Refugee football fans lament the last-minute cancellation of the World Cup in Qatar

DOHA/BERLIN, Nov 18 (Reuters) – Syrian lawyer Amrou Sabahi had hoped to spend his first World Cup at the heart of the action, working behind the scenes at stadiums in Qatar, the first Arab country to host the crowning event of the football took place.

But when the tournament kicks off on Sunday, the 27-year-old will be watching from Spain, where he is living as a refugee after his application to play in the Cup was rejected.

“I’m an Arab, it’s the first World Cup in the Arab world – it was such a psychological shock,” said Sabahi, who hails from Aleppo and has lived as a refugee in Spain since 2014 after conflict broke out in his home country.

He and two other Syrian refugees, a Sudanese asylum-seeker in France, an Iranian refugee in Germany and a Palestinian refugee in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters they were denied entry to Qatar after applying with their refugee travel documents had.

They all spoke of their disappointment with the decisions given the historic moment in which they were held in the Middle East.

Reasons were not given for any of their refusals, they said. Reuters could not verify whether her refugee status had an impact on her refusal.

Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar, typically impose severe restrictions on entry for anyone attempting to enter using a refugee travel document instead of a valid passport.

“Obviously it was a big disappointment,” said Sabahi, who works as a legal adviser at an immigration office in Madrid and hopes to get his Spanish papers next month.

CARDS OF THE FANS

During the FIFA World Cup, anyone wishing to enter Qatar must apply for a ‘Hayya Card’, which grants access to Qatar and the stadiums in lieu of a visa.

The six refugees Reuters spoke to said their Hayya applications had been rejected in the last week before kick-off. They all said they applied months ago.

FIFA referred Reuters to the Qatar government’s communications office, which in turn referred it to the Supreme Committee (SC) for Delivery and Legacy, set up by the Qatar government to plan the World Cup.

An SC spokesman told Reuters that over 1.25 million fans have received Hayya cards, “including tens of thousands of Syrians – many of whom have already arrived in Qatar”. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrians who were granted access were living in Syria or elsewhere as refugees or citizens.

The spokesman did not respond to questions about how many people had their Hayya applications rejected, why they were rejected, or whether travel documents for refugees are not considered valid papers.

Sabahi had been hired by a Spanish-French company over the summer to travel to Qatar and do “host” work, which could have involved guiding tour groups and other logistics.

He applied for a Hayya with his refugee travel document, with which he has successfully traveled elsewhere, but missed his job opportunity because he did not have a Hayya.

Hani, a Syrian refugee in Germany who works as an investment analyst, said he was looking forward to the World Cup to see his mother for the first time in five years as she lives in Damascus.

“I hadn’t booked any plane tickets because my gut feeling was that something was going to go wrong and I wasn’t going to make it,” said Hani, who had received a US visa on his German travel document and had recently traveled there. He asked not to use his family name.

A young Sudanese refugee in France who twice applied and was rejected says she lost hundreds of dollars in gambling expenses, plane tickets and housing.

“I don’t know what to do as I’m not getting a refund,” the student, who has a part-time job, told Reuters. “It’s something that would have meant a lot to me.”

Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Riham Alcousaa; Editing by Alison Williams

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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