• Analysis
  • November 24, 2016
  • 13 minutes
  • 0

To cope with a million refugees, German cities have had to get smart

Hamburg has built a 3D model of the city so residents can identify spots for new shelters

berlin refugees

To cope with the sudden arrival of more than a million refugees, German cities have had to innovate.

One of the most innovative is Hamburg, which has built a 3D model of the city where residents can identify new spots to set up shelters. The scheme is meant to find accommodation for 20,000 people while involving residents in the difficulties of looking after those who’ve just arrived.

‘Residents come from their neighbourhoods, stand around this table and discuss, where in our neighbourhood could we build some more accommodation?’ Anselm Sprandel, who is in charge of co-ordinating Hamburg’s work to help refugees, told Apolitical.

Hamburg residents identify potential shelters on the CityScope

Hamburg residents identify potential shelters on the CityScope

The residents put down Lego bricks to represent shelters, and the city model displays information about planning regulations as well as indicating what each shelter would mean for the total number of homes available to refugees in the city, and in each neighbourhood.

‘The great thing about it,’ said Sprandel, ‘is first of all that they’ve made interesting suggestions – we’ve had 160 suggestions and we’re acting on 20 – and also that the residents could see for once how complicated the planning business is.’

There has been no shortage of volunteers – nor of opposition – since Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear over the course of last year that Germany would take in a million refugees fleeing war and deprivation, mainly in Syria. By contrast, Britain is accepting a mere 20,000 Syrians over five years.

There are so many volunteer initiatives I don’t even know them all

The German Chancellor’s poll numbers have slumped, her party has muttered against her, there has been an uptick in Right-wing populism – and she has been heralded by The New York Times as ‘the liberal West’s last defender’. She has also just announced that she will stand for re-election to a fourth term.

Amid the political disputes, however, there have been a great readiness by the German population to help the new arrivals. Refugees arriving from Syria were met at Munich train station by cheering crowds, and the police had to ask the public to stop donating things like food, clothes and toys, because there was no more room to store them. Many Germans, mindful of their nation’s totalitarian past, felt that these scenes, broadcast around the world, represented the new, tolerant country they had become.

The spontaneous desire to help has given authorities a plethora of resources to draw on in feeding, clothing, housing and integrating so many new arrivals – even if it’s very difficult to know what all the initiatives are, and connect them to what the city is doing. ‘We’ve been deeply impressed by the volunteer effort,’ said Sprandel.

Hamburg centre refugees

The centre of Hamburg, the ‘Venice of the north’

‘There are very many initiatives spread all over the city, so many that I don’t even know them all. It sometimes happens that I’ll go to visit a shelter and it turns out I’m interrupting because volunteers from the neighbourhood are giving German lessons. And then I’ll go out onto the playground and see adults looking after the children playing there and, when I ask who it is, I’ll be told that those are volunteers from the neighbourhood.

‘We sometimes get called up by someone saying: “We’re an initiative from this or that part of the city. When are you finally going to open a shelter? We’ve all been waiting and want to help.”’

A study by the Brookings Institution found that one permanent shelter in Hamburg had 140 volunteers for 190 refugees. The city has set up an online ‘refugee forum’ that puts volunteers in touch with public servants, something complemented by myriad apps, such as ‘Help Here’, which puts volunteers in touch with refugees themselves. The aim is to ensure that volunteers are not simply redoubling the state’s efforts; properly organised, they can provide things beyond what the state is capable of: personal help with things like learning German, finding a flat and registering with authorities.

Help Here App

Offers of assistance on the ‘Help Here’ app


Aside from volunteers, Sprandel’s office is also at the centre of a vast effort involving almost every sector of government and society. The Brookings study noted that, ‘Visits to Hamburg and Berlin over the past several months have shown the ability of cities to embrace complexity, learn from mistakes, and innovate continuously.’

The refugee crisis has such priority that every important ministry in the city and a representative of every borough meet every week to thrash out what has to be done next. This is because the range of things needed – shelter, food, education, language courses, vocational training, healthcare, legal advice – do not fit into the specialised structure of modern government, and meeting every week allows them to work beyond those boundaries – though of course that is only possible because the refugees are such a priority.

The city spent around $610million – aside from federal funding – on looking after refugees in 2015, the lion’s share of which went on housing. One of the biggest difficulties is to get people into permanent accommodation: some two thirds of arrivals in Berlin are still in emergency accommodation, such as school gymnasiums or converted shipping containers.

“Every minute, every Euro we invest will pay off”

In Hamburg, half of refugees are still awaiting long-term shelters, but the city has devised a crisis solution: its elected council has decided to spend nearly a billion euros partnering with construction firms to build apartments that will be given to refugees initially, but ultimately become part of the city’s social housing stock. It will mean putting up thousands of homes very quickly and, after criticism that it would put all the refugees together in big blocks, the council has agreed to reduce the number of refugees in them.

The city has also partnered with businesses to get refugees into skilled work. The program assesses what skills and qualifications the refugees have, and establishes what additional education they need to work in Germany – a process that could take years. Moreover, the federal government has already given migrants the right to have their foreign qualifications assessed and ranked against German standards, and has created a database of equivalences for some 1,500 types of job.

‘Incorporating people into the job market is our most complex task,’ Frank-Jürgen Weise, head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, told Apolitical. ‘Only a very small proportion of asylum seekers can go straight into work and many will need our help. But every minute, every Euro we invest will pay off in the long term. For those who will stay here for the foreseeable future, successful integration is connected to immediate professional assessment and to work.’

Frank-Jürgen Weise

Frank-Jürgen Weise, head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees

Much emphasis has been placed on language learning as a bridge to work. Collaboration between the Migration and Employment agencies has created a program, called kompAS, in which refugees take German courses in the morning followed by vocational training or apprenticeship work in the afternoon. Some 250,000 people have taken part in an integration course this year, although there has been criticism that women are disproportionately failing to attend the courses, and being left behind.

The Migration Office is also already looking ahead to the second generation, because the experience of other countries has been that they will outperform their parents in finding more educated work. ‘You have to be clear that integration won’t happen overnight,’ said Weise. ‘It’s something that can run over generations. And it’s a two-way process. Not all of our measures are directed at immigrants themselves. It’s also our aim to encourage acceptance of them in our society. Equally, we unmistakeably require from every new arrival that they conform to the laws of our country. That’s a part of the integration courses, it’s practised in everything we do and it’s something we expect.’

There is a long way to go: only one in eight recent arrivals have found any kind of work so far. Many have been held up by a lengthy process of claiming asylum. But that process, too, has been sharply accelerated. The federal agency responsible has quadrupled its staff to 10,000 since the start of last year, pulling in public servants from the ministries of defence, customs and employment. Some 1.1million asylum applications have been registered and, although there is still massive backlog, anyone who arrives today can expect a decision on their case within six weeks.

As Germany goes over from emergency to integration, however, it will be the questions of work, education and social cohesion that become crucial. Said Sprandel, ‘Success for us will be if, in a few years, the people who’ve arrived here can speak German, that they’re in education or work, that they’ve found a flat, that they’ve worked out how to use our healthcare system, and so on. Then they will have been integrated and that’s what we’re hoping for. I’m certain that we’re going to manage it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.’

(Pictures via Hamburg.de: Walter Schießwohl; screenshot: Help Here; Wikimedia; Flickr)


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