GAA Football

Common Travel Area a border to migrants on island of Ireland

Adekanmi Aboyami, founder and chair of EMSONI, with Geraldine McGahey, new Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, and Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
Adekanmi Abayomi

NEVER mind that other B-word – crossing the border is already a challenge for migrants living in Ireland, north and south, as Adekanmi Abayomi has discovered.


Fascism is cured by reading and racism is cured by travelling.

Miguel de Unamuno (Spanish 20th century intellectual and writer)


SPORT can be a key element in social integration – however my involvement in Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation Northern Ireland (EMSONI) exposed me to the challenges our members, especially the asylum seekers and refugees, face because of border restrictions.

These restrictions significantly impede our members from crossing the border to participate in sporting activities and other social integration and cross-border oriented programmes because they are neither British nor Irish.

The Common Travel Area (CTA) is a long-standing arrangement, giving the British and Irish the freedom to travel freely between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and Ireland.

However, the CTA has a negative side - the exclusion of migrants from sport on both sides of the border.

At the launch of the Campaign for Change on Common Travel Area by the North West Migrants Forum in Derry/Londonderry recently I had the privilege to present a paper on the Common Travel Area and its Challenges: The Effects of Border Restrictions on Migrants' Participation in Sports and Recreation.

This island is a diverse society where all interests must be reflected. Any policy or legislation that discriminates between the citizens and other residents must be reconsidered for fairness and inclusiveness.

The free movement of people to sporting activities is not only sacrosanct to the players but also fundamental to spectators because sports cannot be played in isolation.

Sports bring friends, cities, communities, and nations together and for residing migrants within these nations to enjoy sports like British and Irish we also need to be allowed to cross the border freely.

People make cross-border journeys for a wide variety of reasons. However, for us in EMSONI, we encourage members to participate in a sport, not only for physical exercise but to significantly promote their social integration and inter-culturalism, which must be holistic.

In summer 2019, we were involved in a particular cross-border project funded by PEACE IV Programme to integrate our young people across the border.

We were to travel to Dublin with 40 young people, but we only managed to travel with seven young people on the trip because the border restriction prevented others.

A young lady who resides in Dublin could not travel with an Ireland underage football squad to an away trip to England because she is not an Irish citizen. Therefore, she cannot cross the border.

The said project should have allowed the young people to visit Dublin for the first time, meet other youths from other jurisdictions to share perspectives, visit interesting sports sites and other historical places including Dublin Castle and Parliament House in Dublin.

It is not a question that we do not have opportunities here; instead, we must be allowed to avail of the opportunities by including residing migrants in the common travel area arrangement.

According to Miguel de Unamuno, fascism is cured by reading and racism is cured by travelling. There is no doubt that travelling has a critical role to play in educating and eradicating racism in sport because travelling ought to expose people's minds to different dynamics, reshaping perspectives based on reality and not myths.

Having perused the four core objectives of the new PEACE VI programmes, I still find it challenging to understand how this new approach will benefit the integration of the residing migrants when they can cross the border.

By implication, this new PEACE VI approach is still about the British and Irish, while others are inconsequential in terms of Shared Education initiatives, Support for Marginalised Children and Young People, the provision of new Shared Spaces and Services, and projects that will Build Positive Relations with people from different communities and backgrounds.

Northern Ireland is not only about the green and orange. Residing migrants are also a part of the system, positioned to play a vital role in the peace and reconciliation processes – mending bridges between the two local communities.

Rugby and GAA are played on an all-Ireland basis, so this makes it impossible for our members to travel with their teams to Ireland for those games.

The same goes with our folks living in [the Republic of] Ireland – they cannot cross over to Northern Ireland. Consequently, we are not only participating less but also not integrating through these games.

Before the pandemic, I experienced this frustration from our young people daily, complaining about how frustrating it is – not to travel for games. Even children of residing migrants would not be able to travel with their mates to Ireland for sporting activities.

As an organisation, we have not been able to honour invitations from our friends in Ireland for sporting activities because most of our players and volunteers cannot cross the border.

The EU Council's White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, published in May 2008, stated that the common European future does not only depend on her ability to foster mutual understanding, safeguarding and developing human rights, democracy and the rule of law but that sport is also included in this respect: it has educational and socialising effects that makes it an ideal vehicle for intercultural dialogue and social integration.

Sport makes a positive contribution towards social integration for ethnic minorities. Regular and non-discriminatory participation in sport is to help young people of immigrant origin to develop critical skills and to integrate better into society. It is crucial, however, not to take things at face value.

Often the only visible evidence of sport's potential to promote the integration of immigrants is the presence of international stars in high-profile, top-level sport, which is not always a true reflection of the situation on the ground.

Using migrant sports stars as sporting dummies must stop. We, therefore, call for massive participation of migrants in sports based on social justice for both social gains and professionalism and without any restriction or barrier either by racism or the common travel area agreement.

* Adekanmi Abayomi is the Founder and Chair of EMSONI – Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation Northern Ireland.

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