Australia accepts approximately 14,000 people either as refugees or on humanitarian grounds each year . Of those who are accepted into Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian program, just under one third settle in New South Wales  - Australia’s most populous state. Western Sydney is one of Australia’s most culturally diverse areas, with almost 40% of the population born in other countries . A large proportion of those who are accepted into Australia as refugees or humanitarian entrants are aged 17 or below (35% of offshore visas granted in 2010–2011 were to people aged 0–17) . Young people’s experience of settlement in Australia, including entry into the school educational system, is significantly distinct to that of adult arrivals [5, 6]. As with adults, young people may need to learn a new language and negotiate a different culture, but also face the additional challenges of their development stage, educational pressures and the centrality of peer relationships to their experiences [5, 6]. How and to what extent peer and social bonds are formed amongst young people who are newly arrived in Australia, and between these young people and other young people in their school or community, represents an important area of study.
Previous studies have contended that sport may assist to build relationships across religious, ethnic and economic lines , as well as act as a mechanism to strengthen community, reduce crime rates, and provide mentoring and support for individuals [8–11]. However, at the time of this study’s inception there were few, if any, robust studies which assessed sport-for-development program impacts on young people, including those with refugee experiences, highlighting the need to evaluate sport-based programs to assess their effects. [7, 8, 12, 13]. For the purpose of this paper we are defining sport–for-development as the use of sporting activities to provide opportunities for personal and community development with aims that go beyond the sphere of physical activity and [elite] player or game development.
Coalter’s review of sport-for-development programs  found that reported impacts on health, crime, employment and regeneration were largely anecdotal, and reliance on anecdotal evidence has continued to be noted in more recent reviews in Australia and overseas [7, 14, 15]. Research published in 2010 and 2011 continues to highlight the lack of rigorous measurement and evaluation of sport-for-development programs [15–17]. In addition, designing evaluation approaches that can help researchers and practitioners understand the complex and interactive effects of sport-for-development programs continues to be a challenge . Levermore notes that the number of evaluation studies has increased . However, both Coalter and Levermore warn that evaluation in this field is fraught – most studies are process orientated, looking at outputs not impact, and insecure funding environments creates pressure to demonstrate positive ‘outcomes’ [16, 17].
This article reports on the impacts reported by young people who participated in a school-based sport–for-development program, Football United, compared to those who did not participate, but attended schools in a similar setting . The study was designed to directly address past criticisms of program evaluation  with the findings reported here drawn from a mixed-methods quasi-experimental design.
Program description: Football United®
The Football United® program is a complex, multi-level football intervention targeted at young people in culturally diverse areas such as the western Sydney region with high levels of refugee settlement. The choice of football as the vehicle in this program was purposeful, as it is relatively inexpensive, is played in many countries, including those of many recently arrived young people with refugee experiences, and by both genders.
The Football United program utilises a social-ecological framework, working with an awareness that heath and social behaviour is affected by, and in turn affects, the formal and informal social, cultural, physical and institutional relationships in which they are located [19–21]. Football United aims to intervene at these multiple levels, and to do so operates in dialogue and partnership with schools, migrant and refugee support organisations, football organisations, community groups, corporations, and most importantly with young people themselves.
Football United currently operates in a number of sites in Australia. There has been significant growth in the program’s reach and depth in recent years – it began in 2006 with one community park-based site and now has 13 program sites in New South Wales, with further sites in three other states in both urban and rural areas. The Football United sites evaluated in this study were based in Intensive English Centres (IECs) and Host High Schools where IECs are located in Western Sydney. IECs are part of the state school system and prepare newly arrived secondary aged students for study in an Australian high school by providing intensive English tuition. There are 13 IECs in Sydney, each attended by students from a broad geographic catchment area who are referred by their local high school. Students can spend up to five terms in an IEC before transitioning to their local high school.
Students involved in Football United can play football after school at these sites, as well as access additional program components including training as football coaches, life skills and leadership development workshops. The program aims to promote participants’ health and well-being, social inclusion, connectedness, and cross-cultural engagement.
The Football United program has four key focus areas:
Football activities: Regular Saturday and after school training, school holiday camps, competitions and festivals are a central program activity. Mentorship between coaches, volunteers and players is actively promoted in all activities.
Capacity building: Members of local communities participate in free training in coaching and refereeing, mentoring and life-skills, leadership and project management and apply their learning in the program. A significant proportion of young people who participate as players in the program continue with the program as volunteer or paid coaches and project coordinators.
Building linkages: Linkages between program participants and partner agencies, including local football clubs, government, community and corporate sectors are a focus of the program.
Creating awareness of Football United and issues for communities: This is achieved through advocacy, key partnerships and individual high profile champions.
Football United is coordinated by an overarching management team, with paid and volunteer coaches delivering the program at each of its sites and liaising with the community. Student participants who have completed coaching courses are eligible to coach junior participants on a voluntary basis. One or more school staff members act as coordinators and liaisons between the different sites, and the program management team. More details about the program can be found at http://www.footballunited.org.au/