A new report says Germany's federal states should steer refugees toward communities where integration is more likely. But would such communities accept more people in need at a time when migration itself is under fire?
Ever since Germany's new refugee integration law in August, the country's 16 federal states have had the right to settle refugees in some places while prohibiting them from living in others. That provision of the law is intended to encourage integration and keep refugees from drifting solely into urban areas and forming highly segregated sub-communities.
But thus far only two federal states, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, have implemented what are known as "refugee residency requirements." And a study presented on Tuesday in Berlin by the Council of German Foundations for Integration and Migration says that the way states allocate refugees fails to maximize their chances of integrating into mainstream German society.
By law, refugees are supposed to be distributed evenly across German society, and since August they are required to remain for three years in the federal state that granted them asylum. But in reality, says the primary author of the Council study, Jan Schneider, refugees end up congregating in Germany's urban areas.
"In recent years, we've seen a massive migration of refugees within Germany," Schneider said. "Many times the national average of refugees live in big cities like Hamburg, Essen, Bremen, Berlin or Wuppertal. In 2014, the average was three refugees per thousand people, but there were eight to ten refugees per thousand people in the urban centers."
Schneider said that around one half of refugees recently allocated to the five former East German states and northern Bavaria had moved on. Amazingly for a statistics-obsessed country like Germany, there are no reliable figures for how many refugees migrate within Germany, but in some areas of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of foreigners granted asylum move elsewhere. Meanwhile, some refugees in Berlin, which attracts more than its "fair share," are forced to camp out for years in school gymnasiums.
So how can Germany distribute refugees to a variety of locations attractive enough that those in question actually want to stay there?
Not all communities are equal
The Council report looked at Brandenburg as a case study and concluded that spreading refugees evenly according to population numbers is a mistake. Schneider recommends that, instead of simply allocating more refugees to larger communities, states should send greater numbers to specifically targeted areas.
"If the states want to use the residency requirement to encourage integration, they need to change the way they think," Schneider said. "They need to examine the structural conditions and possibilities for integration."
The places most suitable for settling refugees and most likely to convince them to stay are those with low unemployment, good educational and training opportunities and lots of available housing. According to those three criteria, Potsdam and other relatively affluent districts around Berlin are better equipped to integrate refugees than further-flung ones with high joblessness like Uckermark in northeastern Brandenburg.
But the study also found that none of the districts or cities in Brandenburg had conditions favorable to the settlement of refugees in all three categories.
"Generally the more distant a community or region is from Berlin, the weaker the structural conditions in terms of the labor market and infrastructure are," Schneider said. "On the other hand, the further you are from Berlin, the more places there are to live. It's a core dilemma."
And another obstacle standing in the way of the study's recommendations is opposition to the very idea of residency requirements.
One of the most controversial measures
Although residency requirements are explicitly aimed at integration and numerous exceptions apply, for instance, if refugees are employed or want to move to join family members, these sorts of legal instruments are very unpopular among those affected and their advocates. At the beginning of November, for instance, 14 refugee advocacy groups wrote an open letter condemning such regulations to the government of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
"We appeal to the government of Saxony-Anhalt not to make use of this latitude and not to enact any residency requirements," the signees wrote. "Local communities' desire for better planning should not outweigh people's basic right to freedom of movement."
Local authorities from communities with high levels of refugees welcomed the integration law, but although North Rhine-Westphalia plans to enact residency requirements in December, most states view the idea with skepticism and sometimes outright hostility, fearing that requirements would create additional bureaucracy and might actually hinder integration. Five states have yet to decide one way or another, while six - including Brandenburg - have rejected any such measures.
"There's conceptual uncertainty about what forms such requirements can take, and there's a political uncertainty preventing agreements from being reached," Schneider said.
But he also acknowledged that the residency requirement provision was still "one of the most controversial measures of the integration law."
Selling the advantages of refugees
The waves of migration from crisis regions like Syria to Germany has given rise to populist hostility toward refugees and has caused the anti-immigration, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to surge in polls, particularly in eastern Germany. So how can advocates of reform get communities like Potsdam to accept more refugees without a spike in support for the populist and often xenophobic far right?
Schneider says one key is to couple acceptance of refugees with additional money for infrastructure programs.
"We need to 'sell the idea' to the local districts and convince them to see accepting more refugees as an opportunity," Schneider told DW. "That could include the individual federal states increasing support for such localities, investing more in job training, transportation and public housing. There are also per capita payments by the national government, and the national government might consider making additional payments for the three years that the requirements are in force, before the refugees find work and get integrated into society."
In other words, communities could be rewarded financially in return for taking in and making themselves attractive to refugees. Whether that would be enough to blunt right-wing hostility to migrants in general is debatable. Almost 900,000 refugees came to Germany last year.