Immigrants do not leave their countries aspiring to live on welfare benefits elsewhere, according to a childhood studies professor.
Charles Watters, who lectures at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said no one wanted to be a case or a victim. Everyone had dreams, be it wanting to buy a car, find a good job or settle down with a family. It was these dreams that made people risk their lives to leave their countries, he said during a public lecture, titled Refugee Children: Global Challenges, Local Reponses, held at the University.
"It's that which makes people endure the crossing of the Libyan desert, which is internationally renowned for being the worst in terms of flight experiences," he said.
During a visit to one of the open centres in Malta, he was pleased to note that the young men he spoke to didn't look defeated.
"It was not a scientific study but the kids I spoke to had dreams and aspirations. When I said I was Scottish, they eagerly shook my hands as they made reference to Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United football coach)," he said.
"One said he wanted to be a footballer; another a writer. They seemed focused despite it being hard to keep their spirit going after a long time in a detention centre," he said.
Prof. Watters, author of the book Refugee Children: Towards The Next Horizon, said there was a culture of mistrust towards refugee and asylum seeking children around the world. This was not helped by the reception in the host country.
"I am concerned that most refugee children are pigeonholed under a label called 'trauma'. They have other issues. We may feel children have to be saved from their families and culture, as if they have to be plucked out and moved away from their context and placed into a victim role labelled 'traumatised' but we forget they are living in the here and now," he said.
He advocates a holistic approach with integrated programmes dealing with the social, emotional and psychological.
"The emphasis cannot simply be on the past events of the child refugee, something that, say, happened in Afghanistan some six years ago. What about the impact of their present lives and ongoing events? Refugee children may have deep and strong aspirations for a new life formed by imagery from literature, music and sport," he said.
Prof. Watters gave an example of a project he had been involved in some years ago in the UK when young refugee boys, mostly Afghan Muslims, were moved from Kent to Manchester. In Manchester, they were relocated in an area close to the local mosque and the Afghani Cultural Centre. When questioned some months later, the boys claimed they never went to either place.
"They said: 'We didn't come to Britain to have that'. And you can understand their reasoning. Just because I'm Scottish, it doesn't mean I want to listen to bagpipes all the time," the professor said.
Integration was the key: "Being allowed to have your own culture but engaging positively in the host culture is the best: good for immigrant kids and even the host kids."
Prof. Watters has studied the social care of refugees in European countries on behalf of the European Commission and he has also researched reception arrangements for unaccompanied asylum seekers in Europe.
He believes hermetically sealed jars do not benefit anyone: "The authorities always want to neatly encapsulate people in cultural groups but it doesn't necessarily work that way."
He said his personal fate seemed to be calling him to Malta: "It's my fourth time here. I've always had a strong interest in issues to do with borders and migration."
With the issue of immigration reduced to two camps, for or against, he proposed conferences roping in refugees, senior politicians, civil servants, the artistic community and people from all walks of life. He knows from experience that dialogue makes a difference, despite acknowledging that "extremists will always be extremists".
Prof. Watters's work brings him in direct contact with pain and misery. Did he always manage to remain detached from situations and look at things from an academic point of view?
"I do get upset and angry sometimes. But I've always had a worry that people get locked in certain positions. Anger doesn't do anything to help them get out of a deadlock. I tend to see humans as global - humanity doesn't end with borders. I have always been pro-diversity, have always found it fascinating and enriching."
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