Pairing police with refugees and migrants to develop understanding and reduce discrimination


Tactical Aim: 
Country or Region: 

The International Centre for Cultures and Languages (Internationales Zentrum für Kulturen und Sprachen, or ICCL) in Austria pairs police officers with immigrants and refugees to encourage understanding and reduce discrimination.

There has been significant immigration to Austria since the 1970s, but the profile of the immigrant populations has changed greatly in the ensuing decades. In the 1970s, workers from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia were invited to fill jobs. Since the 1980s, however, the immigrants tend to come from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Many are asylum seekers. These later immigrants experience even more discrimination than their guest worker predecessors.

This discrimination occurs in society in general, but also in areas like the police force. Several high-profile confrontations between police and migrants in the 1990s brought the issue to the forefront. Having never had the chance to interact with immigrants or refugees, many police officers held negative stereotypes about these populations. ICCL used the idea of tandem pairing, a tactic first used in language learning, to combat these issues. In tandem pairing, partners from two different cultures (or who speak two different languages) meet and share what they know. Each partner is both a teacher and a learner.

With the help of the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, ICCL developed a seven-month police-training course in human rights called “Police Action in a Multicultural Society.” The program consists of twelve classes and seven Tandem© program seminars. During the twelve classes, the police participants discuss human rights issues as they relate to police work, immigrants and refugees. The Tandem© seminars offer the participants an opportunity to connect with a member of the Austrian immigrant community and are a key part of the course. Between 20 and 25 police officers and an equivalent number of immigrants take the course each year.

The Tandem© partnership allows police officers and immigrants to get to know each other on a personal, rather than professional, level. The officer and partner do activities together. These activities may include working on an agreed upon project, going out to eat, watching a football match, or taking a walk. The officers learn about their partner’s family, job, and culture. They are often surprised to find that their partner’s life is not so different from their own. These partnerships allow negative stereotypes about immigrants to be dismantled while at the same time helping immigrants to understand and be more comfortable around the police.

ICCL takes care in selecting the immigrant participants and in pairing them with police officers. Immigrant participants must have knowledge of German, a residence permit for Austria, be in good standing with the law, be self-confident and be willing to discuss and share their personal life experiences. They should also be willing to commit to participation in the entire program. To ensure that these qualifications are met, ICCL has potential participants meet with former migrant participant to give them a better idea of what to expect. ICCL also provides monetary compensation to migrant participants. When pairing migrants with police officers, ICCL takes age, where participants live, and their flexibility in regards to travel into account. Some migrant participants are very young, so they are not paired with the oldest police officers. Participants who live near each other or who can travel easily will have more opportunities to meet outside of organized sessions, which adds to the success of the program.

ICCL also carefully organizes the Tandem© seminars. Seminars last four hours, with one meeting a month over the course of seven months. A seminar generally consists of time for discussion punctuated by group activities that help participants learn more about one another. Staff organizers make sure to schedule in breaks, because ICCL has found that many meaningful conversations and connections are made in those more informal settings. Sample activities include sharing the meanings of one’s name, talking about the stages of one’s life and the events that shaped them, and learning about the greetings used in different cultures. Each seminar focuses on a different issue, including identity, culture, prejudice, discrimination/racism, use of language, and the courage to stand up for one’s beliefs. On the last evening, participants celebrate with a concert, a banquet and a presentation of joint projects. 

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

This is a tactic that could be used in a variety of different situations where cultural differences help perpetuate stereotypes and make it difficult for people to connect. ICCL benefits from a partnership with the Ministry of the Interior, but a similar initiative could be developed as a stand-alone program.

Organizations interested in the idea should identify the areas where a program would be most useful. In Austria, police officers were not used to interacting with African and Asian populations. However, ICCL found that in the Netherlands, many people from those backgrounds were in fact members of the police force, so the issues were different. The organization has found success in transmitting the program to Hungary.

Other factors to keep in mind when implementing this tactic include seeking willing participants on both the police and migrants sides. A reluctant participant can create a negative experience for his or her partner and the rest of the Tandem© group. In addition, an effective setting for the experience must be created. ICCL kept the setting neutral, dress informal and seating arrangements casual to facilitate discussion. Snacks and beverages were also provided to help participants bond. It is also important for organizations to have an effective program coordinator and be aware of the time it takes to plan and organize a program like Tandem©. If run smoothly, the experience can be highly rewarding and beneficial to the cultural development of all those involved.