“It was a real blow, for the town and for me.” Andreas Hollstein, mayor of Altena in western Germany, isn’t just speaking rhetorically. Last November, Hollstein was stabbed by an attacker angry about his decision to welcome hundreds of refugees to the town since 2015.
It was an unusually vivid example of the blowback that the arrival of more than 1.4 million asylum seekers in three years has sparked across Germany. On the whole, though, Altena has been notable for its welcome, not its resistance, to refugees. Town leaders, who have been grappling for years with a declining population, saw an opportunity to integrate new arrivals into the community and encourage them to stay in the local area.
Their efforts were recognised last year, when the town won Germany’s inaugural National Integration Prize. But it’s not so clear that the secrets to Altena’s success can easily be replicated outside its small-town context.
Getting the community involved
Every municipality in Germany is allocated a share of new refugee arrivals by a national formula, but Altena was one of a handful of towns which offered to accept more at the height of the 2015 influx. It took 400 people, rather than the 300 the formula required.
The original spur for that offer, according to Hollstein, was essentially humanitarian. The mayor had visited some of the Greek islands most hit by rising refugee numbers, and felt obliged not to leave frontline communities in southern Europe to bear the burden alone. “It was really a question of humanity for me to say: ‘that’s not my kind of Europe,’” he said.
Once the refugees had arrived, Altena’s political leaders realised they might present a chance to help tackle their steeply declining population.
Although it’s in the heart of Germany’s richest state, North-Rhine Westphalia, Altena has suffered as young residents move to larger cities like Dusseldorf and Cologne. The town lost more than 20% of its population between 2000 and 2015, and is predicted to lose another 22% by 2030.
“So once they were here, we thought: we would like them to stay,” Hollstein explained. That meant intensive efforts to integrate refugees and make them feel welcome in the community. Previously, the town had had two offices to manage refugees’ accommodation and access to welfare payments, but none for broader problems refugees might face settling in.
But Altena in 2015 established a “one-stop” unit inside the mayor’s office, which helps new arrivals interact with the bureaucracy responsible for job-training and access to education.
“Once they were here, we thought: we would like them to stay”
The real key to Altena’s efforts, however, was the close involvement of local residents in the integration process. Refugees were given private housing spread throughout the city, with only one flat for refugees in any building, rather than housed in a single large reception centre.
Each flat — home either to a family or a group of four to eight refugees with a similar background — was assigned a kümmerer, a local volunteer who could help with simple problems like shopping for furniture or getting to know neighbours.
The degree of community involvement is unusual. At an early meeting to prepare for the arrival of additional refugees, Hollstein said, “I expected there would be 20 or 30 people coming to help. There were 150.”
Not so welcoming
The 15-centimetre wound on the mayor’s neck, of course, shows that getting residents to welcome refugees was not entirely smooth sailing.
“You let me die of thirst, but you bring 200 foreigners to the town”
Even before that attack, there had been signs of discontent. Arsonists started a fire in the attic of a building housing a Syrian family in 2016. The far-right Alternative for Germany’s vote share in the town was about the same as its national average at the most recent Bundestag election — a substantial 11.6%.
It was Hollstein’s stabbing last year, though, that caused significant alarm among Altena residents. The assailant, who was this week given a two-year suspended prison sentence for grievous bodily harm, approached Hollstein, asked if he was the mayor, and reportedly said: “you let me die of thirst, but you bring 200 foreigners to the town” before attacking him.
“I was lucky to still be alive,” Hollstein said. “And for people caring for refugees, they asked themselves: ‘Am I also in danger now?’ But through the next month it calmed down, and now life is normal again.” The mayor’s reckoning is that three-quarters of the town are firmly in favour of welcoming refugees. Even the man convicted of arson in 2016 later said he had realised that refugees were “terribly nice”.
From small towns to big cities
Altena’s experience highlights the value of bringing the community into the process of refugee integration — a move that is important for two reasons, according to Aliyyah Ahad of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. One is that it helps new arrivals feel welcome. “We know that integration happens at the local level, through personal contact,” she said. “The responsibility of the state is to try and make those interactions as positive as possible.” Steps like the kümmerer system and spreading housing through the town to avoid ghettoisation help achieve that.
The other major benefit is in maintaining support for refugee integration. “It’s really important to communicate clearly with existing communities and give residents a sense of ownership,” Ahad said. “In this particular town, there is a sense of communicating through action by involving local inhabitants in the process.
“Where people can get directly engaged, it helps build a broad political consensus that can help these initiatives be sustainable.”
In larger cities and towns, though, reproducing Altena’s intensive approach may not be easy. “You would have to organise it differently,” Hollstein admits. “My whole town, Altena, has 17,500 inhabitants. If you compare that with London, you have one block.”
Altena’s housing approach, too, depends on the low rents that result from its small and declining population.
“There are a lot of efforts to really shine a spotlight on local initiatives and local leadership,” Ahad said. “But that needs to be coupled as well with a focus on how to translate those initiatives into different contexts.”
Hollstein, for his part, isn’t overly troubled by the difficulties of copying Altena’s approach in bigger cities. “This can be a win-win for more rural areas, which you can help to get a little better developed while giving a future to refugees,” he says. “We have more than just Cologne and Berlin in Europe.” — Fergus Peace
(Picture credits: Flickr/Olaf Naujocks; © Superbass / CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)