by using the power of sport to promote youth development, education, social integration and health.
During his three-day visit to Greece, the IOC President also attended the annual HOC athletes’ event in Athens on Wednesday. Tomorrow he will attend the Kids’ Athletics Programme at the Panathenaic Stadium and Fencing World Cup.