Interview with Ramon Sanahuja, Barcelona

February 12th, 2015

Ramon SanahujaRamon Sanahuja, Director of Immigration and Interculturality, Barcelona City Council speaks with Cities of Migration about the BCN New Families Programme, the city-sponsored immigrant family reunification service.

How did you determine that this approach was needed? How has it been received by families?

Ramon Sanahuja: When a migrant decides to reunify their family in the country of residence, is because he or she has been able to gain a minimum status of stability after many years of migration process. When they decide to reunite they need to fulfil some conditions: they need to be stable and getting settled, have a minimum income and job, have a house with minimum conditions, etc. Migrants decide to reunite their relatives when they have reached certain stability. It is a very important moment in their migrant live. It is the turning point: they decide to bring their relatives (mainly descendants and wives or husbands) with them.

So, they decide to build their future in the hosting city rather than in the country of residence origin. It is the time when their start to be a little more open to understand how their new host society is. They want to know about the education system for their children, also the health system, etc. and become more integrated.

Do you have any ideas about why the number of applications for family reunification fell by more than 50% over just four years, specifically from 6,943 in 2008 to 3,452 in 2011? How has this impacted your project?

RS: The authorisation for family reunification is under the jurisdiction of the federal/Spanish government. Applicants must meet certain federal requirements, among them: minimum income, or having a proper house in order to bring their families. Local administrations are in charge to report housing conditions of those who ask permission to bring their relatives.

The decline of the application it is due to economic crisis, austerity policies and increase of unemployment in south Europe. Therefore now there are less migrants who meet all the conditions in order to start a reunifying process.

How important and impactful has it been to provide support assistance before, during and after the reunification process? How has that supported or affected immigrant knowledge or, participation in and sense of welcome in their local community?

RS: Before, it was very important to assess migrants to meet all legal requirement and to help them to go through the legal process with the federal administration. In this initial stage they are only worried about legal process. There are quite complicated procedures applicants must go through. They need the authorisation by the federal government and need some documents from the Spanish consulates in the country of origin.

When they get the initial authorisation is when they start to be worried about what could happen when their relatives arrive. So, while this type of support is not required by families before the legal process, but it becomes very clear from the point of view of our team of professionals that families need some psychological and educational help to manage the new situation. Families have to face new relationships between parents and their kids, or wives and husbands. During the time that the program has been implemented, our team has developed resources and services to help families to deal with this kind of specific challenges in the reunification process.

Beyond specialized programming for youth and women, we are also developing concrete solutions for specific situations in order to ensure reunited family members experience a good welcome in their new community.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as you run this project?

RS: The most important lesson has been to realize the very importance of education integration for kids and teenagers, and the psychological process involved in the reunification process for new families relationship. Legal issues are fundamental in the first step, but don’t guarantee a successful integration for the all members of the family in the host society. The main objective of this program is to work in favour of integration and wellness of new residents of Barcelona.

We also have learned that it is better to assess immigrants and their relatives on the consequences and impact for their lives to undertake family reunification as soon as possible during the process. There are a lot of things that can be done in the country of origin with their relatives before arriving to our city: For example, they can get the right documents (with the Haig Apostille) of their education system in order to get recognition, or start preparing them for the new language of the country of destination with new technologies, etc.

Have non-immigrant residents of Barcelona had any reactions to your project? What has the reaction been?

RS: In general reactions have been very positive by the hosting society, especially from members of the education system and other public system programs like libraries. In the past they were challenged by having a lot of children arriving by family reunification without any knowledge of the educational system in Catalonia.

If the children arrive through our program, we are able to provide a lot of information. Therefore children, especially adolescents, are more prepared to face the challenge of schools in a new different system and different language.

You pay special attention and specific services to young immigrants and women and mention a need to address family conflict. Why this focus? What challenges had you identified that you’ve been able to address in the project?

Families with teenagers have to deal with a complicated situation: in a difficult period of growth and development, they start a migration project in a new country, to reach their parents whom they have not seen for a long time. At the same time, the program is focused on a successful integration into school (most of all high school and university). We’ve noticed that, without this help, youth tend to leave the school from the age of 17 to 18, and they have many problems to enter the university without a good process of adaptation to the new education system.

Women are a key focus of our programme on a double sense:

1. In Barcelona we have many migrant women that have arrive by themselves to Barcelona and after several years of struggling alone in the city have reach a stable situation, so they may become more empowered than in their country of origin. Sometimes, when husbands arrive, they do not expect their wives to be so independent and empowered; they have an old image when they lived in the country of origin. Very often husbands experience unemployment when they initially arrive, and are dependent in their wives income. This can create some tensions in the family. Therefore, we can prepare women for all this and other potentially difficult scenarios.

2. On the other side, cultural rules from their countries of origin may be very different for women from their new host society. This makes it very important to have some cultural competence workshops to explain their rights and possibilities (work, learning language, etc.) in host society.

Currently, we are focusing especially with Pakistani reunited women coming from rural areas. They are at great risk to be isolated at home for a long time before they gain autonomy to go out alone. We are working with their husbands to gain their confidence and ensure that their wives are able to get into the community and begin their integration sooner.

In 2012, you worked with families from 54 different countries and have been doing some specialized work with the Chinese community. What issues or program modifications have you had to make as a result of the fact that the number of immigrants from Latin American has fallen and that of immigrants from Asia has risen?

RS: In the case of Latin American families language is not a problem. But in the case of Chinese families it is a very difficult problem. Then, the programme offers some workshops in Chinese.

Is the same case for the other nationalities with a lower level of Spanish language proficiency. There are workshops with translators who speak Urdu and Punjabi. We have developed specific outreach and approaches for women who live in parts of the city where they have less contact with non-immigrant residents (for example, in Ciutat Vella District), among the women from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

We have some professionals who are able to communicate directly with potential users in Chinese, Urdu and Punjabi. This has been successful and our work with these groups has increased substantially.

Other demographic changes include an increase in mixed households (marriages between a Spaniard and a foreigner). Has this shift had any impact on your project direction or focus?

Not directly, but this tendency to an increase of mixed households provides a positive environment for the integration of new families to the city. It contributes to the normalisation of cultural diversity.

We also have to acknowledge that part of people who start a reunification process are also Spanish nationals who had married a foreigner who is reuniting with a relative.

You also run the anti-rumour campaign, which would seem to be a complement to this project. How do you see the two efforts as related or overlapping, both in terms of mission and in practical terms?

RS: We really see both programmes as a complementary projects working on integration of all newcomers in Barcelona. The anti-rumour campaign is focusing on the consciousness of all residents of the city to respect cultural diversity. On the other side, the New Families Program is focusing on new residents and their specific needs.

What advice would you give to another city looking at your model and experience that might want to replicate it?

RS: As we said, the most important advice from this program is the importance of taking into account the psychological, educational and social needs of the families, not only the legal ones.

At the same time, working between governments is essential. While applications are approved by the federal government, the legal requirements permit the Immigration Services of the city to have contact with each family asking for reunification with their relatives. It is a very important opportunity to reach all new families in the city, before and after the reunification process, and to implement specific services and resources for them.

Any other thoughts or successes that you would like to share about New Families in Barcelona?

RS: Our main objective of New Families program is the integration of newcomers. It is important for the cities to develop new welcome strategies considering the diversity of origins of newcomers, and the specific needs considering the difficulties that reunited families (youth, spouses and parents) face. The future of integration in based on a good arrival process. We have developed a very micro strategy that has proven to have positive results for everyone involved.

Another important objective is to prepare mainstream services, such as the school system, to receive new reunited students better. It’s important to deliver local information to families about their community; information about libraries, sports and recreation centres, youth programs etc. This is why we involve libraries and the local education board in our program.

We think that focusing policy efforts on the moment of family reunification is also key. It has a great impact on the family that has already been here for some time, and reunited family members. Reunification is a turning point for migrants. When they decide to bring their families, they more actively invest their efforts in their host society rather than in their country of origin.

Read the Good Idea profile: New Family, New City: BCN’s New Families Programme


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