Refugee admission policy should consider psychological factors, researcher says | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Refugee admission policy should consider psychological factors, researcher says Making a fresh start in a new country requires mental reorganization and finding new meaning in life, says Miriam Debieux Rosa, coordinator of Veredas, a group of psychoanalysts and psychologists who specialize in immigration, in a presentation to FAPESP Week France (photo: Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil)

Refugee admission policy should consider psychological factors, researcher says

January 15, 2020

By Maria Fernanda Ziegler  |  Agência FAPESP – Two brothers flee from an attack on their village in the Congo. They lose everything in a fire. Their parents, siblings and friends are killed. They are separated during the escape, and one of the young men manages to reach Brazil. However, in addition to the problems that forced him to emigrate, in his new homeland, he suffers from insomnia and anxiety attacks triggered by memories of his house being on fire. He has trouble getting his life back on track.

Another young immigrant from Angola lost sight of the meaning of life. His parents were university professors and were killed for political reasons. He was forced to leave the country of his birth and is now living in São Paulo City, Brazil.

The violence and humiliations experienced by refugees are a focus of research in the field of political psychology. “Forced immigration [for political or economic reasons, or due to war or climate] is a multifaceted phenomenon. It involves social and political issues, legislation and international relations, as well as subjective problems to do with psychology and mental health. Starting over in a different country depends on the possibility of psychic reorganization regarding matters such as desire, anxiety, and finding new meanings for life,” said Miriam Debieux Rosa, who heads the Psychoanalysis, Politics and Society Laboratory at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Psychology (IP-USP).

Debieux also leads the clinical therapy and support group Veredas: Immigration and Psychoanalysis, which has conducted a number of research projects in collaboration with institutions that help immigrants in São Paulo.

In a presentation to FAPESP Week France, a symposium held on November 21-27, 2019, in Paris and Lyon, Debieux said immigration and resettlement of refugees, and all the associated cultural, political and subjective issues, have become a priority worldwide, and Brazil is no exception.

Social and political suffering

“Immigration is a phenomenon that favors an encounter with alterity, with other cultures and languages,” Debieux said. “However, the current crises and political and economic conflicts are forcing large numbers of people to emigrate while also leading to closed-border policies. Growing segregation and discrimination against immigrants have subjective consequences, particularly for mental health.”

Insecurity and fear, according to Debieux, are affects (emotions that orient behavior) produced by political and economic policies, but politically manipulated affects lead to a search for scapegoats, imaginary targets for hate speech, and racism and xenophobia.

“This political handling of affects gives rise to repressive policies and a justification for the suspension of human rights and constitutional guarantees, allegedly to promote security,” she said. “In this context, hatred of immigrants becomes a political agenda.”

Being seen as undesirable and becoming targets of hate speech, in addition to other forms of violence experienced during the migration process, Debieux continued, generate social and political suffering that can mentally disorganize migrants.

Debieux has edited a compilation of 22 essays by researchers on this topic, published in As escritas do ódio: psicanálise e política [“The hate writings: psychoanalysis and politics”] by Editora Escuta.

Nonconventional psychotherapy

The research and university extension work done by Veredas focuses on how subjects involved in forced migration elaborate the violence they experience. The aim is to develop clinical and political strategies for immigrants “to elaborate the violence suffered and cope with the challenges of living in a new country with different culture and habits,” Debieux said.

The work led by Debieux over a period of 15 years is recorded in a book that was funded by FAPESP. Entitled A clínica psicanalítica em face da dimensão sociopolítica do sofrimento [“The clinic vis-à-vis the socio-political dimension of suffering: psychoanalysis, politics and culture”], the volume won the 2018 Jabuti Prize in the category Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Behavior. Jabuti is Brazil’s most prestigious literary award.

For Debieux, therapeutic strategies used for people who have been forced to migrate should differ from conventional psychoanalysis. “We developed our own methodology during the course of the project,” she said. “At first, we followed the traditional model of psychoanalysis, prioritizing the elaboration of bereavement and grief, for example. However, in processes that involve situations of violence produced in social relations, we found that a different approach was essential.”

Scientific studies of concentration camps and war-related violence served as a basis for the researchers’ work with immigrants and refugees. “We make a distinction between violence and trauma, above all emphasizing the subject rather than the violent situation,” Debieux said. “This enables us to focus on issues relating to guilt and shame, and to situate immigration as a choice arising from a person’s individual, family and social history. The subject can therefore break through the silence imposed by the impossibility of constructing a self-narrative that includes their personal experience, and find in their own history and desire what binds them to the new reality.”

Fresh start

This mental reorganization begins by finding a starting point and unfolds in various ways. The Angolan immigrant who had found life meaningless decided to resume his studies. As academics, his parents had placed a high value on education. Going back to school was both a tribute to their memory and a way of continuing his own story.

The Congolese youngster began emerging from lethargy – termed “silencing” by trauma therapists – when he realized that his distress was due mainly to not knowing what had happened to his brother. “During the silencing period, he was unable to talk about himself. It was too painful, and everything that had happened to him felt chaotic. He couldn’t place it in his sense of his life story,” Debieux said.

“Only when he constructed this starting point, which was going to look for his brother, did he begin wanting to learn Portuguese, meet people and connect with support groups that could help him find his brother. In other words, he was able to set himself in motion. The subject shifts out of this position of paralysis and impotence, reorganizing himself from this point on.”

According to Debieux, the subject has to be seen from the perspective of intersubjectivity, which entails analyzing the subject’s social relations; in this case, relations are significantly influenced by prejudice, discrimination and hatred.

Internal migrants

The research conducted by Veredas since 2006 has expanded in directions that extend beyond an understanding of the problems faced by refugees and cross-border immigrants, such as investigating Brazil’s internal migrants from rural areas to cities, or from the North and Northeast to the Southeast and South.

“It’s impossible not to draw parallels with stories like that of the Congolese and Angolan youngsters who have found a new home in Brazil and managed to find a new footing despite all the difficulties,” Debieux said. “Our own internal migrants from the countryside and from the North and Northeast haven’t been welcomed and made to feel at home in this way. This has meant a great many missed opportunities throughout our history.”

The waves of internal migrants who receive no support or care are comparable to exiles, she added. “Migration processes highlight the importance of culture and religion as forms of social support for mental processes. They also show how violence deracinates and how damaging it can be to ignore these aspects when helping migrants recover from loss and bereavement,” she said.

Although migrants from the Northeast, North and rural areas are Brazilians and therefore remain in the country of their birth, Debieux cautions that they experience intense discrimination and deprecation of their culture of origin. “This kind of experience mentally disorganizes migrants and their communities. They find it hard to connect with people in their new community. Political interests are often involved, particularly an interest in keeping them in a position of submission,” she said.

In the 15 years since its inception, she concluded, Veredas has seen many migrants succeed in rebuilding their lives and has learned valuable lessons in the process. “It seems incredible, but they do manage to make a fresh start. In fact, this is one of the most important lessons of our research and interventions. We’re always surprised and find the lesson well worth learning: despite having experienced the most violent and radical situations, subjects can rebuild their lives if they have social and psychological support,” she said.

FAPESP Week France took place thanks to a partnership between FAPESP and the Universities of Lyon and Paris. For more news on the symposium, visit




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