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Refugees in the city

Louise Osborne
June 21, 2016

Last year more than one million refugees arrived in Germany. ‘We can do it!’ said Chancellor Angela Merkel as part of her open-door policy. But how have Germany’s cities coped?

Refugees in a classroom
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

It’s been almost a year since Sary first arrived in Germany. The 24-year-old Syrian fled his home in Damascus in 2015, crossing the so-called Balkan route and registering for asylum in a small town in Germany.

Ten months on and he finally got the news he wanted – he’s allowed to stay in Germany for at least the next three years.

“I feel like I can breathe again,” he says.

Sary is now just waiting to receive the documents he needs to leave the town and make his way back to Berlin. “My cousin is there and friends. Where I am now there is not good transport and not everything is available.”

He is one of a vast proportion of the more than one million refugees to arrive in Germany last year that are choosing to start over in the country's cities rather than its smaller towns and municipalities. In 2015, Berlin alone took in just over 79,000 and Hamburg more than 60,000.

Struggling cities

Cities have been struggling to process the steady stream of refugee arrivals since numbers rose so dramatically in 2015. Despite the use of the Königstein Key distribution system which assesses local population and tax revenue as the basis to proportionally assign asylum seekers to given places, experts estimate that Berlin took in some 50 percent more than it was supposed to, resulting in accommodation shortages and long queues at processing centers.

Many refugees also move back to the city after having their asylum applications processed elsewhere because of their cultural connections, says Luise Noring, an independent researcher in sustainable urbanization at Copenhagen Business School and senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution.

“If there is a language barrier, which you might have as a refugee or a migrant, you may want to seek out people that speak your own language because it could even help you get a job,” she told DW adding that cities were also likely to have greater access to services such as language courses and re-training opportunities.

Bunkbeds in a cramped room
Accommodation provided to refugees is often cramped and without privacyImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup
A long line of people stand and wait their turn outside a building
Long lines of refugees had to wait to register for asylum in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

While on a national level, it is the government that decides how to deal with the issue of migration, it is the cities and municipalities that have to provide increased services on the ground, Noring points out in a brief she co-authored for the Brookings Institution.

It is those places that “shoulder the burden of addressing economic and social issues necessary to accommodate the influx”, she writes.

Social impact

Refugees are not initially in a position to contribute to tax revenue, yet they need accommodation, language training and access to healthcare. But it is not only the use of resources that have an impact on cities.

Franziska Schreiber, a researcher for the Berlin-based think tank Adelphi, says cultural implications also need to be taken into account.

“We also need to achieve social sustainability – to integrate our people with different cultural and social backgrounds,” she told DW. “We need to really integrate them in socially- and economically-mixed neighborhoods.”

Schreiber says such thinking has been notably absent at a strategic level in many cities and much of the responsibility has therefore fallen to local residents.

People power

During his 10-month wait, Sary was unable to work and was not offered any kind of language training from the state. However, he says that he did receive instruction from two volunteers, who, along with programs on his cell phone and teaching books, have helped him achieve a basic proficiency in the language of his new home.

Elsewhere volunteers have also mobilized to provide clothing, food and even housing – like the Welcome Refugees initiative that partnered asylum seekers with citizens willing to host people coming into cities including Berlin.

“I think that really showed the social innovation potential of citizens in our cities and I think that was something that really surprised local governments,” said Schreiber.

Making a contribution

But while citizen participation is a good way of topping up services, Noring argues that it is ultimately the responsibility of cities and municipalities to make sure services are available – or at least to coordinate the efforts of their citizens. And the importance of providing such services cannot be overlooked, she says.

“If they (refugees) don’t learn German, and don’t get access to jobs, they are not able to contribute to German society. It’s difficult for them to integrate and become part of society,” she said.

Sary hopes that when he moves to Berlin he will finally be able to take German classes and receive help finding a job and somewhere to live.

He wants to be able to contribute and like many Syrians who have fled the war in his home country, he says he is just looking for stability. “I hope I have a house and work and that I will be able to live in safety and happiness."

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