What we learned from detention centre could help with refugee integration
By Sarita Rao
Refugees coming to Luxembourg have a totally different mindset to detained immigrants says former head of the Centre de Retention in Luxembourg Fari Khabirpour.
“Many will experience freedom and safety that they didn’t have in their own country, and this alone provides huge motivation for them to integrate and learn,” he explains.
Expert in educational psychology and one-time head of Psychology for Luxembourg, Fari tells me that his experience of children from refugee families is that they are often more motivated to learn and integrate because they have a new chance in life. He also adds that refugees will bring new ideas and ways of thinking to Luxembourg culture.
Is detaining illegal immigrants the solution?
His views on detention are different. Fari retired from his role as head of Luxembourg’s first dedicated Immigration Detention Centre in 2013 still with the view that detention of illegal immigrants was not the best solution.
People who come here seeking a better life have not committed a crime, so why should their freedom be limited?
“People who come here seeking a better life have not committed a crime, so why should their freedom be limited?” he asks.
However, Mr Khabipour did acknowledge that until better solutions were found, making life in detention as positive as possible was his goal when he took on the role in 2009.
Luxembourg is fairly unique in focusing its Detention Centre development on psychological rather than security grounds. By giving detainees more freedom and access to psychological support, Luxembourg has achieved a greater number of voluntary repatriations, which are quicker and therefore less expensive to the country.
The number of detainees is incrementally on the rise though. When it first opened its doors in August 2011, the majority of detainees at the Centre were men, mostly from the Balkans.
Mainly single men detained at centre
Today, the Detention Centre still predominantly houses single men, but now there are many more from North Africa, and an increasing number of families.
Annual figures show that in 2015 some 394 detainees passed through the Centre, a similar figure to 2014, but double that of 2010.
Social workers, educators and psychologists work at the centre, but guards and security staff are also given special training to help them deal with detainee feelings of anger or despair at their situation or conflicts that arise between ethnic or religious groups housed at the Centre.
“Many of the detainees I saw had negative experiences with the administration before they arrived at the Centre, some complaining of being treated like criminals,” says Fari, adding: “Our job was to help them accept they were being sent home, and give them a positive experience of their time awaiting repatriation.”
Some detainees are themselves victims of corrupt trafficking, while others are simply afraid of explaining to their families they have not been able to get a job and send money home
He explains some detainees are themselves victims of corrupt trafficking, while others are simply afraid of explaining to their families they have not been able to get a job and send money home.
“We mixed cultures, religion and ethnic groupings rather than segregating, to help people overcome prejudices and live together,” he says, highlighting that involving refugees in Luxembourgish communities will be pivotal to smooth integration.
Administrative staff lack cultural & psychological training
Fari's main criticism of the current immigration system is that most of the administration employees have had no psychological or cultural training.
“In some cultures it is considered rude to look a person of authority directly in the eye. In Western culture, lack of direct eye contact is associated with lying,” he tells me, adding: “It’s important that people making decisions are aware of these differences.”
When asked about how Luxembourg can best manage the integration of Syrian refugees, Fari is clear: “Most people consider the superficial cultural and religious issues such as dress or what people eat as the problem, when the real issue is around education and teachers.”
He points out that Luxembourg has not yet managed to achieve full integration of previous immigrants from Portugal, Serbia and Bosnia, with many children from these backgrounds struggling to cope with the tri-lingual educational system.
In 2014, less than 39 percent of children who enrolled in state education spoke Luxembourgish as their mother tongue, with almost 29 percent speaking Portuguese as their first language. He calls for more involvement of refugee parents in the schooling system.
“My child psychology training taught me to define human beings as individuals who are social, goal orientated and full of potential. In my mind, refugees and immigrants are no different. After all, we are all refugees or immigrants” he concludes.